"I'm doing the assignments and reading, taking in all the feedback, and doing a lot of revising and new writing based on all of that, but I just don't know if my work is improving. I keep waiting for the 'aha' moment and it's not coming."
There's a short, and I believe, simple answer to this, and I'm not being flip or glib: Stop waiting.
Really, how often do moments of epiphany, instances of "Oh now I get it!" come along in precisely that fashion, at just the time when you anticipated, hoped, planned for? Mostly, sudden moments of realization, striking occurrences of forehead-thumping, Oprah-esque "aha" moments sneak up on us. When we don't expect them.
But that's too simple of an answer to the frustrated writing student who is working diligently, with an open mind, and willing spirit.
I have been in this student's shoes. Many times. I can recall writing workshop experiences, where I had willingly signed up for the tough love of a stellar mentor, and been working hard, trying this, experimenting with that on the page…and waiting for the clouds to part and a balloon caption to appear over my head: "Oh now I get it. Look how much better my writing is now. Wow."
This never happened. Only later was I able to trace back a dramatic shift in my work to a precise discussion in a workshop. Over the years, I have found that the "wow" moments don't typically occur in the middle of a workshop series, class, seminar, or any other organized writing improvement situation. And now that I'm on the other side of the table (at least sometimes), I understand why.
When writers are trying their best to absorb, to push, to step out of the comfort zone, to experiment on the page, to read and expand their knowledge base about craft and story and technique, to grow as writers – that's not really the ideal time to step back, stroke one's chin, examine their newest pages, and wonder: Have I really gotten significantly better in the last few weeks?
Because there's too much going on, then. The brain is in overdrive trying to assimilate all the new information, input, and ideas. We're evaluating suggestions and advice, trying out new approaches. We look here at the craft readings and ponder their importance to our work. Then we look over there at the instructor's and/or peer feedback and wonder if we agree with it or not, and how much. We study published works to observe the masters at work on the page and consider, How did she do that? What can I learn from it?
We are in motion on many fronts – which is all good – but it's a lot to take in, and there often isn't enough mental energy, or time, to understand how it's all going to shake out, eventually. It's tiring for the mind. Then there's the compressed deadline nature of most classes/workshops which demand that writers start, revise, and finish a piece of work in less time than is ideal.
In my experience – and I'm talking here in broad terms that include not only writing but also motherhood, marriage, career, relationships – the aha moments come in two general forms. Either they hit me all at once at an unexpected and always later time: in the shower hours after the marathon writing session, while awaking the morning after an argument, during the long drive home from the much-anticipated event…or a few weeks or months after a writing workshop/conference/class ends.
Or else they creep along, small and quiet at first, and then build speed and grow in size and shape until one day I realize (with very little fanfare) that some new writing craft understanding, a technique, angle, method, mindset, approach, skill or proficiency has worked its way onto my pages. And that's when it occurs to me: Oh, look at that. Now I see. Aha.
This has been borne out by a number of writing students and editing/coaching clients who contact me weeks or months after we've finished our time together to let me know that what we were working on during a class or editing project has all fallen into place. I had a breakthrough, they say. "Suddenly" it all makes sense.
So my advice for the writer I quoted at the top of this post, the one who said this about two weeks into a four-week class is this: Corner-turning, breakthroughs, aha moments have their own agenda, and it's not yours. Relax. Stop waiting. Your job now is to take it all in, to read, to study, to try, to experiment, to think.
Call me in six to eight weeks.
You can read the first 12 installments of the Stuff My Writing Students Say series here.