I was in my forties when I became aware that, as a writer, I was at the edge of my ability. I had stories and books I wanted to write but was unable to accomplish what I was able to envision. That’s when I decided to get my MFA. The good news about being in an MFA program at that age is that I was completely committed to the hard work of learning every bit of craft that I could. The downside of being in my forties (I graduated at 49) was that I was much older than all of my classmates, several of whom made it clear that they resented my presence in the classroom.
The workshops were sometimes exhilarating and sometimes gut-wrenching. I would polish and polish and polish my little stories, hoping someone would see promise there, hoping I had begun to crack the code of well-crafted writing, even though I was a novice, like everyone else. It’s hard enough, I think, to be in your twenties and writing crappy, beginner-level stories, but there was something about being in my forties and writing terrible fiction that was humbling.
That some of my class mates sort of hated me, well, I couldn’t completely blame them. What twenty-something getting his MFA wants to be in a class with a middle-aged woman who’s writing about the vagaries of married life, her fertility issues, her miscarriages? I imagine that to several of them it felt like their mother was in class with them.
While many of my fellow students were encouraging, others were brutal. When it was my turn, I would read my work out loud, and several would visibly roll their eyes at one another. One guy regularly used a red pen to cross out huge sections of my stories, with no suggestions offered. He would write things like, “NO!” in red next to the crossed-out title of a story without explanation. There was another guy who clearly didn’t even read my work before workshop, as he was supposed to do, and would nonetheless expound endlessly on its flaws in a way that seemed like he was trying to impress someone with how much more he knew about writing than I did.
I would leave workshops on those evenings feeling sick, humiliated, and exhausted. I was not yet at all secure about my work, and for a while I tried to figure out what my detractors wanted me to do in my writing. I added in stuff that was sexy, violent, gimmicky, or derivative to try to entertain them with the hopes of making them hate me less. I listened to their notes, because maybe they knew more than I did. But even when I wrote for that very specific audience, Mr. Red Pen still struck out huge passages and then threw his notes down on the table without even looking at me or saying a word. It was awful.
Until it finally wasn’t.
Two things happened that turned my classroom experience around for me. The first was when my professor read a revision of one of my workshopped stories and asked, “Why did you change the restaurant’s name? The name you had before was much better.” I said that a classmate had told me to change it, and he said, “Oh West, don’t listen to her!” It hadn’t occurred to me that I could choose to ignore feedback that didn’t feel right.
The second thing that happened was that I spoke with a friend (who is also a writer) about my struggles in workshop. I said that I wanted to remain open to feedback, that I wanted to become a better writer, but I couldn’t figure out how to cope with mean-spirited feedback that was so unhelpful that it sometimes made me want to quit. She said that, with her writing, she tried to be “semi-permeable,” that she would listen to feedback, but gave it different weight depending on its usefulness. She listened to, and sat with feedback, and then decided what she would, and wouldn’t, act upon.
This was a revelation and has informed much of my writing since. Right away, in class, I stopped reading any of the notes from the red pen guy. Weeks before, I needed a full day or more to recover from their spitefulness. They were brutal and offered nothing helpful, no suggestions about what might work.
Now, when everyone handed me notes on my stories after workshop, I would wait until I was alone, and then I’d throw his notes out unread. I simply by-passed them. What a relief. Ever since then, I don’t read notes that are mean-spirited or that I deem unhelpful. I’ve become like Teflon around that kind of toxicity.
The often-unfriendly setting in grad school ended up being great for my writing. First, it forced me to double-down on the stories that I had to tell. What else could I do but tell MY stories? I was married. I was middle-aged. The stories I had to tell were inflected by my life experience, so my battles in the classroom caused me to commit to and embrace my stories.
I have never again tried to pander to a hostile audience. I write knowing that a lot of people won’t like my work but trusting that my books and stories will find their audience, even if that audience is a small one.
Learning to navigate the workshop environment helped as I slowly became a professional writer and had to work closely with editors. Except for one notable exception (a copyeditor gone rogue), I love working with editors. I crave their ideas and feedback and love the collaborative way that a fine editor can help me figure out what is not working, and how to make a piece of writing sing.
I understand now that I don’t have to take any edits that I disagree with, but I’m also aware enough to know that all ideas should at least be considered. I can listen, take in what they’re suggesting, mull it over, and make a decision about whether or not to make the suggested change without becoming upset or wanting to quit, as I had in those early days. I trust that the editors I work with love the work, and that they are doing their best to shepherd it to become its best self.
This semi-permeability is helpful when I read reviews of my work as well. I’m interested in how my work hits readers. It’s not that I will change my writing based on a review, but I am curious to hear what worked, and didn’t work for them. I don’t obsess about reviews. No. I take them in, see what I can learn from them, and then let them go.
I don’t know if I’ll ever again be in a workshop situation where I have to listen to writers I don’t already know and trust, but the big gift I got from the hostility that came from those fellow writing students was this: writing requires loads of faith. We have to believe in our own work, often over many drafts and long periods of time. If we don’t have almost relentless faith, it is unlikely that our work will ever see the light of day.
As I publish more, my fear is this – I've read some of my favorite authors who, once they got “big” seemed to stop taking notes from anyone, and their work suffered because of it. Perhaps they trusted their initial instincts too completely. I don’t want to become that, and hope I never turn out something that causes readers to think, “She could really have used an editor.” For now, I remain semi-permeable, meaning open to all feedback, but also on the lookout for notes that might be counterproductive. I take it all in and reject what I need to reject to keep going with the piece. Writing is the great passion of my life, and I evaluate and wall-off anything that threatens to ruin it for me.
This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.
You can follow N. West Moss and stay up to date on her work @scoutandhuck on Twitter.