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It was a rookie mistake. I had no idea that workshopping a very sad personal story would turn out to be such a bad idea. And by “bad idea” I mean there were tears in the workshop. Not from readers, but from me. This workshop was part of the Book Passage Travel Writing and Photography Conference I attended in Corte Madera, California last month and I was all prepared to be encouraged and motivated and receive really inspiring directional feedback. I wasn’t expecting the tissue box to be passed my way.

Workshopping an essay is not for the timid, and while no one would describe me as timid (ever), I hadn’t workshopped any of my writing since I took Creative Writing in college. All those creative juices I thought I was squeezing back in college almost immediately turned into lackluster business writing of emails and PowerPoints over the course of the last 25 years. No one that I know even writes documents in business anymore. We write in 24 pt. font on slides with bullet points where punctuation is optional. There’s no time to workshop a piece at the office and why would we? Most of the time we’re up at midnight throwing together the presentation that was due a few hours earlier and, to be frank, no one cares about the prose. I wish they did, though. I miss striving to write great prose.

GEMO or “good enough, move on” is the mantra, because there’s another assignment brewing. There’s no feedback of a written piece. No one in business brings together a group of people, sitting in a circle to make comments like, “But we want to know more about how you’re feeling—what did you think when you were told to lead the annual United Way fundraising campaign? Can you dig deeper?”

So that’s why I started writing about stuff I care about

It was just three years ago I decided that if I didn’t have an outlet for creative writing I would likely explode into a million tiny pieces. The emails and PowerPoints were never going to help me reach the Self Actualization pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, so I opened up a WordPress account and started blogging. Blogs are “rough,” and a bit off the cuff and I could write on my own schedule, which is generally late at night after a long day at the office, or on the weekend while a pile of laundry goes unfolded, and dishes sit in the sink. And I admit it: there’s so much satisfaction with putting words down and hitting Publish.

There. Done. Move on.

I move fast. It’s how I’m wired—I’m impatient with the world and impatient with words. Feedback on my blog? Oh, I’d love it. Really. But I don’t elicit it. That would require time. And waiting. And the responsibility to dig deep. At least I’m one notch better than business writing, but not much, which is why I really needed feedback.

How I ended up workshopping. And crying.

You can’t be in management in business without learning to give feedback and get feedback, which means I have pretty thick skin. So, the desire for feedback led me to the workshop at the Book Passage Travel Writing and Photography Conference. There were seven other brave souls who labored over their own pieces we eventually dissected along with our faculty leader/moderator over three mornings. The feedback was always constructive and gentle and every single piece of advice I received was perfect in making my essay better.

I just didn’t realize that it would, well, make me cry.

The essay recalled the events of finding out my friend’s death the morning after I had exchanged “I love yous” with a man I was rendezvousing with in romantic Bath, England. Revisiting this lovely/awful mashup rubbed me raw like Meryl Streep’s character in Silkwood where she is getting sprayed down with fire hose force while someone is coarsely scrubbing down her skin in the shower after she had been contaminated by radiation. That kind of raw. When you’re that exposed and tender with emotion someone could have suggested that I should have used a different font for my essay and I would have sobbed.

I always want my travel essays to take the reader back and really be there in the location, but I forgot that it takes me there too. It broke my heart all over again, which is probably why I never went that deep in the first place. At first I was okay when the instructor began to talk about what he liked and then questions from the group arose as to why I didn’t write more about the details of my relationship with my friend, how much I knew about her illness and what she knew about this man I was meeting in England. Water in my eyes filled up the more everyone probed about my friend. Was I having a tree allergy, perhaps? Sure, that was it.

The woman to my left saw the puddles of water in my eyes and said, “Can I give you a hug?” and that’s all it took to release the dam holding back my tears. I lowered my head as if to pray and covered my eyes under my glasses, thinking no one could see me cry. Horrified to think that they all thought I was upset over the feedback I stuttered out, “I’m sorry. It’s not the feedback. It’s not the feedback. It’s all great. I just didn’t expect this.”

I had no intention of diving too deep into this mashup of romantic love bursting at the seams with the excruciating pain of the death of my best friend. I lived it once already, wrote about it two years ago and just figured I’d make it better in this workshop. No big deal, right? I supposed I would just casually snorkel near the surface and keep it safe. I didn’t know I’d be strapping on the tank and going deep below the surface to see what was in each cavern or see new creatures and coral I couldn’t see from the top.

Sometimes you need help to reach

Helping you get there—to get deep—is what workshopping groups are supposed to do (and what mine did for me last month at the conference). Each member of our group provided me an outside viewpoint that woke me to new words I couldn’t get to before. For me, reaching for words alone is like sticking my arm in a hole in the ground that’s only three-inches deeper than the length of my arm and my fingers are wriggling and stretching to try to pick up words lying there like a pile of plastic red, blue and yellow Pick Up Monkeys I played with as a kid—monkeys with their arms curved like hooks so they can link one to another in a long monkey chain. But my arm isn’t long enough and I can’t reach the monkeys. I know they’re there but they’re just out of reach. If I could just get one of them I could grab the rest of the pile. So I lie there on the ground with my arm stretched out as long as I can muster and wriggle and wriggle my fingers in hopes of grasping a word that will link to another and another in a long chain. I usually give up and just move on. But a workshopping group doesn’t let you  move on.

Words are often unreachable and for me, it takes others to help me reach a little further even if it’s painful. That’s the joy of workshopping—you get to where you need to be, even if it does make you cry a little. Just because time has passed doesn’t make visiting the past any easier. Getting to the right words takes time, patience, a long arm, some great folks to provide feedback to point you in the right direction, and maybe some tissues.

But next year I’m not going to make such a rookie mistake. Maybe I’ll save the deeply emotional pieces for one-on-one feedback, so if I cry it won’t feel the need to be so apologetic about my tears.

I think next time I’ll just bring an essay about birds.

Do you ever struggle for words when you write? How do you break through that? And have you ever workshopped a piece that brought you to tears? (Because if you have, that would make me feel a whole lot better.)