A Necessary Evil or, Like Being Kicked In the Gut

I have often found myself viewing creative writing workshops the same way I do playing music in front of people. A necessary evil perhaps; a means to some end I am generally not privy to, or at least not fully engaged with. It isn’t to say that I loathe either pursuit. Hearing the opinion of one or a group of people is a fantastic way to bring a piece to life, the act of listening to what other people might think about it, a brightening of the mind. A mind that, in my case, is usually pretty tunnel visioned. I have a difficult time seeing in my periphery, the honest reactions given in an attempt to illuminate something in the work that I may not have given a full thought to. But the way I write is like how Hunter S. Thompson described it, like being kicked in the gut. It is an automatic and essential release of the thoughts that bumper cars around my mind. Writing, to me, has usually been the sort of thing that if I don’t do it, it hurts a bit, stagnates and dissolves and something inside of me is lost forever. In this same way, I have looked at revision as an act of sabotage. I had already thought the thing and worked really hard to make it a cohesive and complete thought and it’s already exactly how I want it. I labor over my first draft. It is a practice of love and devotion. A draft in motion is a draft constantly being edited, even as it seems like a stream of consciousness.

Needless to say, as I have grown over a decade of writing this way, practicing my craft and honing an ability, I have come to understand the importance of the act of taking a piece, picking it apart and putting it back together again. It took being fully engaged in a process of furthering that automatic impulse and working to make it something that allows the singularity of the process to not be so wrapped up in my first impression. To not have an original thought be what lasts forever and ever, the piece seemingly already complete and soon to be published. I have made and released a lot of work this way. And it suffers because of it. It was good enough at the time. And not only that, it was possibly a transcript of a part of my soul. But are impulses and compulsions always so soulful? Certainly not.

At Laguardia Community College in 2019, I was one of many students on track for a degree in Writing and Literature. I was coming back to school after seven or so years, having dropped out of three colleges between the ages of 18 and 23. I wasn’t ecstatic to be back, mind you. I was coming off a series of unfortunate events that had left me rather disheveled, and I didn’t have any idea what else I should do. Simultaneously, I had it in my head that I may as well get an Associate’s, then a Bachelor’s, an MFA, and a doctorate, and settle into a life of academia. Maybe that was the way to finally be anything but self-released. And hell, I’d taught before and maybe I was okay at it. These had been 5th and 6th graders, mind you. But still. Maybe the bug was in me somewhere. Maybe it made the most sense. Maybe a part of me had always wanted to be Dr. McGuire. Really all I wanted was to write.

It was in my second year at Laguardia that I happened into a class that, with no deceit, was simply called Creative Writing Workshop. I was mostly writing poetry then. Or rather, lyrics that read well and didn’t suit a melodic structure. I had been self-publishing written work–poetry, essays, a few novellas–along with a whole lot of music for a number of years. It was the prime reason I wanted that first degree in writing first and literature second. There were so many words in me. Too many. What was it all for? Editing was to become a learned obsession.

Dr. Maata was a tremendous presence in that classroom: a booming voice, a penchant for exclaiming her appreciation before, during and after a student’s reading of their work, a seemingly endless library of paperback chapbooks she would bring in stacks each time we met. There was no mystery to her. She loved writing. And she loved teaching it. She loved to read. She loved her students. And she loved our work. As I settled into her class, I became fully engaged with showing people what I had written. Not just making it and tossing it into the ether. Really being open to whatever should happen through discussion. But I still wasn’t sure I would ever want to substantially edit a finished piece of my work. It was nearly certain I wouldn’t, or would only because it was a requirement.

My apprehension with gigging, in some respects, matches that path of resistance. I have very rarely had fun playing a show. My nervousness comes out either in random pseudo cleverness or contempt for the audience and usually in equal doses. I rush through songs, I glare at people talking, and I balk at applause the way many musicians do at indifference. I might perform well. But I don’t enjoy myself. It’s a chore. And I’m not very good at it. I am mostly a recording artist, mostly always have been, and live for the process of writing a song, recording it myself, and composing as I go. It mirrors that process of the kick in the gut mentality. I don’t even have bandmates. There is nothing keeping me from making exactly what I want.

With workshopping, I learned quickly that any feedback for a piece that I worked over and over before showing it to anyone, wasn’t inherently bad. I treasured when someone had something to say. It was almost always something interesting and at times dead on. I learned that a piece of writing can always be better than its early stages. To really attempt at something that it may not have been at first fits with the notion of work. And hard work. Us students, and professors as well, are constantly churning ideas around silently, evaluating an inclination, discussing the possibilities and working them over again. Human beings are active, nervous creatures. Everyone just wants to do their very best. And see the best in each other.
A few weeks into this class and I in a way understood people more, and not just their relation to a work of supposed literature on display for comment. Expressed ideas are just so wonderful. So interesting. Even the flippant ones. Especially when those flippant ones evolve into good ones, or at least offer a frame of mind unseen. Thinking out loud is so different from writing. Or rather, the edit of the writing that comes from a spoken understanding simplifies that process itself. As the semester went on, I began to no longer feel like every version should be perfect. Perfect is such a silly thing to be anyway. I say strive for perfection and hope to get halfway there.

Looking back on writing for workshop as well as all of the other writing I’ve done in school and out of since then, I am honestly not removed from that yearn for the perfect first draft. I will never want to compose something that I would eventually need to re-record. The improvisation is essential to the soul of it. I want to make imperfection so pleasing that it is deemed perfection. I want a lightbulb above my head and a quickened heartbeat. I want to downright know that what is happening is as true as I can make it. Hopefully with a bit of humility. And a whole lot of soul. And though I am fascinated with the randomness of where writing comes from, putting in the work is its own reward. It’s like playing music in front of people: there should be intrinsic joy in the whole of it. Even if there isn’t, the sharing and feedback are quite lovely aspects of the artistic process. I am privileged to make art. I know I shouldn’t waste any opportunity to get better.

I suppose what it all comes down to is a positioning of a mindset to not be so concerned. Editing is important. And though I am almost done with school and the confines of the organized classroom, the spirit of the workshop will remain with me. I will continue to make work, to write, to record music, to somehow hopefully mine for some further opportunity, all the while hearing feedback with grace and trying to find fun in the performance. I will, in any case, remain kicked in the gut. Flirting with the halfway point to perfection.