Monday, December 14, 2015

Every Day is Workshop

This past semester I participated in my last writing workshop of the program, and it's possibly the last formal writing workshop I'll ever take, depending on whether I get a PhD someday. This makes me sad, because I love workshop. Some people hate hearing their work critiqued, but I think it's great--other people are able to see flaws that I can't. And even critiquing and hearing critiques of another person's work helps my own writing in many ways. But the positive effects on my work are not the only reason I enjoy workshop so much. In fact, one major reason I enjoy workshop is that I have permission to speak my mind, to be completely honest--about what I like and dislike, about what I'd do differently.

This is not a permission I feel that I have in most of my life.

I don't know whether it's because I was raised with lots of Catholic guilt, or whether it's because I was raised in America's official emotion-suppressing region (read this article on "Midwestern Nice" if you haven't yet--it skillfully sums up how we're taught to think in the heart of the nation), or whether it's because I let my anxious thoughts run away with me--probably a combination of all three. Regardless, it seems that somewhere along the way, I largely lost the ability to say my actual opinions aloud, unless I'm with my very closest friends.

You know how when you pass acquaintances out on the street or in the office or wherever, and they ask, "How are you?" and you say, "Fine," even if you're not fine, because you know they're simply being polite and they don't actually want to hear an entire assessment of your life? That's how I treat most interactions. Even if I completely disagree with what someone is saying, I usually don't bring it up, or if I do it comes out as nothing more than a mild "I don't know...", because to say or do otherwise would be impolite. My brain has decided that it's impolite to consider my own opinions equally valid as other people's opinions.

This bothers me on many levels. For one thing, over the years I've developed a reputation of being very "nice." People often tell me how nice I am, which is wonderful--except that now I have to wonder, do they think I'm nice because I'm actually nice, or do they think I'm nice because I'm dishonest? I don't say what I think, and therefore I give them whatever they want. By staying quiet, I boost their egos. And that's especially problematic because sometimes, to be truly kind to someone, you have to be brutally honest and tell them exactly what they don't want to hear. I know for a fact that I'm not good at letting people down in this way--even though I realize that it wouldn't really be letting them down at all. My closest friends have not infrequently told me that I'm too nice, and they're probably right. It's good that I want to help other people, but as they say, you can't pour from an empty cup.

The idea of dishonesty bothers me on its own. I don't like the idea that I'm going out into the world and lying to people, even if that lying temporarily helps them out. I don't believe that everyone needs to state everything that's on their mind by any means, but it's different when you hardly ever state what's on your mind. The idea of staying silent is horrible, too. Why do I feel like I need to stay silent? Why are my own words and ideas worth less to me than the words and ideas of others? Why do I feel like I'm not worth being listened to? What's more, being this way is exhausting. I often replay earlier interactions in my head, worrying about what I should have said instead of what I actually said.

The only other place I feel like I can drop this act is in my writing. This blog is, for the most part, as honest as it gets (especially in these more introspective posts). And even on something like Facebook, if someone posts an article I strongly agree or disagree with, I don't mind stating my opinions in the comments. I'm concerned that the semi-autobiographical novel I'm working on gets a little too real at points. But there's something about stating these same opinions directly at other people's faces that I typically can't bring myself to do.

Due to all this, I've been thinking lately that I ought to treat regular life more like writing workshop. Which isn't to say that I'm going to constantly critique the things that other people do--while that may be the point of a workshop, that's not the point of real life. I only mean that I ought to be more honest with other people, that I should try to say what I'm actually thinking more often and trust that people will listen to me the same way I listen to them. Because the fact is, I don't trust that people will value what I say, and that's as unfair to them as it is to me. I should make it a mantra: "every day is workshop." See where that takes me. 

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