If you've ever taken a writing workshop or been part of a writing group then you've experienced the fear and loathing that comes with sharing your personal creativity with a cast of relative strangers. Of course some of these folk will go on to become invaluable lifelong connections, both in your personal life as well as your writing career. But as humble, kind and constructive as we all may try to be, not all writers are created equal. Some are more talented, some are more committed and others are just plain inspired 24/7.
Invariably, in any one of these workshops (where you submit stories to your peers for review and feedback and vice versa) where groupings are loosely based on skill level and one's desire to write, there's always the one who thinks they're better than everyone else--including the instructor. They're usually confident and well spoken and always intimidating. They even appear well read and vastly knowledgeable, but when their first manuscript hits the table, the universal reality kicks in. You peruse the pages expecting a masterpiece. You keep looking but you can't find it and then it sinks in: they're just a mediocre writer who derives power and momentum from bulling and putting down. (In my experience, the most talented writers, no matter where they are in their careers, are generally the most gracious and constructive in the group).
Everyone jumped in except Pithy Pam, who had little constructive to offer a fellow writer during the in class workshops. Her comments generally hugged the side of negativity.
I've been in a number of informal writing groups, attended the summer writing program at Harvard and have taken several workshops at Boston's nifty writers institute, Grub Street; and while one bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch, I went through workshop program this summer where one student effectively bullied an entire class. They did it openly, in classroom discourse, in written comments to fellow students, even their contribution to email discussions carried the indelible overtone of arrogance; and later, they publicly slandered the instructor--an instructor I might add, whom many of us felt was one of the best we'd ever had. It was an impressive feat (I've got a pretty thick skin), the likes of which I had never seen before. The writer, who we'll call Pithy Pam for the purpose of this article, distanced herself from the rest of the class right from the onset, waving her MFA from a little known program as if it had sprouted from the cornrows of Iowa.
The class make up was diverse. Not outwardly in labels, but in backgrounds--the what we did, who we did it with and how we did it (beliefs, values and interests). Our differences became a point of interest, which helped cement the quickly blossoming camaraderie. By the second meeting, class members were already bringing in food to share, after class gatherings were in the planning and group discussions via email had already sprung. Everyone jumped in except Pithy Pam, who had little constructive to offer a fellow writer during the in class workshops. Her comments generally hugged the side of negativity. And while it's beneficial to scoop up the all daggers and comb for any point of merit that might improve your work, such nonproductive input could have easily been brushed aside, but because Pithy Pam had that MFA and a job as an editor, we took her criticisms to heart, perhaps too deeply. But none of us knew this about the other. Individually we'd sulk home, comments in hand and wondered if Pithy Pam might know something that we, or our instructor didn't. She lorded a wealth of credibility and we bought into it, questioning not only our ability, but our passion.
A healthy conversation about the value of an MFA ensued. Then Pithy Pam chimed in, and with a scant few words eviscerated the entire writing community in Boston.
That was until she laid a submission on the class that we didn't know was autobiographical material she was spinning into fiction. The yarn was basically about a woman blazing her way into a man's world back in the day when women weren't allowed in a man's world. And respect that set up as most of us did, she undermined the whole premise by wantonly describing the male characters as beefcakes and portraying the female protagonist (her) as a woman more concerned about how her ass looked in a pair of tight jeans than the challenges at hand. Not exactly Norma Rae, and many of us were shocked because Pithy Pam seemed to tow the feminist line, not to mention that she was a single mother, and proud of it. We were honest, fair and direct but needless to say our criticisms didn't go over well. A fellow student later informed us that the story was memoir and thus why Pithy Pam may have reacted with such vehemence and visible disdain as she was held to silence (workshop rules) while we discussed the piece. And when we finished (and she could then speak), she did something a writer in a workshop should never do; she criticized the criticism (unless you're asking for clarity, to rebuke thoughtful criticism is considered not only indignant, but ungrateful).
In our roundtable discussions members conducted themselves impeccably, always looking to bring out the writer's strengths and constructively focus on areas that might improve the work. But on that day something in Pithy Pam turned. Then the kicker came a week later. Via email, one class member circulated an angry rant by an MFA drop out (posted on MobyLives.com) about the uselessness of an MFA (Grub instructor, Steve Almond's response to such mung was priceless). A healthy conversation about the value of an MFA ensued. Then Pithy Pam chimed in, and with a scant few words eviscerated the entire writing community in Boston. In her email she said that she felt sorry for us and proclaimed that Boston had a shoddy corps of writing instructors. Whether she meant MFA instructors in the city, the institute that was sponsoring our workshop, or both, became the issue of debate in subsequent emails that had Pithy Pam's name removed from the forum.
One classmate surmised that Pithy Pam had sexual tension with another classmate; another thought Pithy Pam believed she should be the one teaching the class.
Pithy Pam showed up to two more classes after the beefcake/email friction and then, without notice, just stopped coming (with two sessions left to go.) But during those two classes she sharpened her attacks on fellow students. It was subtle transformation, but she was now an all-out provocateur, a polemic looking for flaws in stories that no one else saw. She had become the rogue opinion that most writing instructors would tell you to toss out. In delivery she was truculent and even more malicious in written comment. And each of us, as we read the venom on the page at night, thought we were the only one.
The workshop concluded on a high note (the atmosphere was more relaxed those last two sessions) and we arranged several post class gatherings to hoist a pint, close out the workshop and share thoughts and writing. It was then that the revelations fell from tree. In one class where I was being work shopped, I called Pithy Pam on a vehement point she made about one of my stories, not because I was indignant, but because no one else had raised such an off-the-wall and ostensibly vindictive point (usually in such a situation a conscientious writer would preface their commentary with: Maybe it's just me, but ..., and those on the commentary lazy-Susan after Pam gave me the strength and encouragement to rebuke by respectfully noting Pam's comment and then politely disagreeing.
But there, as we sipped coffee at a Harvard Square bakery, a classmate told me that they appreciated that moment, as they too had felt unduly plundered by Pithy Pam. More such stories poured forth. Now I know as writers we're supposed to stand up and take criticism in order to get better and improve, and we did that, but Pithy Pam was not contributing as a team player or even an impassioned writer holding firm on a position, she went for the jugular. The assaults were petty and personal. Even writers in the class who I thought Pithy Pam held respect for, had similar stories. One classmate surmised that Pithy Pam had sexual tension with another classmate; another thought Pithy Pam believed she should be the one teaching the class. What ensued was a laugh-filled therapy session that restored self-esteem and confidence. Later, we found out that Pithy Pam had taken her nasty inner vile and bled it into the ears of the institute head. In the end, her captious words fell on deaf ears and Pithy Pam went onto become something of an ongoing joke in circles more wide and vast that she could imagine.
Would I ever take a class again knowing that a Pithy Pam lurked in my immediate future? Absolutely. She galvanized the class, challenged us and indirectly forged future relationships that might not be without her hand.
About the Writer
Tom Meek is a contributing film critic for the Boston Phoenix and a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His ramblings and rants have also appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Film Threat and E! Online. His fiction can be found at found at The Sink, Thieves Jargon and Word Riot. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, practices yoga religiously and rides his bike everywhere. Tom is currently working on a collection of short stories.