“She’s Definitely Had Work Done”; or, The Perils of Over-Workshopping Your Writing
By Nadine Kenney Johnstone
My name is Nadine, and I am a feedback-revision addict.
After I finished a draft of my novel, I submitted the first chapter to a writers’ workshop. I got some friendly feedback. I revised the chapter. I gave the revised chapter to a fellow writer. I got some new suggestions. I changed the chapter. Again. I brought the re-revised chapter to a writer’s retreat. I got some additional advice. I re-worked the chapter. Again-again.
When hanging out with a writer-friend recently, I told her I was going to submit the first chapter to another workshop. She set down her coffee mug and looked at me over the top of her reading glasses.
“Maybe you should stop,” she said. She pointed to the latest version of my chapter resting on the table between us. She had just thumbed through it, and drops of java smeared the corners.
“Where’s that scene I liked, about the mom’s scar?” she asked.
I stirred my tea, sipped it, avoided her eyes.
“I took it out,” I said, gathering the chapter pages, shoving them into my bag. “At the last workshop, they told me it didn’t propel the plot.”
“Maybe,” she said, “you’re listening to the wrong people.”
Here was the thing though, I knew exactly whose opinions I valued in a workshop and whose I didn’t. The problem was I was getting very helpful feedback from extremely talented writers whom I respected.
I was just getting too much of it.
I had to realize that I could begin my novel with the scene of the mother cheating on the father at a bowling alley or I could start with the daughter choking on toothpaste after seeing her mother’s botched C-section scar for the first time. Both scenes would work, as would 50,000 other possibilities. But, by revising based on all of those suggestions, my own writing was getting muddled. Unrecognizable.
You know how Heidi Montag and Mickey Rourke barely resemble their pre-plastic-surgery selves? Yeah, my writing was starting to look that way, too. There were the telltale, Botoxed, emotionless scenes, the inflated, silicone descriptions.
Without even realizing it, I had developed feedback-revision addiction.
If you have an inclination that you might be an addict, too, here are some tips to return your writing to its natural state. It’s much easier and less painful than, say, reversing a facelift.
1. First ask yourself what it is you like about your writing. Don’t feel ashamed our arrogant. It’s just as liberating as admitting to someone else, “You know, I’ve always liked the scrunchiness of my nose.” And, just as adamantly as you’d refuse a nose job, choose an aspect of your writing that you want to preserve no matter what kind of feedback you get. Then, be honest with yourself about what needs help. Just like trembling triceps need toning, which aspects of your writing need a workout?
2. Sometimes it’s not easy to describe yourself or your writing, and you need another person’s perspective. Back when Sex and the City was all the rage, I remember declaring to my girlfriends, as we lounged around during a commercial break, that I was SO Carrie. Almost in unison they shook their heads and argued that I was so NOT Carrie. I was Miranda, they said, without a doubt. So, if you have a skewed view of your writing personality, you might have to ask other authors to describe it in three to four adjectives. You’ll be surprised at their answers and at the similarities among them. Out of the ten people I asked, every single one of them said that my writing was some synonym of honest.
3. Do some research on yourself. Investigate old journal entries. Analyze stories that haven’t been work-shopped and preferably haven’t been looked at in a while, so that you have some distance. Read them aloud. What are the similarities in tone, word choice, etc.?
4. Do a free-write for ten minutes. Time yourself. Don’t allow pen to leave page. Don’t stress over the perfect first line. What are your natural inclinations?
5. Remind yourself of the types of things you like to read. What themes are similar in those stories, essays, novels that are probably wrought in your own writing?
6. Finally, remember—the first step of overcoming an addiction is acknowledging it.
So say it with me, loud and proud, “My name is ____. And I am a feedbackoholic.”
As for me, I’m proud to say that I kicked the habit.
First, I printed off a fresh draft of my novel. I sat down with a large caramel latte one Saturday and read the whole thing, noting what sounded strange, unclear, skimpy. I didn’t look at old drafts with other people’s notes. I figured if an instructor or workshopper had given me good advice, it would find its way into my observations. I gave up workshops for a couple months, and made myself go to Panera every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon to revise. Then I did the hardest thing. I stopped revising.
In addition to being ready to send Distance out to agents, I’m just as excited to look at my writing and see me—honest, scrunchy-nosed me—on every page.
Nadine Kenney Johnstone teaches at Framingham State University, Dean College, and Grub Street Inc. She received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago and is seeking representation for her novel, DISTANCE. Nadine has been published or has work forthcoming in Pank, The Drum, Chicago magazine, and Hair Trigger, among other publications. She has worked in all aspects of writing: as a literary magazine editor, reporter, fiction contest judge, story performer, and creative writing instructor. Find her writing advice here and at Grub Street Daily. A Chicago native and Massachusetts transplant, Nadine spends her free time exploring the outdoors with her husband and their dog-child.