On Writing Workshops: What’s the Process? What’s the Point?

I’m a very solitary writer, and don’t generally give my work to anyone to read until I’ve sat with something for a very long time. In part, this is just the craft (we all write alone), but in part, it speaks to a fear (that I suspect we all have) of not living up, of not being as good as I hope I am, and of being rejected.

Nonetheless, some years ago, I decided to be brave and to begin to foster writerly communion in my life. This resolution led me to the world writers’ workshops.

It turned out to be a really interesting journey.

If you’ve never been to a writers’ workshop, you can read a good description of what they’re like at Suite101.com. But here’s what happens, in a nutshell.

1) Participants distribute work to be read by their peers prior to the workshop.

2) The workshop leader sets the ground rules. I went to one recently where only the critic was allowed to speak, while the writer whose work was being critiqued listened silently and took notes. Only requests for clarification were allowed on the writer’s part, and each critic had to wait his or her turn to speak.

3) The workshop leaders usually speaks last, and reflects on whether or not a consensus has been reached among readers, and perhaps offers insight into issues raised.

4) The writer may or may not respond to the critiques, though sometimes it’s best simply to thank your peers, take notes, and give yourself some time to reflect on what’s been said.

Over the past decade, I’ve taken part in workshops offered through writers’ associations, fellowship programs, observed them in an MFA context, and participated in writers’ retreats complete with meditation and dream interpretation.

I’ve observed that the success of a workshop depends both on the talents of its leader and on the quality (in terms of reading skills, ability to analyze narrative structure, and receptiveness to critique) of the participants.

The good news on workshops is that, for a writer, they can be a great way to figure out what’s not working in a text and to get ideas for possible solutions to problems (though often, it’s best to figure out how to fix things on your own).

The bad news about workshops is that they can be stressful for both writers and readers: readers feel pressure to say something intelligent and helpful, and sometimes are left feeling dumb; writers often become defensive and hurt by criticisms or their readers’ confusion. Getting over both these problems takes time, maturity, and humility.

In workshops you sometimes get contradictory advice. Sometimes you get bad advice. Sometimes your readers are mean. Sometimes the leader loses control, and participants are allowed to ramble, taking up valuable time, and boring everyone.

Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes there’s anger. These are the risks of workshopping, and sometimes you just have to ignore all that and listen to your instincts as a writer.

So, what is the point of this complex and emotionally charged exercise?

Workshops teach you, as a reader, to think about the mechanics of writing. Rather then responding to a text simply on an emotional level, the task of critiquing a work-in-progress forces you to analyze how narratives are put together and how storytelling works. In this way, reading the work of others can make you a better writer.

One of the workshop leaders I observed recently put it succinctly: workshops give writers what so many of us lack — readers. Specifically, readers who are not your friends, not your family, not your fans, but others who have though seriously about the craft, struggle with it as you do, and who (if they are good workshop citizens) should be able to offer you a fresh perspective. This is the reward of workshopping.

What are your views on and experiences with  writers’ workshops?

[Photo: Merlin1487]

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