Writing workshops can be a study in perspective. Over the last ten years I've participated in community writers' groups, academic creative writing classes, and online critique groups. I've read my novels aloud, one chapter at a time, to perfect strangers. I've shared poems and short stories with classmates. I've entrusted my word docs to my online crit partners, just as they've trusted me with theirs. Each experience has been worthwhile and enlightening. Not to mention occassionally annoying.
One of my most vivid memories from my first writers group is the night I was told with my level of skill I should be writing something more worthwhile than romance novels. The gentleman who told me this said it with such a tone of condemnation. I don't remember saying anything--I was rather young then and hadn't quite developed my current attitude. I think I may have laughed, rather unconfortably. After all, it was a backhanded compliment. He wasn't telling me I sucked. Just that I was wasting what talent I had been given.
I ended up quiting that writing group within a few months. I don't really remember why. I hope it wasn't because of him. I don't think it was. More than likely, life just got too crazy. Not to mention how hard it was be in my early twenties and faced with giving up every other Friday night.
After a few years I found an online group, The Mighty Quill, who welcomed me in. We swapped stories, gave each other suggestions, and talked craft. I learned so much there. We had weekly challenges, tried writing a collab together (what we got done turned out pretty cool, if I so say myself), and encouraged each other to write when the words weren't cooperating.
Eventually the membership of the Mighty Quill changed and I ended up moving on. It was at this time that I found Forward Motion. This site is significantly larger than my first online writing community. There were so many forums and so many people at varying levels of experience and abilities. I soon found myself participating in the discussions both on the boards and in the chatroom. Eventually I ended up moderating and leading a crit group.
One of the best things about this community was finding a large group of writers who enjoyed reading the genres I like to write in. I found romance writers, fantasy writers, science fiction writers, and a few who even enjoyed blurring the lines between the genres to create new and interesting blends. I found myself talking to the same people again and again, not because we always agreed but because we could discuss our difference in opinions without personal attacks.
My academic courses have proven to be much the same. There are difference of opinions but there's also respect. There's good advice and bad. There's been insight and, in my opinion, reading too much into things. All of which makes for interesting class sessions.
While each experience has been different and taught me something about myself, my writing, and the world of publishing, each experience has also taught me about perspective both as a reader and a writer. I've discovered I am a very opinionated person when it it comes to books. It doesn't matter if the book in question is full of poetry, a selection of short stories, or if it's a novel. As a reader I know what I like. I've also discovered I'm not willing to set aside my preferences just because they go against popular opinion.
As a writer I am a bit more flexible. At least, I like to think so. I can take a crit. I can take good and bad ones. I've learned to weigh the reader's assessment, questions, and comments against what I thought I had written. There have been many instances where I've agreed with the person critiquing the piece. There have been some instances when I have not. The question then becomes what should I do?
I trust my instincts. While I may respect the reader's opinion, I don't have to agree with it. I don't have to act on their advice. After all, its all a matter of perspective. We all see things differently. React differently. We all have different hang-ups and pet-peeves. What bothers one person won't even register on the consciousness of another.
This can be proved simply by picking up a number of books off the shelf at your local Barnes and Noble or Border's. Ask several people who've read the book and I promise you'll get a variety of opinions. A variety of complaints (aka suggestions). The key here is in the variety. Perhaps there will be some overlap but, in general, the opinions will vary.
The same happens in writing workshops. With such a variety of likes and dislikes, the responses a piece of writing may generate can be wildly different. So who then do you trust? When do you stop trusting yourself?