The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: Stalking the Workshop Egotist

06/20/2014 01:27 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2014

Honestly, I don't know what it is about writing groups or workshops that brings out the egotism in some people, but after participating in and teaching them for 30 years I can say with certainty that wherever two or more gather to respond to one another's writing, the Workshop Egotist is likely to appear. Getting feedback from a writing group is still important to your writing; it's often a microcosm of your reading audience. But it needs to be the right kind of writing group, one that isn't dominated by these kinds of people, for writing groups dominated by Workshop Egotists can quickly become toxic. So I'm going to let you in on how to recognize them and thus minimize their effects. Behold: The Field Guide to the Workshop Egotist.

1. In their many years of workshop experience (translation: one to three) Workshop Egotists have pledged their troths to the myth of the antagonistic, Bobby Knight-style of workshop experience, where no criticism is "sugar-coated" and everyone "tells it like it is." It has never occurred to them that people like Bobby Knight might have had personality disorders that rendered them constitutionally unable or unwilling to translate hostile thoughts and words into constructive critique (something that eventually got Knight, and others like him, fired). Often, they will also show a barely-concealed disdain for any workshop leader who is not similarly "tough enough" on their peers' work.

2. Likewise, Workshop Egotists believe that there are times when their teacher/leader should just tell a peer to give up on writing, that they are not one of the anointed and never will be. Workshop Egotists' confidence in this belief is usually directly related to extent to which they exude the certainty that such advice would never be given to them.

3. When it is time for their work to go before the group, Workshop Egotists like to clear their throats and make pronouncements like, "Don't hold back, now. I'm tough. I can take it." Really. These are direct quotes and one of the easiest ways to recognize the Workshop Egotist in his or her natural habitat.

4. Workshop Egotists don't actually mean this. "I can take it," is instead code for one of the following: "I don't really believe anyone will find fault with my work." "I am confident in my ability to rationalize away any considered suggestions the class or the leader has made," or, my favorite, "I was just messing around with this piece anyway. It's not like, serious work or anything I care about."

5. Workshop Egotists like to co-teach with the workshop leader whenever possible. Especially if the egotist is a male and the workshop leader is a female (although the mark of a true Workshop Egotist is their desire to co-teach no matter the gender permutation). After all, they have so much wisdom to impart. Why hide their proverbial light under a bushel?

So why am I sharing this field guide with you? Well, because I wish someone had shared something like it with me thirty years ago. It probably would have spared me a lot of uncertainty and hand-wringing as I tried to determine whose feedback to pay attention to and whose to ignore in my development as a writer, to figure out who genuinely cared about my work and who was just posturing and angling to turn the workshop into yet another contest. Who knows, it might even spare the young workshop leader who hasn't had the benefit of time to watch these all too human patterns emerge again and again.

It might even spare you if you recognize yourself in these descriptions (although who are we kidding, most Workshop Egotists don't read stuff like this) and do some hard thinking about what it means to really persist as a writer, to listen to and learn from your peers and your mentors, to develop over time rather than to win a fifty minute contest or a few fleeting words of praise. Because in addition to the behavior this field guide describes, most of the Workshop Egotists I've known over the years have had one other trait in common.

They're not writing any more.