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Don’t Speak

Image credit: Miki Yoshihito

I don’t talk.

At least not in class. I am the person in the back corner of the classroom diligently taking notes who always knows what’s going on but doesn’t say a word. And I’m more than comfortable in that role. I like that role, especially since coming back to school. From that first day about two years ago on I got it in my head that I was behind the rest of my classmates somehow in education and ability. Listening to the discussions around me was my way of catching up to them. Plus, I’ve always been a better writer than speaker. I knew I could show my knowledge through the papers and essays assigned. I was more than fine trading in class participation grade for not embarrassing myself in front of everyone.

Back in January, before the start of my final semester of undergrad, I made it a goal of mine to speak more, to participate more, to not just be the girl in the back of the room not talking. The reasoning behind this had everything to do with the future. If I was good lucky enough to get into a MFA program somewhere, I knew actual talking about the work would be required. I could take this semester as a way of getting myself comfortable with it.

Two months into the semester and I’d call my progress a mix bag. I’m not sitting in the back corner anymore—mostly in the middle, one directly in front. In two of the classes I participate more than my classes from a year or two years or even a semester ago. But in the classes that I wanted to participate the most, my creative writing capstones, I have become quieter than ever. And, despite falling back into old habits, this didn’t bother me too much. I still feel like I have much to learn, especially in one of the capstones, and, for me, listening and taking notes is how I learn best.

But this past week something happened that has made me rethink that quiet acceptance. In workshop a person put up a story with characters that felt like overly done stereotypes to me. I had spent a few days thinking about what I wanted to say, how I was going to say it, and when I was going to say it. The workshop for the story came and went and I didn’t say a word. As time ticked on I kept wanting to open my mouth and say something, but nothing actually came out of my mouth. And when the author directly asked about the characters I still couldn’t say my piece.

I wonder when this normal reluctance to speak up will leave me. Maybe this is just who I am at this point in my life and there’s no changing it, but that’s a bit too negative for me. I want to speak up and be critical and not just be the writer that gushes over what I liked or what worked in the, well, work. This reminds me too much of my teenage years, when I would sit alone on the back pew at church, writing little stories on the one empty page of the church programs about the people who was at service that Sunday, and my mother would come up and say that one day I’ll come out of my shell. I always wanted to tell her that this was me and not a shell I needed to fight and crawl out of like a crab.

Besides, at 30 this is not a shell. This is who I am. But what do you do when you want to change your default state for the things and places it means the most to you to change? I don’t have the answers but I have two full months to try to sort it all out.


  1. Workshopping is about helping others, and it’s a nice bonus that you help yourself, too, by being able to articulate what works and does not work in a story. Embrace this important part of your MFA experience — it’s expected, and you’ll benefit because 1) others will then feel comfortable discussing YOUR work when you’re up/in the booth and 2) there’s no guarantee that this will get you out of your shell permanently, but you will feel part of the writing community in the room if you give it a go.

    You might feel less self-conscious if you make your workshop comments about craft — sticking to the basics is always a welcome route, and providing feedback to others is your opportunity to put into practice and “own” all those great lecture notes you’ve accumulated. :o)

    If the workshop story’s characters were stereotypes, well, what made you think that? Surely the author knew something wasn’t working because he/she asked directly about the characters. The author needed your help! Did the characters seem flat because there wasn’t enough backstory or motivation? Were the descriptions or details lacking fixity? Did the settings make sense? Was the POV close enough to the key characters? Did the character fail to change over time?

    Any of those is a valid observation and completely objective/non-confrontational. Always remember to start off by complimenting a writer on something that you really liked to keep things supportive and friendly. Good luck! Have fun helping others.

    • Hi. Sorry this took a bit to respond but I’ve actually been doing this, trying to stick to craft. Can’t really go wrong there. I still feel more comfortable with my written notes on the story, but I’ve spoken up a little bit more since writing this post and I feel like that’s progress.

      Thanks for leaving a comment!

  2. There is a book called Quiet that talks about being introverted and that it is okay. It is who we are and there are millions of us. There is nothing wrong with being reflective, with being who you are. It is who we are, I guarantee you that you are not the only one thinking this in a workshop setting. In terms of when to speak: here is the thing; you will know when it is time. Many of us introverts have to be extroverted at times, for our job, family issues, etc. The degree of extroversion needed those times depends our own situations. If your gut is telling you need to speak up, don’t ignore it. What is the worse that can happen? Someone may not like your thoughts? Rejection? We’re writers; I have a drawer full of rejections. Rejection does not bother us. In terms of someone not liking your thought, you seem thoughtful and forthright. I would just open up and speak the next time your gut tells you to and do not worry about which you cannot control. just go for it. With workshops we are putting ourselves out there, vulnerability is high…I think you know how to say something to someone…just go with it…

    • Rich, I have Quiet waiting for me to read. And you’re right, I need to go with my gut and listen when it tells me to speak out. I’ve been trying to do that more since writing this post.

      Thanks for commenting! It means a lot.

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