In the summer of 1984, having saved my pennies and summoned my courage, I headed off to Ithaca, New York, for the Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop. Was I ready? Was I good enough?
I’d never been to a workshop. I’d never taken a writing class. I didn’t know what to expect. Junior year of high school, though, I’d won the school’s writing prize. Since then I’d done lots and lots of self-teaching. The college newspapers had published my op-eds and reviews. More recently, my reviews and essays had appeared in feminist and gay publications. I’d written most of the poems that eventually appeared in my chapbook, Leaving the Island (1989). I was working on a novel.
Maybe most important of all, I was the book buyer for Lammas, Washington, D.C.’s feminist bookstore. For years I’d been immersed in a movement, a community, for which books and magazines and newspapers were crucial, life-sustaining stuff. I saw it every day at work: women discovering words that inspired them, strengthened them, and even changed their lives.
Words were my only instrument, writing and editing my only useful skills. It was time, I thought, to test my vocation.
The heart of the workshop was our morning critique sessions. At each two-hour session, an hour would be devoted to the work of one participant. In those days the workshop was held at Wells College in tiny Aurora, New York, about 30 miles from Ithaca. These meetings were held on the second floor of the boathouse, overlooking Cayuga Lake.
The day before, the scheduled writers would put copies of their work out for everyone to read. (“Copies” meant paper in those days. In 1984 we all still had typewriters.) We took our homework seriously. When we gathered in a big circle at 9 every morning, everyone was prepared. The scheduled writers were usually at least a little bit nervous.
The ground rules were simple. For the first part of the session, the writer was invisible. Critiquers were to discuss the work with each other, as if she weren’t there. Her job was to listen. She wasn’t to speak. The workshop director got the discussion going by asking a question about the work, then she’d keep the discussion on track by asking more questions, making comments, and when necessary reminding us of the ground rules. With 10 or 15 minutes to go in the hour, she’d close the discussion and give the floor to the writer. The writer could then answer whatever questions had been raised, ask some of her own, and generally respond to the comments made.
Taking part in these sessions morning after morning was a powerful experience. As the writer being critiqued, I listened to 18 of my peers focusing all their attention on my work. My work had to stand on its own, apart from me. Sometimes my peers would argue about a particular line. They’d disagree, sometimes heatedly, about what it meant and whether it worked. Gradually it dawned on me that I couldn’t take any single comment, supportive or critical, as the final word. I had to sort through all the feedback and decide how to use it.
As a critiquer, this meant my job was to tell the writer whatever I could about her work, even if I thought my idea was off-the-wall or too personal or even negative. “I don’t understand what’s going on here” is my take on the work, no more, no less. Maybe the writer will find it useful, maybe not. Either way it’s her call. Sometimes as a critique session began, I’d be on the verge of panic because a work had left me cold, or angry, or frustrated. Some works were more polished than others. I learned that I could nearly always come up with something the writer might find useful.
For better or worse, my vocation passed the test. I returned to the workshop for the next three years as one of two assistant directors. By 1988, however, I’d been sucked into the seasonal economy of Martha’s Vineyard, to which I’d moved in 1985, and could no longer escape for 10 days in the summer. The Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop no longer exists, but the critique process I learned there can be replicated anywhere — if the workshop leader (if there is one) and participants are willing to create a safe space for critiquing and being critiqued.