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Check Your Ego at the Door

By Amanda Steggell via Flickr's CC
By Amanda Steggell via Flickr’s CC

Our guest today is Carol Dougherty [1], also known as Doc, director of Wake Up and Write Writer’s Retreat Workshop  [2](an offshoot of Writers Retreat Workshop [3]), where she teaches writing practice and much of the curriculum developed by the late Gary Provost [4]. She is ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, and spent more than 10 years at San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Carol worked extensively in professional theatre early in her career, culminating in a stint as Managing Director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, where she had a chance to meet lifelong hero, Julie Andrews, and work with Marge Champion and Julie Harris, among others. Her all-time favorite book is not a novel, it is Virginia Axline’s Dibs: In Search of Self, which she first read as a Reader’s Digest Condensed book when in grade school and has re-read many times since. She is an avid reader, writer, and student, with a penchant for horse racing, Shakespeare, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Being a novelist looking for feedback puts you in a vulnerable position. And it’s the only way to find out how your work-in-progress stacks up. It helps if you know you aren’t alone in your vulnerability, that you won’t die if your work needs some work, and that you can take criticism of your writing without taking it personally.

Carol is the author of The Santiago Inheritance [5] (novel), How Full of Briers: The Organizational Structure of the Non-Profit Theatre Corporation (non-fiction). Connect with Carol on her blog [6].

Check Your Ego at the Door

You are attending your first writing workshop, a major investment of time and money, which you feel sure will pay off big-time. After all, you have in your work-in-progress the next Beloved, The Hunt for Red October, or Me Before You. You are certain that before dinner is over, everyone will know, without having read a word, that you will be the new David Baldacci or JK Rowling.

At the same time, you are thrilled to be at this workshop, with an opportunity to get feedback (which you are sure will be wonderful) from a writing teacher whose work you respect, and whose books have helped many an aspiring novelist. You want to bask in the opportunity to spend this time completely focused on your own work-in-progress and not have to worry about cooking your own meals and then doing the dishes. Here, you are a writer.

Without any maneuvering, the workshop leader sits next to you at dinner, and appears to be amused by your witty repartee. Everything seems to be working as planned.

A funny thing happens after dinner. The group gathers for the opening session, and lo and behold, you are the first one to share your book title and the hook you have crafted. Suddenly you discover that you don’t have a protagonist, you have a victim. To be a protagonist the main character has to act, rather than simply be acted upon. Yours doesn’t act, she reacts.

You also find out that your book title, which is your protagonist/victim’s first name (evocative, you felt), tells the reader nothing. And you realize that if all of this is true, you have to throw out everything you’ve written to date and start over.

Santiago InheritanceAfter the session is over, you realize you have a choice to make. You can crawl into bed, pull the covers over your head, and wail that everyone is just jealous of your talents and it isn’t fair. Or you can face the fact that you are here to learn, and the first lesson was a tough one to swallow. You came to see what the experts could teach you, and now you have to decide if you are willing to be taught.

Feedback is one of the most difficult things to accept as a writer. It’s easy to convince yourself that the person questioning your choice of word, or character, or storyline, doesn’t understand your intention. And if they don’t, it isn’t your fault they’re dense. You’ve labored over this work for years, and you know you’ve honed it brilliantly.

Or have you?

It can be enormously confusing to go to a workshop, sit through classes with one or more instructors, meet one-on-one with several mentors/editors, and have critique sessions with your peers, with everyone telling you something different. After a few days you are reeling from the contradictory suggestions, and it’s tempting to ignore all of it and go your own way.

However…

…if you put aside your bruised ego long enough to look at it clearly, you might realize several different people all seemed to be asking what your main character wants, what her story arc is. And almost everyone commented on how they wanted to know more about your villain, but didn’t seem enthusiastic about your protagonist. So perhaps there are a few things that keep cropping up that might be worth your attention.

Those first paragraphs were my experience at Writers Retreat Workshop with the late Gary Provost. Once I was able to let go of my disappointed expectations of glory, it turned out to be one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I learned more about writing a novel in that first 10-day workshop than I had in the 30+ years of my life to that point. In the years since, I have found enormous joy in being a student, learning from those who offer their expertise to my hungry mind and heart.

One of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a classroom, was coming back to Writers Retreat Workshop as a scholarship student in 2012 (having taught the workshop from 1998-2000) and having as instructors some of the same students I taught at earlier workshops. Not only were they terrific teachers, I learned a great deal from them and my writing improved. None of that would have been possible, had I not been willing to let go of my ego, my cherished identity as a smart, talented person and a good writer.

Whatever story you have about yourself and your work, leave it at home when you head to a workshop, conference, or seminar. It is an opportunity to step away from the solitude of your desk and into the community of other writers. It is an opportunity to listen to the teaching and feedback of others, sift through the myriad viewpoints and techniques to discover what works for you, and put it into practice. It is an opportunity to check your ego at the door, and give yourself the freedom to grow. Have fun!

Have you found it difficult to accept and use suggestions from teachers/agents/editors/peers? What has been the hardest thing to hear? How was your first workshop experience?

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