Friday, May 2, 2014

What Are Writing Workshops Really Like? (Part 1)

I think it was Stephen King who said that a bad writing workshop does more harm than good.

That’s totally true. I’ve been in writing workshops at several different schools, at a nonprofit adult-education organization, and online. I’ve been in good workshops and bad workshops. This blog post is just about my experience. Yours might be different. I’ll talk about online workshops next week. This week’s post is about in-person workshops.

The Format

At an in-person workshop, the members’ written pieces are distributed a few days or weeks before the workshop. Before the workshop, every person writes a critique of the piece being workshopped that day and puts notes in the piece’s margins. Most workshops have rules about the length of the critique: I’ve written critiques that were anywhere from a paragraph long to several pages long.

On the day of the workshop, bring your critique and your copy of the piece with the margin notes. Usually, everybody sits in a circle or at a long table so that you can all see each other. The author is then asked to read part of the piece out loud. After that, the author isn’t allowed to speak anymore. The author sits silently and takes notes during the workshop. The author isn’t allowed to explain or defend their work. The workshop itself is just a conversation about the author’s work. What’s good about it? What isn’t working? What’s confusing? There is often disagreement in workshops, so the author has to decide which comments to listen to and which to ignore. Usually, if more than one person brings up the same issue, then the author should listen to them.

At the end of the workshop, the author is sometimes given a few minutes to ask for clarification about anything that was brought up during the workshop. All of the workshop members give their critiques and notes to the author. And that’s the end.

The Critique

A lot of workshops have strict rules about how critiques need to be written. Be nice. Always explain why you like or don’t like something about a piece. Some workshops allow you to point out problems in a piece but not make suggestions about how to fix the problem. Critiques are written in “compliment sandwich” form. Start and end the critique by praising something in the piece. Keep the criticism in the middle and try to layer praise and criticism.

Your Writing

What type of piece should you submit to the workshop? Something that fits the guidelines of the workshop (most of them have page limits and genre requirements). Pick something that you’re open to having criticized. If you pick a piece that you’re really attached to, you might get your feelings hurt. The piece is going to be criticized. It’s probably going to be criticized a lot. It’s usually helpful to pick something that has problems that you don’t know how to fix. The workshop can help you sort out the problems.

The Nerves

Will you be nervous on the day that your piece is workshopped? Yes. Is there anything that you can do to be less nervous? Probably not.

The Good Workshop

Good workshops are amazing. They’re probably one of the most helpful things that you can do for your writing. If you’re stuck on a piece, a good workshop will get you unstuck. You’ll leave a good workshop feeling great in an “I can totally handle this” type of way.

In a good workshop, everybody is respectful. They understand that the pieces are works-in-progress and not finished pieces. A lot depends on the workshop leader. The leader should keep everything under control and know when to change the subject so that everybody doesn’t start harping on the same point. It can get annoying for the author when everybody keeps pointing out the same problem over and over.

The Mental Hunger Games

Bad workshops are very, very bad. I’ve seen people cry during workshop. I’ve seen people storm out of the room during workshop. I’ve seen heated arguments. I’ve seen a workshop leader scream at the workshop participants. I’ve heard stories of walls being punched, objects being thrown, desks being tipped over.

I quit writing for almost a year after a bad workshop. I was discouraged and no longer interested in anything that had to do with writing. The workshop was so stressful that I felt physically sick on workshop days. I couldn’t get out of the workshop because I needed the college credits.

The biggest problem with this particular workshop was the competitiveness. I’m not competitive at all. Being “the best” is nice, but I’m at a writing workshop to learn and get help. Writing workshops can breed competitiveness because you get to see everybody’s work. Sometimes you can’t help comparing it to your own. At this workshop, some people were tearing down other people to make themselves feel better. Someone called a story “Stupid shit” in front of the author and everyone else. Someone tried to spread a rumor that one of the women in the workshop was a prostitute. There was a lot of trash-talking in the hallway before and after workshop. There was a lot of crying. People were terrified to submit work to the workshop because it was all criticism and very little praise. Some workshop members would praise your story to your face before workshop and then say horrible things about it during workshop. It was all very childish and exhausting. The workshop leader yelled at us but didn’t do much to stop it.

The strangest thing that happened to me during that workshop? I was on Yahoo! in the middle of the night, and an IM popped up. It was from one of my male classmates. It said, “You’re a horrible writer, but at least you have a damn fine ass.”

So, that’s writing workshops for you.

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