Chapter One: Image Detail – Workshop

A workshop consists of two or more like-minded people who give each other feedback. You read your exercise to them, and they give their responses. They then read their exercises in turn, and the rest of you respond.

On pages xvii-xix I outlined several ways to start a workshop. Three is a good number of people for beginning a workshop, and five or six is ideal. But you can also do a workshop with just one other person.

The Syngenetic Workshop

” Syngenetic” means having the same origin. When the feedback has the same origin, as nearly as possible, as the impulse of the writing, then it can assist in improving the writing. Workshops are most successful when writers understand each other, and respect the thrust of each other’s writing.

This understanding may be achieved by following a few simple ground rules. I call them “kindergarten rules,” because they seem childlike, but they are deceptively difficult to follow.

  1. Author hands out copies and reads the work. Workshop listens and takes notes.
  2. Workshop reads over copies a second time, quietly, and makes further notes. Author is silent.
  3. Each member of the workshop says what lines are memorable, repeats the words verbatim, and says why they are effective. Author takes notes.
  4. Workshop discusses the dynamics of the piece: What happens? What is the conclusion? What does a particular image convey? Author does not speak. Author listens and takes notes.
  5. Workshop makes one or two rewrite suggestions, three at most. Author takes notes.
  6. Author speaks. Workshop responds.

The dynamic of the syngenetic workshop keeps everyone’s attention on the writing itself — and on feeling the writing to its roots. If you follow the rules precisely, you will be guided into the writing with a clear mind. You need to know what the writing is about. The goal of the syngenetic workshop is to further the primary impulse of the writing.

Since the Crazy Child or creative unconscious is largely unknown, by definition, you may not have a clue how to hear someone else’s writing. The group may be equally clueless about yours. These are reasons why the rules should be respected. Groups also lose the ability to comprehend someone’s writing, because — without anyone wishing it — they develop an exclusive aesthetic.

For this first session, since you have written a rough-draft interview during the meeting, it is necessary to give only positive feedback. Guard against subtle criticisms that masquerade as compliments, as, “I like this, but something didn’t work.” You will benefit if you practice giving — and receiving — clear, positive feedback with no “buts.”

Read Out Loud and Take Notes

Read to your workshop, slowly and loudly, what you have written. If the piece is short, read it a second time. The workshop will not have copies of what you wrote a few minutes ago, so they must hold the piece in their minds. Reading it a second time will give them a chance to understand it more fully. When you are finished, the workshop should take a few moments to absorb what you have written.

The workshop then identifies which image details are most vivid. This is positive feedback, and, following the syngenetic model, they should repeat your words back to you. Take careful notes, indicating each detail they point out. You might underline the words or use exclamations points in the margins or squiggles or stars — whatever makes sense to you.

While the workshop is talking about your piece, you should remain silent. This is an essential kindergarten rule. You should remain silent until they are completely finished, and they might need as much as ten minutes. It is absolutely not useful to discuss or counter their feedback. The workshop’s attention and yours should stay — entirely — on what others get from your writing. If someone raises a question about the text, let others provide the answer or try to. You take notes.

There are, however, two cases when asking questions is fair. The first case is if you do not understand the words that are being spoken. You should ask that those words be repeated or be explained. The feedback should naturally be expressed in words you can understand.

The second case is when the feedback is vague. It is only slightly useful to hear that your details are effective. For example, someone might say, “Your description of the boyfriend is interesting,” but this doesn’t tell you which phrases are working. Was it the description of his face or of his jacket or of how he was moving? It’s to your advantage to ask for verbatim feedback. The workshop should try to recall your exact words.

The Author’s Job

You have an important job as you listen to the workshop. Your job is to believe the praise. The workshop is being honest, and their positive feedback is probably accurate. As you work with Let the Crazy Child Write! trusting the workshop’s positive feedback may be the single most important thing you do. When someone says an image detail is vivid or gripping, indicate that with a note on your copy, and believe it. Do not leave this crucial task to your memory.

The workshop is a mirror for your writing. Their praise reflects what you are doing well, and it is valuable information about your Crazy Child. You find out in the workshop how effective your Crazy Child is. This is not something you can learn on your own.

Often we have banished the Crazy Child from our minds. We may even have forgotten that we have a creative unconscious. This is no surprise, for we are trained from an early age to hide it. The Crazy Child does not help us in school or with our parents, and it does not go over well at work — quite the opposite.

We also train ourselves to discount the Crazy Child. You may think the details you write are dull or boring or simply not of interest to anyone — and these judgments may be totally inaccurate. Most likely they are ways of discrediting the Crazy Child. If the workshop likes those same details, it is a lead-pipe cinch your negative judgments are in error.

The exercises will put you in a positive relationship with your Crazy Child. And when you believe the praise of the workshop, you counter the negative thoughts of your internal Editor. You are joining in honoring your creative unconscious and you are giving yourself access to its energy. You are encouraging your Crazy Child to come out and play.

The Listener’s Job

When another workshop member is reading, your job is to listen. Listen carefully for image details that snag your attention. When one does, a picture will form itself in your mind, and you may find yourself dwelling on the detail even after the author has gone on.

Listening is an art. To do it effectively, you must clear your mind, because any preconception will get in the way — any preconception whatsoever. You are not to judge whether the writing is up to par, and it is a good idea to forget that writing is supposed to do anything. You should report the effect of what you hear — nothing else.

Make your mind a blank slate or imagine your mind is an empty screen. As words are read, the image details will light up on the screen. Remember those images that are clear or striking or hold your attention for a while. All you have are words, and the responses of your nervous system.

Another way to listen is with your body. Listen inwardly for little twinges or small intakes of breath or slightly nervous feelings. You could imagine your entire nervous system is a clean plate, and report what sticks to it. Just as some food will remain on a plate tipped at an angle, only those strong or forceful images will stay in your mind.

However you do it, listening is not easy, and there are no rules for predicting vivid details. No one knows in advance what details will be the most vivid. This is especially true when a person is reading for the first time. Each reader is a new entity, each reader sets up a different context, and each set of image details is new territory.

The main thing is to notice, as you hear them, which image details are the most powerful. These details were probably chosen by the Crazy Child, and they are likely to feel strange to the author — which is why the listener’s job is important. The most powerful details could be impulsive, wacky, bizarre, finely textured, perfect, or ethereal. There is no formula for what the Crazy Child does well.

Once you identify the vivid details, repeat them to the writer. It’s ideal if you repeat the words verbatim. Then it will be obvious to everyone, even to the author, that those words are powerful — because you remember them. It is also valuable to take notes. This is not cheating. You are reminding yourself which details are vivid, and when the author is finished, you can refer to your notes to repeat the author’s exact words.