As our fall workshops are just about to launch, I’ve been remembering some of my first experiences in situating myself among other writers.

When I was in high school, my English teacher, who really served as my first writing mentor, took me on a field trip with some other students to a writing festival at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a small satellite of the larger UW system near where I grew up. The campus that day was full of energy and students of all ages. As attendees of the festival, we attended a large assembly about the importance of writing and then each registrant was placed in a critique workshop–my first of this kind but certainly not the last–with an established resident or visiting writer.

Our poems had all been thoughtfully read, and other members of our critique groups were also invited to provide criticism. My poem that first year was typical of what you’d expect from a 14-year-old boy: an extended meditation on relationships and sports, wherein the rules of baseball stood in for the conceit of sexual tension.

While my instructor delicately handled both my adolescent hubris and borderline offensive content with grace and aplomb, it wasn’t long before a girl in the audience spoke up to ridicule me and my work. “This is disgusting!” she shouted, a small group of her friends egging her on. “How can you write about sex this way?”

The three girls attending the event from my school were sitting in the workshop with me. They were the kind of kids you didn’t mess with–the kinds of girls who knew what various car enginge parts were and what they did, who snuck out to smoke at lunch, whose faces had that teenage scowl–but they liked me. And when the drama started, they fired right back. “Leave him alone!”

The objectioning girl stood up, and then we saw that she was several months pregnant. Her argument made a little more sense then. But things didn’t die down and the lobbed jabs from either side grew in intensity and irritation until finally, our workshop leader shut the discussion down and moved on to another piece. But even as we left the room, the girl and her friends shot me looks of death.

I suppose an early introduction to criticism like this steeled me for the years of workshops to come…. And rest assured, they’re very rarely this eventful!

Hope to see you at the Center next week.