I've finally shipped off my last packet of writing to my mentor! And in the mix this month is a reading conference centered around our own work: I and the other handful of people assigned to my current mentor are submitting pieces and reading and responding to them.
I was curious, since the only time I've read others' work so far in this program was during the last residency. And that wasn't exactly a warm-and-fuzzy experience. I submitted a story that I'd been working on for a while, had received feedback from two of my teachers, and basically thought was in decent shape, even if the structure was unorthodox. Alas, my workshop group was a pile-on, with everyone weighing in on its many shortcomings and the ways that I could go back to the drawing board. One helpful soul opined that it was "melodrama" and had an unlikable, immature narrator. One guy who did start off with some positive comments and got drowned out by the group came up to me later to say that he didn't know what that was all about, and that he liked it.
If the works of the group had been brilliant and envy-inducing, I would have felt terrible and completely out of my depth. But they were just . . . okay. Problems with point of view, character, scene, and the standard laundry list you get with writing students at my old school or anywhere else. So the whole experience just baffled me and underscored that I was definitely not on the same reservation as these folks.
I definitely don't need universal praise, of course, though the opposite--the back-to-drawing-board-for-you and personal attacks--is unhelpful as well. I've always been of the viewpoint that most everyone has an interesting story to tell, and if they do that authentically, without trying to make it be something else, they generally get in the ballpark, even if technique needs some fine-tuning, from a reader perspective. As a reader, your job is to give that reader perspective, not tell someone how to write their own story. And you do it gently and constructively, because it's not a personal affront that someone else chose first person when the OBVIOUS solution, to you, is third.
So, we did the reader swap of our works in my tiny little online group. And I read all of their works! Which ranged from very nice (if done in a way I would have done differently) to okay but in need of some writing 101 skills to please-tell-me-this-is-a-satire-and-not-a-laundry-list-of-every-action-cliche-ever-seen. Not that I'm all that and a bag of chips. Hell no. I just expected another level among MFA students, the kind of writing that scared me away from my first class back in 2007. (Yeah, I'm a wee bit further along than I was then, but those people were objectively "Oh, I give up!" talented.)
And they have had pretty universally negative things to say about my piece. Not mean things, but more confused and tepid. (One woman actually apologized for being too critical.) The only thing I took serious umbrage at was the guy who couldn't bother to look up the literary term on teh Google to understand what I was even trying to do. In contrast, the works that are obviously in need of a lot of work are receiving effusive, almost ridiculous praise.
Again, I'm mostly scratching my head. It's an early draft that I meant to do more wholesale tweaking on after getting my mentor's perspective (she liked it as it wasn't and didn't have large edits to suggest). I get that tastes vary, and if you don't understand what someone is doing, it makes it hard to understand the piece.
But, still. Do I theorize over peoples' personal vendettas? Or do I say, as the dude did who came up to me after the first workshop experience: "When people are reacting that strongly, you must be doing something right."
And here I thought I was doing fun stuff for the masses.