“Please don’t judge my poem that stinks.”; or, Why the Overtly Self-Conscious Writer is Detrimental to Workshop

While talking with another writer recently, I admitted that I re-read my own poems often, not just to see if they need to be revised, but to admire them. She indulges in this self-admiration too, she admitted. And if I were to guess, I’d say most if not all writers do it. After all, the narcissistic writer (and especially, poet) is something parodied both outside the creative writing community as well as inside it. (See James Tate’s “Teaching the Ape to Write Poetry” for an example of the latter.)

And yet during poetry workshops, I’ve noticed that my fellow MFA-mates and I often attach disclaimers to poems we don’t feel “confident” in for one reason or another (often, for example, because we’re “trying something new”). Sometimes, the folks critiquing the poem agree that there is in fact good reason for us to lack confidence in these poems and then proceed to explain why harrowingly well; but other times these same folks devote precious workshop minutes to improving the concerned writer’s self-esteem, not poem.

But back to the self-doubting writer who makes his self-doubt known: Why the modesty? Shouldn’t such notoriously self-involved people (writers) be better at not caring about what other people think? Regardless of whether we should or shouldn’t be better at it, we’re not, in my estimation. It’s an interesting phenomenon (or maybe it’s actually something you could predict) that the most narcissistic-seeming people are often equally self-loathing and insecure, and those of us bringing work to workshop are, of course, not exceptions. And also it’s part of human nature to want to preempt someone else’s criticism, I think.

But regardless of whether or not the modesty of any such workshopped writer is understandable, as I’ve already mentioned, it fundamentally changes how the people critiquing a piece respond to it. Just as it’s human nature to tell people when we feel vulnerable, it’s also human nature to be more sensitive to the one who’s made his vulnerabilities known.

There are, of course, many factors that contribute to the constructive workshop of a weak piece. But in terms of setting the stage for it, the author—no matter how much he knows it to be true that his piece stinks—should not admit this weakness in the workshop. Instead, he should puff himself up like a bird in a fighting stance. It will be more fun for the other birds as they peck his work to pieces.

Michael Roche writes poetry in Virginia Tech’s MFA program. His work is forthcoming in Best New Poets: 2012.

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