• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I Can’t Write If Ya’ Can’t Relate

When you take a writing workshop, you are not allowed to speak when your work is being critiqued. This is the first law of the workshop. The idea behind it is simple: you can’t listen if you’re yapping.  I actually think the rule of silence protects you from making an ass out of yourself. It prevents you from saying things like: what I was trying to do, what I meant was, it actually happened that way, etc. The only reason to get feedback, as far as I can tell, is to see if you got on base. Did you smack one out there? Some people at the workshop are intent on showing off, some are out to get you out of jealousy, and some are as thick as root vegetables.

What’s the worst or meanest piece of feedback you’ve ever received? Mine was when an esteemed professor asked me I wanted to be the Fran Lebowitz of the poetry world. I know he meant it as an insult, but I sort of took it as a compliment.

66 Responses

  1. My worst came from a professor. She was angry that I hadn’t invited her to a party. I think. I heard. I conducted a ceremonial sage burning of that 4+ page “critique” in my back yard.

  2. I got kicked out of a workshop where the leader allowed the person being critiqued to speak during the process. She interrupted me to blurt, “But that’s how it actually happened,” in response to my very carefully measured assessment of what wasn’t working on the page. To which I replied, “Yeah, but the reader doesn’t give a shit.” And, into the needle scratch and the subsequent crickets, I added, “And by “the reader” I mean me.”

    In other news, I’m so fucking over workshops.

  3. Someone I know asked to see my work. In retrospect, I think she just wanted to make sure it was crap, make sure she didn’t have anything to worry about. I sent her a few pages. She wrote back, “It’s delightful.” For some reason that made me want to puke. I thought, God, can the praise get any fainter?

  4. The worst piece of feedback ever? “I stopped reading here.”

    Thank goodness it was 35 years ago and i was too naive to think of it as a blocking action.

    The worst piece of feedback lately is that “this is redundant” for something I think is absolutely vital to the story. Ugh. I’m doing it wrong.

    As far as writing workshops, can’t say I’ve attended one yet. The closest I’ve gotten is beta feedback, but it was mostly “nice” stuff. I was hoping to get more rigorous feedback. Well, not too rigorous–don’t want to think my mom is giving me feedback.

  5. I’d used the words “bitterly chafed at me” in a sentence. I still cringe about this. Anyway, the prof. accused me of writing with a “novel of manners” tone. And it was true. At the time my pride was still intact. Ouch.

  6. How about the critiquer who told me,. “Why make your heroine overweight? We want to sympathize with her, not pity her.” (I’m a very obvious size 22.)

    But I can’t imagine being insulted by any comparison to Fran Lebowitz, no matter what the intent.

  7. Your character is emotionally retarded, I think is how it was phrased.

    I was writing a memoir at the time.

  8. First writing class I ever took (college level), didn’t know what I was doing at all. Professor was an old-time pulp editor. He read my 3 pages aloud, then slapped the paper on the desk and growled, “This is the worst piece of crap I ever read.” He’s dead. I’m still writing.

  9. I haven’t been in many writing groups, I’ve mostly traded work with individuals.

    From the couple of classes I’ve taken I can’t remember anything really mean. Content-free reassurance was a lot more common.

  10. I have a knack for forgetting. Yesterdays critique, however, is still in the buffer. It came from my beloved husband.

    “That might be the worst sentence I have ever read in my life.”

    • My husband won’t read anything I’ve written. Not one page, not a paragraph. I can’t help but think that one of us is trying to communicate something and it’s probably not a good idea to investigate further.

  11. I don’t recall any mean comments, just a shitload of meaningless ones.

  12. I’ve never been to a workshop, never plan to go to one. I’m a loner when it comes to writing.

    I love to get critiques from real editors, though. My newest novel was edited by the amazing Melanie Kroupa. It’s full of “Melanies” and so much better than when she aquired it.

  13. I’ve already mentioned the workshop-assigned critiquing partner who didn’t read my story because the genre was a complete waste of her time. And that person in my former writing group who told me no one cared about any of “that crap.”

    But I think the worst was when I asked my husband to read through a short-short that I was going to submit to a local contest. He took the two, double-spaced pages, sat down . . . and turned on the tv.

    I yanked the story out of his hands and have never asked him to read anything else I’ve written outside of a grocery list. And yeah, it still hurts.

  14. I hate the silence before anyone speaks. As if no one wants to be the first to say they hate it or love it – or when they simply don’t know what to say. Which is really uncomfortable. Though I think the worst I’ve heard was “It seems like a typical issues story” – which I still don’t quite understand as its a historical fiction novel. And considering nothing has been written about my topic, I don’t see it as being typical. But I’m still writing.

    • Yeah, I’ve experienced that moment of silence and imagine that everyone’s trying find ways to phrase their harsh criticism delicately.

      “It seems like a typical issues story” — WTF? Comments like that are what can give writing workshops a bad name.

