Catherine’s Epiphany: Technique Versus Vision

So, I’m still ruminating about lessons learned at the recent workshop. I sat down and did a little writing (very little) Monday, yesterday was all about errands off line, and today seems to be full of Mindbridge things and exercise.

I have finally gotten photos from the trip on my computer, and will be sifting through those things soon. Later today we take the cats to the vet. Sekhmet has a growth around her clavicle, so we are a bit concerned about that. I’m hoping we just have an older kitty feature that’s harmless, which is what the Internet is leading us to believe.

Anyway. So, workshop. Maybe this is Catherine’s Epiphany.

Taos Toolbox is a workshop where you can go if you need to get some help with technique. And beginning writers do need help. Plotting, planning, ending scenes on strong notes, developing character, getting unstuck, being too ambiguous. All these things will happen to writers, and yes, will continue to happen. And now, we have more tools to deal with these things (get it? Tools? Again?) This is the pragmatic pay off of the workshop.

No workshop can teach vision. No workshop can teach you to tell the stories you have, uniquely, that are your own. Further, you have to be wary at a workshop, because if you aren’t, you’ll start seeking approval for your work, or fall into competition with other writers. Or even worse than that, you will give a critique where you focus on the story YOU would tell with those prompts, rather than helping the writer get what they need to tell the story that they want to tell more clearly. Writing is about realizing individual visions. Critiquing is about helping writers get there.

Oh my…I have been in a room full of people for two weeks. And I have been trying to convince them that my writing is worthwhile because of its vision. What have I been doing?

I’ve been acting like a student. I haven’t been acting like an artist. And…while I was primarily at Taos to learn, I was also at Taos to be an equal among peers. When I critiqued, I tried to offer up things to move the author toward the story he or she wanted to tell (deepen the cockroach horror since you’re using it; if a relationship is going to happen between the furry and the human, how do you want to do that?) Once at a writing workshop in Las Vegas some friends were trying to rewrite someone’s story. There were three possible endings on the table. And I said, “How can we help Danielle tell the story she wants to tell?” And we were back on track.

If you ask me to give you feedback on a story, my job is to talk to you about your technique, but it is not to suggest you move in a different direction. I am not going to ask you to compromise your vision. You know what you want to do.

Worse, why would I pass judgment on your vision? I can say, “Your piece isn’t very good.” Unpacked, that should mean that you are vague, or your characters are underdeveloped. There should be things I can do to help you with technique. But I shouldn’t be thinking that your piece isn’t very good because I don’t like it. Because it’s not my thing. Because it’s not my sub-genre. That’s besides the point. I should be focusing on your technique, not telling you to like what I like.

And (finally she gets to her point), I really shouldn’t care if you like my story or not. Don’t get me wrong. Readers and the good opinion of readers are important. That’s kind of a different post, however. In the realm of writing my story and critiquing my story, we’re talking about using technique to realize vision. You don’t have to like what I’m doing. It’s okay.

This week, high up in the mountain air, I spent a lot of time looking for approval. And I got some, and that was good. The first week I did great. I came out of my critique session solid. Well, I’d been working on that story for years, and I knew what I wanted. And the comments were mostly about technique. There were a few about vision, but my vision is so certain there, I wasn’t affected.

The second week was different. I started off by asking people what they wanted to see. If that’s not trying to please your audience, I don’t know what is. I put out a new, fragile, unformed piece. There were loads of great comments on technique, as there should have been for a story at that point. But I felt embarrassed in a room of good writers, someone with a weak story. Yet, the vision held. All of the problems with the story were technique. Of course they were! It was a freakin’ first draft!

I allowed my embarrassment to shake me up. Two-thirds of the second week stories were SF stories. I let this shake me up too. Why? Since when had I gotten on the conformist train? I can only blame oxygen, or lack thereof, as well as sleep dep for the insecurity express that I rode onto the end.

But now…talking to some other workshoppers, I think this message about technique versus vision has been evident all the way through. Nancy Kress kept saying, “You’re never going to get everyone.” Yup. That’s a vision thing.

So let me tell you how things are gonna be for me from here on out. I’m going to work my ass off regarding technique. And…so what if my vision is different? Different can be the next thing. If I find myself doubting my technique, I should. I can fix that. If I find myself doubting my vision, that’s the end of the story. That’s the death knoll for my writing, right there.

People don’t have to like my vision for a story. But I can’t let their tastes dictate the kind of writing I do. Nor can I seek their approval. That’s not what writing’s for, is it? I aim to tell as true a story as I can, using all the tricks I know, sticking with the visions I have that I want to share. You don’t have to pick up my book and read it. But if you are helping me with my art, you should help me get there to that book, whether you plan to read it or not


Okay. So I’m done being a pleaser. I’m done treating this like I need your approval. I don’t. Let the games commence.


Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

6 thoughts on “Catherine’s Epiphany: Technique Versus Vision”

  1. I think this is a really great distinction to make. Vision is really hard to own sometimes because it can get so muddled up in in technique. Especially when you are first starting and still figuring things out. And when you have vision, the technique part is really easy to learn. What’s worse is to work so hard on the technique and realize you have no vision. It happens, but I already know it won’t happen to you 😉

  2. Great post, Cath. I hope I didn’t try to rewrite any stories in critique, but I suspect I did — had I read this post, I wouldn’t have. 🙂

    Don’t be too hard on your first draft. I think you’ll shine it up nicely!

  3. Love this post, Cath. You’re coming at the issue as a student, a writer, and as a teacher and you’ve made a lot of great points. You’ve got vision. In spades.

    Thanks for writing it.

  4. This is a killer. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a particular milestone we could pass as artists? Some kind of graduation ceremony? There is a part of me that deeply yearns for a rigid hierarchal structure in which to exist, some means of accurately and precisely judging the value of ones work. And I’ll tell you what, I’ve made a fool of myself on more than one occasion on this account.

    I will be honest — I have very recently realized that when I behave in a way that I later regret, self-doubt is usually behind it. This is a hard one to parse.

    Someday, life will be smooth like a rhapsody
    when I paaaaaaaaaaaaaaint my masterpiece…

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