In a Word

What some writers will do for a little constructive criticism.

Illustration by Lincoln AdamsWhen you’re a writer, your words are your children. You hover over them, root for them, sometimes dismiss them, but always stand by them. The last thing you want is for someone to put them down.

Yet that’s what you invite when you join a writers’ workshop. Your creations are set loose in a jungle of judgment—and if you come to their aid, you’d better be wearing a pith helmet.

I know. I’ve lived through that semantic safari. I’ve been a member in good standing of a Center City fiction workshop called Rittenhouse Writers’ Group. There, in weekly evening sessions on the second floor of the stately Ethical Society building on Rittenhouse Square, wordsmiths convene to share lies on paper. When you’re lucky, it all adds up to a little bit of truth.

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So here I am, a week after delivering my parchment to the crucible, ready for a round of tough love. Seeking approval, I’m early and congenial. We sit at a conference table in a room with a view of the park. I learn that I am not the only brave soul who has journeyed from the western ’burbs to the beating heart of the city for this noble purpose. “I need the writing,” Malvern resident Tom Teti tells me. “It’s a necessity to order and release the impressions that life makes on me.”

His words are worthy of Bartlett’s. But Teti, a longtime actor with People’s Light & Theater Company, makes them conversational. Bryn Mawr’s Leigh Jackson, who trained at the Washington Post and reported for the Philadelphia Daily News, assures me that “every session I’ve been in, I’ve learned something.”

There are, however, hazards ahead. Writers—who generally work in isolation and, despite their protestations, love it—undergo a chemical reaction when exposed to the daylight of collegial critique. Some are simpatico and eager to assist a fellow traveler. Some are didactic. Some are downright viperish.

Naked and blanching in the klieg lights, my short story is on the table. Comments fly like bullets or drift toward me like an enveloping mist. But as my senses struggle to sharpen, a message is emerging: They like me.

Then the momentum shifts. The fellow who loved a Hollywood tale I told outside class the previous week opines that I should stick to screenwriting. (His jaw is begging for a left hook.) A woman says my story didn’t excite her and chides me for stealing a chunk of her valuable time. (I consider yanking her hair.) I haven’t felt this way since I was a kid careening across the asphalt of Philly’s Lamberton Elementary.

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Order, however, is quickly restored. Like an alert teacher patrolling recess, the workshop leader intervenes to blunt the attack and knit up my raveled sleeves. He founded the group many moons and manuscripts ago, and knows something about the writer’s psyche. Spirited yet thoughtful, he sounds nothing like Truman Capote. He can be a two-fisted advocate or a sensitive listener. The guy has a master’s degree from Columbia, but what he brings to the forum goes beyond the sheepskin.

My work is in good hands.

As other members’ stories run the gauntlet, I find it more difficult to dish out criticism than to absorb it. Afterward, we adjourn to a Chestnut Street pub for beer and burgers. I keep my distance from my critics, but their barbs and my misgivings are melting in the onion soup. A post-workshop exhilaration courses through the blood—a confirmation of survival and growth, a harbinger of literary sales to come. I vow to redouble my efforts in the week ahead. I will make the words do my bidding.
 

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Who knows where they come from, these strange little assemblies known as words? We inherit them and pass them on and, in the process, they evolve even if we don’t. They are part of the public domain available to us all. Their freight is ideas and, as a playwright once wrote, “an idea is a greater monument than a cathedral.” That is what the writer seeks to convey—ideas—and it’s ego that prompts action.

Bylines, paychecks and prizes are nice, but words and ideas are everything. For an embattled writer groping toward clarity, that insight is enough. I’ll continue to challenge the Schuylkill at rush hour, pay the downtown tariff and face the music. The trip and the turmoil are worth it.

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Longtime Main Line Today contributor Jim Waltzer’s latest book, the crime novel Sound of Mind, is out now. To learn more about Rittenhouse Writers’ Group, visit
rittenhousewritersgroup.com.
 

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!