Wednesday, April 18, 2012

You live and learn. At any rate, you live. ~ Douglas Adams

As I was debating my blog topic for this week, I realized how many of my recent musings have been on “lessons learned.” A running joke between my oldest and dearest friend (next to Hubby, of course) has always been that by middle age we’d have all the answers.

Apparently we were wrong. My much-needed lessons are not diminishing in number or import. It seems I’m confronted with at least one new message every week, if not daily.

Thanks to the Mad Anthony Writers Conference in Hamilton, this week started things off with a master class on Sunday, and the lessons-learned were about more than just writing. I faced misplaced assumptions (my own), diverging opinions on what constitutes good writing (from classmates), and a reminder that we all approach life, and writing, with personal baggage and perspective.

We received email files of each participant’s manuscript a few weeks before the workshop so we could read and critique in advance, and arrive ready to discuss. I started to read early and made a few notes, but because of my too-often overloaded schedule, I stayed up late Saturday to finish class prep in the hotel room. Assumptions made based on the review of a few sheets of typed words are nearly always dangerous; I’m glad I withheld most of my comments until I’d had a chance to meet my classmates. One particularly “ambitious” story I questioned because of its disjointed sentences and overreaching metaphors turned out to have been written by a brave teenager. The discovery cast her story in a new light, and I was able to make what I hope were intelligent contributions to the critique discussion.

When it came to comments on my own manuscript, it took a day or two to absorb the sometimes copious notes (which made my scribbled marginalia on their papers look even more pitiful). The opening was evocative; the opening was too wordy and needed more tension. The characters were intriguing; everyone sounded the same. Too much setting and description; not enough description. Show, don’t tell; don’t show so much. What’s a writer to do?

Listen. And learn.

Our intrepid moderator pointed out how important it is to consider each critique in light of the commenter’s writing style and genre. Do I like what they write, and trust their competency on the page? My novel is a mystery; some of the participants, such as the memoir writer, were of a more literary bent. Without a working familiarity of a genre, it’s difficult to provide an appropriate critique on certain areas. I’m sure I was just as guilty of that misstep as I brought a “just-the-facts” crime mentality to literary works. All of this parsing reminded me of the classes I taught in critical writing last quarter. Consider the author, the perspective, the audience. I must think critically before I can write critically.

The varied personal perspectives of strangers are difficult to gauge in only a few short hours. Obviously, the teenager came with a different world view than us middle-agers. We explained more than one popular culture reference to her, but it was a good reminder to consider how such mentions play in a manuscript. Another participant brought a particularly feminist mindset which found misogyny in places I didn’t feel it existed. And I know from past experience that my history makes me overly sensitive to certain topics.

All things to keep in mind as we traversed the workshop together – seven people who may never meet again, sharing and learning from each other. We exchanged emails and the conventional promise to keep in touch, but again, from past experience, I have my doubts. One or two of us may cross paths at future conferences, and my fellow writer’s group member is an important part of my life so I’ll see her regularly. As for the rest of the participants, I wish them well on the writing journey.

And thank them for the lessons they shared.

What have you learned today?


  1. I truly enjoyed our time at Mad Anthony's and yet I found what you did, our taste, skill level, and genre, vary greatly. What did I learn today? Today, more than even yesterday, punctuation confounds me deeply. I also learned that evolving is an ongoing process.

  2. Cyndi--Thanks for your pov on the workshop. I found it pretty amazing, since I've never participated in a writers' group or conference before. I learned a lot, but I must say that what I enjoyed most was the mutual respect I felt among the writers. Everyone had something constructive to offer, something to think about. It was a great experience for me and I hope to see all of you again sometime. I haven't posted the conference on my blog yet, as I had to prepare for an art workshop last weekend. Will try to do that soon and pass it on to you.

    1. I've learned that one of the best parts of any writer's conference is the people. So glad we shared the time!


Your thoughts?