  15. I still hear it while I’m writing– “I think you’re trying to be funny here…”

  16. In response to a short, short piece, “That’s really very funny.”
    I was going for sad and desperate. One of us missed the mark entirely…

  17. …when someone challenged my poetry as being shallow because it rhymed (You’re kidding!), and it was humorous (say it isn’t so!). It hurt a little because I write a lot of different kinds of poetry and hated to think others were missing the intent.

  18. I was always afraid to take a poetry writing class because I loved it so much, it hurt to think I wouldn’t do it justice. I finally got up my courage to take one–I played with forms, experimented, had fun got politely ignored by a class full of emos with no time for anyone not writing Twilight angst. On my course evaluation, the professor wrote, “Perhaps Jude’s strength lies in prose.”

  19. No one’s said anything really bad and I suppose that’s the worst possible thing for a writer…

  20. Am I the only here one too distracted by the sumptuous close-up of the PEEPS to form an answer?

    My idea of eye-candy. Thanks, Betsy.

  21. “What’s the worst or meanest piece of feedback you’ve ever received?”

    I think I can give you the top three.

    There was the MFA-candidate expository TA who tapped his copy of my story and angrily said, “There is no part of this that is a story!” That story (or not) was published last summer. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the scribe.

    Same class, same story. The professor, who in private meeting had already threatened to kick me out of her class (“We’re not going to have any of that New York stuff in here.”), let the time go during the critique of my piece–during which critique one of my fellow students said, “I really liked this story until everybody told me what was wrong with it”–then glanced up at the clock on the wall and said, “Looks like we’re out of time. Tetman, is there anything you want to say?” There was, but I didn’t, as my application to that particular MuthaFuckinArtist program was still pending, and she had the power to deny it, which she later did.

    But maybe the most stinging feedback I received came many years before that, when two friends of mine who were also writers had been subjected to an excerpt from an early unpublishable novel I have long since thrown away. One of those literary works, you know. I vaguely remember what it was I wrote, and more clearly remember that it was so poorly done that all they could do was hem and haw in embarrassed avoidance of the subject. They weren’t being mean, though it may have been more helpful if one or the other of them had said, “This is a piece of shit, you need to stop gazing fondly upon it and flush it away.” I later had a teacher (up New York way) who would do that.

  22. Someone said, “This is clearly such a first draft that I don’t even see any point in commenting on it.” I was shocked, especially since the other critique members had much more positive/constructive feedback (and the story went on to be published). I later realized I had mentioned in an offhand way it was “an early draft,” and I think this person latched onto that so she could tear me down.

    And way back in my formative years, a writing teacher laughed openly in my face when she read my writing exercise. “This isn’t you,” she said. “This is just AWFUL.” And laughed again. In pure glee.

  23. I don’t give a shit what people think about my writing, good or bad, unless it’s somebody I truly admire. The concept of having some ass wipe at a workshop critque my stuff…this would not happen. This might land me in jail.

  24. Oh, there was also the person who suggested I add war scenes to my story about mother-daughter relationships. I mean, there are other ways to say “increase the tension” or “I’m bored” rather than “Why don’t you just add a war and then some war scenes, kthnxbye.”

  25. “I think what you have, here, is a lack of ability to relate to the human condition,” said the chuckling teacher.

  26. It didn’t really hurt my feelings but I thought it was funny. I write women’s fiction and one the of MFA instructors tossed my work aside and said, “Do you realize this is will only appeal to females? It’s parlor fiction!”

  27. Writer’s workshops may be valuable to some. From my perspective I kinda view them as a circle jerk devoid of any meaningful release. You’re left with the uncomfortable feeling of having had a one-night stand with someone who looked good the night before but now, in the light of day, and with the benefit of a clear head, you realize that in a saner moment you wouldn’t have bought them a drink much less taken them to bed.

  28. there’s the prof who, during a year long class in creative writing, got my name wrong every single fucking time.

    i corrected her on a regular basis, to no avail.

    to clarify, there were 15 students in the class.

  29. A few years ago, I wrote a piece that my writing class and instructor actually loved. They said it was spot-on, funny (many laughed out loud when I read it), and captured my characters brilliantly. I walked on air the whole way home from class, delighted with myself. The next day, I couldn’t wait to show it to my boyfriend. We were in the midst of the “are we or aren’t we together?” phase, leaning more toward “aren’t we” and he was mad about it. I ignored this, gave him the piece, and when we spoke later he said flatly, “Well it didn’t blow me away.” Any walking on air ceased and desisted immediately. To his credit, he apologized profusely, and it’s now a running joke between us, but there is nothing like a loved one telling you how they really feel about your writing to bring you right back down to reality. Don’t even get me started on my mother…

  30. On the phone with a potential agent knew it was a bust when she said about my protagonist, “Nobody wants to read about an ugly girl,”and I thought SHE isn’t ugly but you are. bye bye

  31. I let students talk in the workshop after comments have been made. It works well to do this.
    As for mean–well, I stopped writing poetry for YEARS because of a teacher. What did he say? “What are you doing?” As it happens, I was doing something interesting and fresh, but didn’t know how to stick up for it. Sometimes I think it’s okay to say, “but it happened that way,” if that’s the only way a person can stick up for themselves at the time.

