I got my degree in writing from Cornell back in 1988. While I was there, I had the chance to work with some fantastic teachers and some great student writers. The official curriculum emphasized rigorous review and critique by both teachers and fellow students. The most important goal was not really the creation of great writing per se, but the creation of an environment where the tools of great writing could be learned. That's a subtle difference, I suppose, but an important one. To paraphrase, I'd say that the creation and improvement of any particular piece of writing always came second to the process of improvement. If a piece could be changed for the better... that was great. But the real goal was to practice writing and to get better at getting better at it. To hone the abilities necessary for a lifelong commitment to the craft.
The gang I did this with the most consisted of about 8-20 poets (depending on the year, season, event and availability of alcohol) who would gather for readings and discussion. While, as always, there were some outliers, for the most part everyone stuck to the philosophy of the program. There was very little ego drama; that is, nobody got their feelings hurt if their work was strongly criticized. In fact, you tended to be more upset if you didn't get good, deep, detalied criticism.
One of my professors once asked a class of us, all juniors in our third year of the major, "Who here accepts criticism well?" We were pretty sure we were supposed to, so we all raised our hands.
"Bullshit," he replied. "I guarantee you do not. Not yet. Most people, when they say, 'I accept criticism well,' mean that they actually resent it, but manage to do so quietly. In reality, they judge the critic to be an ass, and take nothing from the experience but a vague disappointment that the world isn't as fond of them as they are of themselves."
He continued: "To be a good writer, you must learn to not only accept criticism, but seek it out and cherish it for what it is -- another person's investment in your future."
At first, this is a very hard road. It is similar to that of The Beginner's Mind. We all have egos, after all. And for those of us who write, our words often seem like an extension of ourselves; a part of our brains or souls that we've worked hard to let slip onto the page. Letting (or encouraging) someone else to comment on those creations can feel like allowing an enemy to slip into our hearts. If the process is not undertaken in mutual and heartfelt respect, it can often lead to real injury and emotional damage.
If, however, you band with a pack of writers who support each other through years of ongoing, ever more insightful criticism... you can reach a place of sheer joy. That's what happened with me. The group of young poets I hung out with provided a smart, funny, helpful, often raucus audience and review board for my work, and for the work of the work. As time passed and we became ever more comfortable with each other, I passed into a place where, truly, any individual piece of writing was almost entirely unimportant.What mattered was the process; the sharing, the review, the honing of ability.
It was great. And it ended. In the "real world," it is incredibly hard to find a group of people who are willing to meet regularly and beat the crap out of each other's work in a respectful and loving way. It takes a shared commitment and an appropriate environment. Those don't appear in our everyday lives; we have to seek them out. And in 1988, going to work for the first time, there just wasn't a time or place to continue the work.
But how I missed it.
Fast forward about 12 years. Along came the Internet. Lots of sites popped up with some kind of focus on writing. I tried quite a few of them. Some were great, some not so much. All the ones I found, however, focused on posting and commenting on writers' individual works. Which is fine; there is clearly a place for that. It was not, though, the emphasis I was looking for. And it was not something that many other poets whom I encountered had ever had a chance to experience.
One great thing about the writing program and environment that I was in, was that once you really commited to it... it provided a set of tools and an attitude (maybe "stance" is a better word) that you could take away and replicate elsewhere. Like learning how to rid a bike, though, your first time should be with training wheels (an appropriate environment) and someone to hold you steady (others who share the commitment). I felt the lack of this kind of forum very keenly; not simply for myself, but for many of the poets I encountered who had great potential, but lacked a place to develop the skills necessary to really move their work forward.
For the past few years I've been thinking about how to replicate my experience online. The Web provides wonderful tools for connecting and building community, and this seemed like a good idea for such a spot. I've been monkeying around with various content management systems, wikis and portal services for awhile. To be brutally honest, screwing around with the technical end of things let me put off the scary part; going live with a site and making a commitment to it.
Well, I'm out of excuses now, and I'm willing to throw this thing out online and see if anybody else wants to play. If I only get a handful of people who are really interested in working together to improve their writing, I will consider it a success. If not? Well, the domain name cost me $9.
The site is Mopodojo. Which might stand for "More Poetry Dojo" or something. I just liked the sound of it. The basic idea is simple. Teachers post poetry classes (exercises, basically... poetry activities), and writers respond, doing the work and commenting on each other's writing during the course of the course. The goal is not to create or post specific poetry, but to improve our writing through shared activities and criticism.
That's basically it. I'm going to teach the first class, as soon as I can find at least five takers, and I'll keep teaching classes as long as at least that many people are interested in my doing so. If other people want to be teachers, that's great. I'd love to be a student in my dojo, as well.
I've also created a ranking system for the site that may be fun or may suck. I came up with it partly because of my love of games, and belief that people enjoy making visible progress towards a goal... and partly out of my overweening need to add complexity to elegantly simple systems. Also it was something else I could do to put off actually launching the dang thing.
So. It is live and I've announced it. If you know anybody who'd like to work on their poetry, send 'em on over.