Why any good reader can contribute to a writing workshop
In his book On Writing, Stephen King explains what writing is in three words: “Telepathy, of course.”
Then again, this isn’t an entirely new concept. When we were kids, writing was explained as the act of transmitting ideas from our brains onto a sheet of paper. But I don’t know, telepathy just sounds better. For one thing, it means transmitting real objects from one space and time to another, I like this. It means writing doesn’t end or even begin with the writer’s internal struggle, but with the notion that the writer has something to show and can do so by making his mind connect with that of the reader.
And while this may sound ridiculous, even “cute,” as King says other people might call it, we’ve experienced what he’s talking about.
To make the point, King writes a description of a bunny, munching a carrot in a cage with the number 8 written on his back in blue ink and says this afterward, “The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back… This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me… We’re having a meeting of the minds.” And he was right. We are looking at the number on the bunny’s back. We feel connected to him as if we were present with him examining the number.
The question I ask now is, how did he do that? How did he know the number was the subject of our focus? It was his, but how did he know he had successfully pulled our gaze from the cage, bunny and the carrot and onto the blue number?
Of course, you could say, “it’s obviously the most interesting thing in the piece” or “Well, he is the writer, after all. He knew we would want to look at something as out of place as the blue number on the bunny.” And yes, the example is a very easy one to see. But his acclaimed fame as a writer would defend that this is not something he does by accident, but knows exactly what we are seeing. And my question is how did he learn this?
More immediate to writers in this community is the question, how can we learn this? Because it’s true, King has spent thousands of hours writing and thousands of hours more reading. I’d like to think that if we wrote that much, we would see it too. But I think there’s a possible way to speed up the process -not water it down, just see the telepathy happen in real time and make appropriate changes.
This is one reason any writing community exists. Forgive my piggy backing on King’s idea, but a writing community exists to practice telepathy. Think of it as a big room where you’re able to see the subject (the reader) and witness the way your writing moves an object from your mind to theirs and if it was effective.
King knew what we were seeing through his years of practice and great skill, but we’re not that good. We may have our perceptions and intentions, but we want to know without a doubt that our readers are locked in on what we’re saying. That’s where a community brings it’s value to the writer.
What makes someone qualified to be in this type of community? There aren’t any necessary qualifications to be part of a telepathy testing room. Just an ability to express what parts of the writing caught your attention or moved you. Of course, this does require some practice, but no pre qualifications (more in “Workshopping for Better Writing”).
Peter Elbow,in The Teacherless Writing Class (page 76+77) harps on this idea, but uses the example of the reader showing a “movie of their minds”. He says,
“Writing is not just getting things down on paper, it is getting things inside someone else’s head. If you wish to improve your writing you must also learn to do more business with other people… You don’t need advice about what changes to make; you don’t need theories of what is good and bad writing. You need movies of peoples minds while they read your words.”
The beautiful thing about the subjects (us) being the room and having only to show the “movies of our minds,” is that we, as readers, are more readily qualified to do this then critique what makes “good” or “bad” or “poorly structured” writing. Those are no doubt helpful to the writer, but not so much a qualification to join. We may not feel like we know how to share what’s going on yet, we may never have done this sort of thing, but qualifications don’t have much to do with it, which is great news for everyone!
Of course, showing our “movies” will take some practice for them to be valuable to the writers in the room. Even though we come with the ability to show what happens in our mind, it’s not something we were taught to do anywhere else.
Elbow’s advice to the reader (the people who make the telepathy testing room work) in this situation is short.
“As a reader giving your reactions, keep in mind that you are not answering a timeless, theoretical question about the objective qualities of those words on that page. You are answering a time-bound, subjective but factual questions: what happened in you when you read the words this time.”
This takes a lot of pressure off the reader’s in any workshop, because with this approach, the writer is looking to see what he was able to effectively get across through his writing and not so much whether he had his commas in the right place. There is certainly a time and place for that, but the community is built to provide actionable feedback for the writer so he can make the piece more effective.