  32. Do you read books? The professor was complaining about my uppity diction. Pass the thesaurus.

  33. my limited experience with writing workshops felt a bit like an AA meeting where you were encouraged to drink.

  34. 1) “Your writing is a pile-up of endless details with no spine to hang them on. You don’t know how to tell a story.” — College Writing Teacher

    2) “I had no idea you wrote.” — my mother, when I called to tell her I had won two presitgious college literary awards

  35. I don’t do workshops, for all the reasons we are reading here today. I excel at beating myself up, why would I want to pay money for strangers to do it?

    • For all that I may piss and moan about the workshop experience, and for all the half-assed writing and critiquing I’ve subjected myself (and others) to, I’d be more of a liar than I usually am if I said I got nothing positive from workshops. I got some useful technical knowledge, some useful feedback, and a good sense of my position in the larger community of writers.

      Don’t let all the horror stories scare you away. If you have access to MFA-level workshops, you might want to give one or two a try. Painful things will happen to you there, but good things, too, if you keep your wits about you and a steady hand at the helm.

  36. An editor said I was a Janet Evanovich wannabe, and not funny at all. The book sold to another house & won a major award, but I still hate that guy for calling me a wannabe.

  37. I’ve just been reading the novel of a friend, who asked for feedback, first telling me that it was pretty much sewn up, ready for sending out etc.etc. She’s appeared super confident about it (as well as super defensive), and has always been very perceptive in her feedback in workshop situations, but reading it I became almost instantly aware that she’s pretty much blind where her own writing’s concerned. There are huge problems with it, and few redeeming features, and I just don’t know what to say. Help! Also, she’s a really really nice person who I have no wish to hurt.

    • That’s a tough one! Maybe you could just hand her (or suggest) a fantastically helpful guide like Jessica Page Morrell’s “Sorry But This Isn’t For Us,” saying you’ve heard it offers great advice for people getting ready to send out a manuscript. Then wish her luck and get the hell out of there!

  38. Took a college composition class when I was 12, I think. Some “gifted and talented” thing based on who-knows-what test score. My first essay was a hit, beat out 10 other 12-year-olds. Second essay not so much, the teacher made me rewrite it 14 times.

    As an adult I’ve mostly gotten positive feedback … hmm … knock on MacBook Air.

  39. “That’s not half as bad as i thought it should be”.

  40. The worst feedback in college was my dad’s. “What am I supposed to do with this? Proof read it for typos?” I think he was just terrified I’d give up my Chemistry degree for the English department as I had intended to do.

    Now, 20 years later, in my writing I’ve attended three workshops and I feel vindicated. I’ve heard “Your writing touched me deeply” “I truly enjoyed your writing and I hope you continue. I feel cheated that I can’t read the whole story right now.” I never trust those comments. I still hear, “What do you want me to do with this shit? Proofread it?”

    Don’t know why I shared my new story with dad this time. I guess I like self-flagellation. He actually likes it and asks to read more. Now that I’ve had another life with a career, children, a successful husband he figures I have silly time to write silly stories while I sit home in my silly house and wait for my silly kids and husband.

    In contrast to what you said in your book I don’t think I’ll be dedicated anything I write to my parents.

  41. I was told that I’m a sadomasochist who was abused as a child and who obviously supports violence against women. This was the reaction to a scene from an Urban Fantasy novel, and it was tame even by YA standards.

    Needless to say, I left that workshop.

  42. “All these characters are really Hollywood, and I mean that in the most derogatory way.”

  43. In a college essay class, I had one girl announce to the class that an essay was “cute” – said with a sneer, clearly indicating that she thought it was stupid.

    When the professor tried to get her to explain exactly what she didn’t like, she just simply huffed and said, “I don’t know. It’s just…. cute.” (It was supposed to me a funny essay on writing.)

    But, she was the one who had something hateful to say about pretty much everybody’s work, so I wasn’t all that upset about her comment. I just thought it was dumb and unhelpful.

  44. Probably the worst was with a less-than-assertive creative writing prof in college. When nobody could offer a single comment, positive or negative, in response to a poem I turned in, she announced, instead of asking leading questions to generate some sort of discussion: “Well, let’s just move onto the next person’s poem.” Gee, thanks. I thought I signed up for this class to get critiqued….

  45. For a college class I wrote a short story about a character who’d been raped. The professor had everyone turn in anonymous critiques. When I got my bundle of critiques on of them just said, “Are you a prostitute?” It wouldn’t have creeped me out so much if I’d just known who to avoid.

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