It's been said that if you can do something—anything—other than write, then do it, because writing is hard. I've tried doing lots of other things. And, yes, I have tried to leave you Writing, but I always come back. I just can't quit you.
To remain sane I attend writer workshops. They serve as couple's therapy for me and my writing. These are heavenly places: silent meals that someone else prepared, storytime, naps, rules, and lots of snacks. We gather to write, share work, and puzzle our plight. 'Solitude-Blessed-Solitude' is a writing mantra I copped from my last workshop (thanks, Judy.) I can easily horde hours of isolation in the pursuit of profundity, and still not produce a single decent sentence. Still, it's my happy place.
‘There is no greater agony than holding an untold story.’ -Maya Angelou
Over time I've culled some excellent bits of wisdom, unrelated to the actual writing process, from the rules of engagement at these workshops. Writers tend to be a sensitive lot, and if the shoptalk is not reined in by the skillful guidance of the group leader, it can easily slide into a therapy session or morph into an ugly meltdown. The engagement guidelines ensure that the riverbanks of civility and productivity are followed to a fruitful conclusion.
I often worry that my soul community has become superficially connected–we simply don't know how to talk to each other like we did before texting came along. We hold so many untold stories. In an effort to refresh the art of engagement I thought that sharing three of my favorite workshop guidelines might provide a nudge. They demonstrate skill-based sensitivity that is useful for enriching our daily interactions. Have some fun with this—try inserting your own name whenever you see the writer.
#1. A Spirit Of Approval
Criticism helps no one, but a constructive conversation loaded with insight and substance definitely benefits the writer. Criticism will always end in combat: someone has to be right, and someone has to be wrong. At the very least, it results in hurt feelings; at its worst, it cracks the writer's confidence.
It's easy to criticize, but it takes character and consideration to be constructive. This does not mean that the writer is resistant to feedback about her work. It simply means that a critical entree is guaranteed to trigger a reaction of dismay, and possibly tears. What the writer welcomes is a conversation. Honest reader feedback is always helpful to the writer; for the input to land well, the delivery must be consciously considerate.
'You don’t need to stab with the sword of truth; you can point with it, too.’ -Anne Lamott
Rule of thumb: try to imagine yourself on the receiving end of this thousand-watt spotlight. For the writer, being critiqued feels like being called up on a stage and having her pants pulled down. Just like a parent guiding a child, it’s important to critique the writing, not the writer. Seek to share the strengths of the piece, and what's working for you, so that the writer can do more of it. Writing is a deep expression of vulnerability and requires a lot of guts. The curious reader, who sincerely wants to know more about where the writer is coming from, and what she hoped to accomplish, is going to be a thousand times more illuminating and productive for everyone.
We can practice compassion and curiosity by asking the writer open-end questions. An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered with a simple yes or know. Open: 'Can you tell me more about how you planned your plot?' Closed: 'Do you that know your plot sucks?' There is no need to sugarcoat, but do be cognizant of how your questions land. A productive conversation culminates in two people learning something new—seek to understand, and to be understood.
‘I want the 80% dark cacao of conversation...’
#2. Share Some Rarified Air
While the open-ended question effectively gets the ball rolling, follow up comments are always in danger of appearing superficial—what I call ‘horizontal chat’. For true virtuosity, try the technique of Vertical Chat. Vertical chat does the deep dive by asking the writer the second, third, and fourth questions with focused intention. 'How did you know this plot was going to work for your novel?' 'Why does it resonate with you so much?' 'Can you tell me the three main strengths of your plot?' 'What is giving you pause or trouble in your writing process this week?'
Rule of thumb: with Vertical Chat the writer and the reader are getting somewhere that's meaningful and satisfying. This is where true connection and productivity make merry. It's the hallmark of being emotionally literate and connected in the process of a genuine conversation. This is a learned skill and it takes a lot of conscious practice (particularly in today's distracted phone culture.) Vertical chat is an amazing tool that has the potential to enrich every single conversation we engage in.
A heads up about horizontal chat: it is banal and safe. It skates the surface but gets the writer nowhere interesting. It's like a Kitkat bar: fun to eat in a pinch, but not deeply satisfying—it ain't Valahrona. I am at the point in my life where I want less chitchat, and more substance. I want the best chocolate, or I don't want any. I want a few Lululemon pieces, not a closet full of clothes. I want less, but I want it to mean more. I want deeply satisfying vertical conversation on a regular basis—I want the 80% dark cacao of conversation. I want to hear what made your trip so special, not a breezy rote reply. I want to know: What surprised you? What delighted you? What made you cry? Now that I have developed an appetite for this quality of emotional nourishment I am unequivocal about pursuing it.
#3. Vibe Check
...There's a wall of emotion, a palpable tension in the room. It burns. It is suffocating the writer's creativity, and preoccupying her racing mind. She's filling in blanks where there are none. The writer wonders how to address the sucker punch in her gut that feels so raw, perhaps even a little dangerous. It's like a cloud covering the sun. She doesn't know exactly when the doom gloom arrived, but it burns between the writer and the others, and permeates the room like fog...
Highly sensitive people (ergo, writers) are lint rollers for subtext energy. We suffer more of these ennui attacks, probably in a 10-1 ratio, than the average person. When you put us all together in one room, better bring your Hazmat suit. Highly empathic, we feel other people's energy–positive or toxic–very intensely. We tend to take on that energy personally. Very. Personally. We are like burn victims with only a single layer of skin left to protect our bodies. Our ability to hone in on this subtle energy is a superpower for the writing (and the spiritual path), but it is a challenge to process on a regular basis. For those who identify, regular meditation (not medication—it’s not an illness) is a very effective method for detoxing the excess energy, as is exercise, cooking, and spending time in nature.
Rule of thumb: name it and claim it. If there is something in the air, an energy that feels like the doom gloom has arrived, then the writer must address it–pronto. Do not let it simmer and steam into an ugly stew.
This is very difficult to do unless there is already a rule of engagement in place. Enter the greatest tool ever conceived by a group leader: The Vibe Check. This simple safe word is the gateway to world peace—or at least a happier workshop experience. It is code for 'I know something is off here (I can FEEL it), and I am wondering if we can talk about it.'
99% of the time, the doom gloom will have absolutely nothing to do with the writer—Amen! And this is where the magic happens: when we say to someone 'Can we have a vibe check? or 'Do we need a vibe check?' It reveals our willingness to be emotionally available. It shows that we are brave enough to care about what’s in the air. And it's smart. That nice big pile of compounded anxiety we create for ourselves everyday? Our made up stories about what we think is happening? It's ideal bomb material. It is much healthier for the writer to chip away at perceived slights, diffusing tension as she goes, using the vibe check.
The vibe check is special because it at once dissolves tension and opens connection. It’s the TSA line for vulnerability. Yes, being vulnerable will open us up to some discomfort and pain, but it also showers us with love and connection like we've never experienced. The vibe check green-lights the writer's curiosity, and leads to authentic truth telling with each other. The writer is now placed in her favorite position: to listen, learn, reflect, reconsider, and even offer empathy, if appropriate. It's a very healing antidote for what burns us—perceived or otherwise. It's a free get-out-of hell card!
I’d love to hear from you—feel free to send your comments to me.