To Workshop or Not to Workshop

To Workshop or Not to Workshop

October 11, 2015

I find myself reflecting on writing workshops from time to time. Often this means stepping back from my job of teaching creative writing to (mostly) undergraduate students. Other times I have to pause to consider what to say when one such student asks my advice on attending an MFA program.

Additionally, I sometimes teach one-time workshops at festivals and conferences to adults who have writing aspirations.In each of these contexts, I find it healthy to say to myself, “Self, what’s really the point of all of this?” It is a strange endeavor, the writing workshop. A writer gathers with a group of relative strangers, pulls out some messy art she’s been fiddling with behind closed doors for hours upon end, and then sits back and listens for 30 minutes while these people seem to cast judgments. So here are some questions I ponder:

What is it? 

Here’s an analogy I use: The workshop is a focus group. A writer brings in a beta version of a product, a draft. Assembled before her is a sample (perhaps a skewed sample) of the market. As would happen in a focus group, the writer hands over her product and then steps away. The traditional workshop asks the writer to stay out of the conversation—this is, essentially, the part when the writer steps behind the two-way mirror.

The writer watches the focus group interact with the product while hiding behind the mirror and making notes. The workshop leader should be pulling the group, mostly objectively, through a series of relevant questions. The workshop leader is that nice guy wearing a tie, holding a clipboard, and calling everyone by his/her first name.

What does a writer get in a workshop? 

This is a trick question. I tend to think that workshops are more for the readers than the writers. I know; that’s counter-intuitive. Here’s another analogy. The participants in a workshop are like medical students practicing surgery on a cadaver. (Oops, this seems to suggest the writer’s draft is dead. Stay with me here.) The readers get to think about what they would do to the body (of text) before them. This forces them into a real-life situation while supplying them with needed objectivity. They don’t care about the draft before them like they do their own work, and this objective space allows them to think about how they would fix certain problems or sort out plot holes or sticky transitions.

Essentially, workshops train readers to approach their own work more objectively. The most important thing a 3-year stint in an MFA program gave me was the ability to see my own work without unnecessary personal attachment. I now cut away what’s not working without much of a flinch. I’m a darling-killing motha. The workshop gave me this.

Okay, great trick question, but still—doesn’t the writer get anything?! 

Of course, the benefits I mention above are bigger-picture, long-term benefits. The workshop does have a more immediate goal: to improve the draft. Workshops can, sort of, do this. If we swing back to my focus group analogy, the writer walks away from the time with a grab bag of opinions on the success of the current product. The job of the writer is to sort through all of it—to look for patterns and make important decisions about the overall goal(s) of the piece.

Unfortunately, because we’re nice, social people, workshops can sometimes move towards consensus (Congress, take notice). However, when a workshop leader is doing his job, the workshop will allow for diverging points of view and a scattershot of reactions. There’s no need for everyone to agree. In fact, it’s probably unhealthy if everyone does.

But here’s what’s most important: the readers must discuss the why of it all. It’s not enough to say that the ending is unsatisfying. They must attempt to articulate why. This isn’t easy to do. Sometimes it has to do with one’s reading experience—thinking about pace and emotional connections. Other times it has to do with ideas or characters or language not yet fully developed. And yet, in other situations, it has to do with misaimed drafts. Perhaps the poem or essay says it’s about the strangeness of a butterfly, but it’s clear there’s another subject pressing up from beneath the surface. In other words, maybe the writer has found what the poet Richard Hugo calls “the triggering subject” but hasn’t yet identified the real subject.

When the readers give honest reactions and attempt to specifically explain why, the writer leaves the room with a collection of precious and personal reading experiences. The writer need not attempt to make all of readers happy, but she should step back and consider her intentions. Then she should be a step closer to noticing where the draft is failing. Basically, this is when the hard (and real) work begins.

I believe in the workshop. It’s not necessary, nor is it perfect, but when done well, it should help a writer grow more objective and articulate about the development of a literary piece. One final analogy, the workshop is a kind of exercise—creating trimmer, more focused writers.

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