Recently, I’ve been thinking about that one Gilmore Girls episode. No, not the one where Rory spontaneously kisses Jess or when Luke and Lorelai finally get together after four seasons of built-up romantic tension or even the one where Rory sets sail for college. These are all noteworthy episodes but none so worth pointing out as that of season five’s climactic moment, when Rory’s boss for the newspaper she’s interning at—who is also conveniently her boyfriend’s father—sits her down and tells her he just doesn’t think she’s got what it takes to be a journalist.
Say what now? Rory Gilmore, the girl who’s been planning her media takeover since she was in Pampers? Not cut out for journalism?
That’s exactly what her boss seems to think. She lacks initiative, and she’ll only ever make a great assistant one day. As viewers find out later, this sends Rory off the proverbial deep end, prompting her to steal a yacht and eventually drop out of Yale for a brief period before miraculously getting it together and graduating on time. If you have a penchant for the quick-witted repartee between this highly caffeinated mother-daughter duo, you’ve likely seen this episode and heard the two schools of thought about it. Some say that Rory is indeed just as coddled and uninspired as her boss presumes to think while others say she’s simply young and still learning how to speak her mind.
I was reminded of this scene when I was recently forced to undergo a large group workshop for my nonfiction class. If you’ve ever taken a class that involves a workshop of any kind, chances are you’re familiar with the nervous sweating, jitters, and all-consuming panic it can sometimes present. Sharing your work, which often contains deeply personal sentiments that are inspired by real-life experiences, can open one up to immense vulnerability. What are they going to say? Will they like what I write? Are they going to rip it apart? Gut it completely?
In this particular workshop, I sat in a large circle reminiscent of some sort of morbid rehabilitation meeting and listened as my peers pinpointed all the things wrong with my work. Alright, I’ll allow that there was time allotted for praise, too. Any good professor knows that focusing solely on what isn’t working can break a creator down and cause them to burn out midway through the semester. Luckily, my professor often champions the idea that we must focus on what is working with a piece in order to find out what isn’t. So, in the end, the workshop wasn’t all that ghastly. In fact, most of what was critiqued were things I’d known needed work anyway. Did I still stress out through the entire thing? Absolutely. I am nothing if not inherently anxious. As Woody Allen once said in his 2006 movie Scoop, “My anxiety acts like aerobics, so I get the exercise.”
Unlike Rory Gilmore, it seems many of us are well acquainted with criticism in the academic field, be it constructive or otherwise (the latter of which is a different post for a different day). I’ve undergone many a workshop, both virtual and in-person, where small groups and large groups alike examine each other’s work and offer up thoughts. When I entered college, the thought of this terrified me. I’d barely shared my writing with anyone. The thought of doing so with strangers felt like the equivalent of doing the Cupid Shuffle naked in a packed stadium.
As it turns out, though, workshops are not so bad. Many of them, including those in my nonfiction class, have been paramount to my development as a writer and likely, they have been for you, too. Sometimes this is because the discussion opens one’s mind to what readers are looking for in any worthwhile piece. Other times, it can help us understand the strengths of a piece and how to hone them. It’s true, too, that you will not always agree with what is being said. Maybe their critiques won’t serve your original intention for the piece but oftentimes, you’ll find that there is something to their comments. This could be any number of missing or ill-placed things—theme, illustration, what have you.
Not all of us have responded to criticism by straight-up dropping out of college, but haven’t we all experienced that feeling of devastation in some small way, this overwhelming paralysis that assures us we’re going to fail? Can’t any one of us remember the first time someone critiqued our work? Didn’t some small part of us, though fleeting, feel crushed? Perhaps someone said something similar to, “You just don’t got what it takes,” or perhaps they only said, “Hey, your theme needs some work, and there are plot holes here.” Whatever the case, we must learn from it. Either we let it consume us or we move on.
I’d like to think we can take our experience in these workshops, both the bad and the good, and distill our work with these life lessons. As creators, we are forever trying to prove that we have the drive to succeed in life. We might not have graduated yet, but at least these experiences have paved the way for a competitive career field, in which everyone has decided that they have something to say and a particularly important way of saying it. And if we do fail? Well, I guess that’s what yachts are for.