‘A big announcement, like huge’, read the subject line. I plunged into the body of Anthea’s email about her memoir course, discounted by US$500 to a price ‘I won’t be offering…again in 2022’, available for the next three days only. A clock recorded, in real time, the passing seconds, minutes, hours and days until the deadline ran out. There was information on a payment plan, course content, a testimonial, more exhortations to sign up and several links leading – like the tourist-accessible tunnels of Mao’s underground network in Beijing – to a place where sales took place.
Less than twelve hours later, email number two arrived. In a bid to narrow the field of competition, Anthea took aim at the academic program of her alma mater, an Australian university, for its practice or workshopping. In her opinion, work being critiqued by people who had never been published, and whose feedback ranged from bland to pointless, was a waste of time. In discrediting her program, she’d also swept mine, provided by another Australian university with a similar academic focus, into the orbit of her condemnation. I saw this attention grab for what it was, but it got me thinking about workshopping.
I came – and still come – to workshops with fears and expectations about how others regard my work. Will my peers be kind or cruel? Can I put my ego to one side while I hear their feedback? Will what they say make my writing better? In the early days, I spent hours reconciling every comment in the belief they’d come from a place of authority. They hadn’t always, but it would take a few years, both in the giving and receiving of feedback, for me to realise two things: there is choice in what to accept, and no-one will be offended either way. I became more adept at sifting comments, based on a simple rule: take on board what improves the writing, and discard the rest. This post deals neatly with finding equilibrium along the feedback spectrum, a key takeaway being that if two or more readers say the same thing, you know there’s an issue that needs fixing.
A year after I finished my program, feeling somewhat adrift, I joined a writers’ group. I’d been writing in a vacuum and, while one piece was published without the benefit of external critique, I missed those extra eyes that could pick up what I’d failed to see. This can be especially valuable before pitching work, remembering that you only have one shot at it. Like my university program, workshop sessions are moderated by a facilitator skilled at directing feedback to where it is most useful. Memoirists and nonfiction writers are a small percentage of the group, but I’ve found that useful criticism is not limited by genre preference and that there are enough members whose capacity for critical appraisal can add value to my work. They’re a really nice bunch, too! That said, I don’t workshop everything with them; at 20 plus members spread across 24 hours of meetings per annum, there isn’t time. I decide which pieces of writing need more help than others, and take it from there.
While Anthea has skin in the memoir game, her primary purpose is selling courses. Four more emails arrived in my inbox, each designed to wear me down. They were impressive, but I’m sticking with my writers’ group for the time being.
 Not her real name