Are writing workshops useful? I ponder this question as a veteran of an MFA program and a few community writers’ groups. One of many pieces of conventional wisdom often tossed at writers is that they need workshops to grow as writers, but there are also many critics of the workshop model. I have had some great experiences in workshops, meeting talented people and reading wonderful stories and poems. On the other hand, most workshops I’ve participated in have devolved into some sort of animosity. The animosity begins on the page, but it quickly turns personal.
Types of issues I’ve seen cause fights (both overt and covert) in workshops:
-Is the workshopped writing too weird and incomprehensible?
-Is the workshopped writing too normal and comprehensible?
-Should the person whose writing is workshopped be able to defend their work?
-Is the workshopped writing racist?
-Is the workshopped writing sexist?
-Is the workshopped writing too “politically correct”?
-Should the extroverted people in the group be talking so much?
-Should the men in the group be talking so much?
-This piece expressed political opinions that caused me to stab the paper it was written on with a plastic fork. Sorry, I didn’t think you’d notice the little indentations.
-Should a piece of writing reference facts I wasn’t taught as an English major?
-Should people who are extremely opinionated about punctuation and line breaks dominate the conversation?
-Is this poem actually about the author’s current boyfriend, who is in this very workshop?
-Was the author’s boyfriend right or wrong to leave her at a party when he thought she was being too friendly to the party’s host?
-Did the author’s boyfriend really just talk for five minutes about the line breaks in a poem that’s about what a jerk he is? This guy has bigger problems than line breaks, am I right?
The problem of mixing gossip with art is common in an MFA program, where people tend to hang out and write about what happened. Because I’m relatively antisocial, I was never targeted. I rarely got involved in workshop infighting. This is also because I realized early on that using the workshop as an attempt to edit a piece based on my personal conception of good writing was of limited use.
My commitment to seeing most points of view as subjective ideas to consider rather than objective truths is something I will fight for. And that’s the drama I bring to workshops (and shopping sprees, family dinners, blogs, and so forth). In that spirit, I ask you to consider whether writing workshops might be more enjoyable if viewed as opportunities to take in new ideas rather than opportunities to teach other people how to write good.
To be fair, sometimes a workshopped piece is obscure, confusing, and boring to most people in the workshop. Sometimes most people in the workshop saw the ending coming a mile away. These opinions and ideas can be good to express (kindly) to the author who doesn’t know the impact their work might have on other people. As readers, it can also be a good opportunity to ask ourselves why certain work didn’t initially connect with us. Could we be missing some of the joy sparked by a new type of writing? It’s worth considering.
Sometimes people’s work so annoys our sensibilities, it makes us angry. I think it’s fine (and sometimes good) to feel angry, but when we critique while angry, it is unlikely our advice will be heeded. Angry advice tends to trigger defensiveness on the part of the advisee, which leads to little progress. Sometimes we have to stand up to people whose writing expresses what we think are abhorrent beliefs. But it is important to realize that we are unlikely to convert them from their way of thinking and writing if we berate them.
Some of us get angry (or perhaps merely persnickety) about more minor points: nonstandard punctuation, prescriptivist punctuation, rhyming poetry, nonrhyming poetry, big words, lack of big words, formal diction, informal diction, Elizabethan English, slang, telling instead of showing, minor conflicts, overly dramatic conflicts, car chases, no car chases, and on and on and on. Everyone has preferences, and it’s hard to remember that our preferences are not universal laws. It’s hard for me, too! Still, it is helpful to remember that we are all people with limited wisdom and information about the world. Ideally, we can offer our perspectives with some humility.
So why bother participating in a writing workshop if it can come with all this discomfort? Perhaps for some of the same reasons we do anything with others. We bask in the warmth of community. We meet interesting characters, both on the page and in the flesh. Or maybe we think we need an ever-present panel of advisors to tell us how to do our work. Nevertheless, as long as the workshop is cordial, there are worse ways to spend an evening.