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Carol Bly, "Against Workshopping Manuscripts" - Not only impossible, but fatal

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September 28th, 2016


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07:45 am - Carol Bly, "Against Workshopping Manuscripts"
A tiny book I found almost by chance in the university library while searching for books on evaluating student writing.

I like Carol Bly even when I don't agree with her -- which is fairly often -- so I was curious about what she had against workshopping student fiction. Well, it's this:

If a student is workshopping a manuscript with a deeply felt idea or emotion, but that idea or emotion isn't coming through effectively yet, workshoppers will tend to focus on issues of technique, and this will feel, to the writer, like an invalidation -- even in a small way -- of the deeply felt thing at the center of the story. When you reveal a deeply felt thing and it gets ignored, you feel shame. You feel like it was wrong (too personal, too intimate) to say what you said. And the result is that, as a writer, you get subtly dissuaded from writing anything genuine or passionate; you focus on technique when you should be going deeper into the heart of the story.

(Also, workshops are a way of passing the workload in a creative writing class from professors to students.)

It's an interesting thesis and I can't help but thinking about it in connection with fanfiction; I certainly can't characterize fanfic communities as supportive utopias, but I think that on the whole they do tend to validate the hot squishy stuff at the center of the story. And I think that great fanfic is indeed hotter squishier more intense and passionate than even most very good profic. (I mean, that's also because restraint is explicitly valued in literary fiction...)

The class that I'm in currently actually is explicitly constructed with the aim of recognizing and validating the thematic and emotional content in the piece before we talk about anything technical -- I wonder whether my prof has read Carol Bly or if it's something he got elsewhere -- and at the start of the semester I actually thought it was going to be too nice-at-the-expense-of-honest. But I was wrong. "I can tell you everything that's wrong with your story" doesn't get a person much closer to being a good writer, especially if we want to admit that a BIG PART of being a good writer is being open and vulnerable with your emotions on the page.

(Which doesn't mean writing autobiographically, or melodramatically, or sentimentally. It DOES mean that the most important stuff in your toolbox as a writer is the stuff that is personal to your own mind and your own heart.)

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