Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Getting the Most from Writing Workshops

Over at the Women's Memoir group on LinkedIn yesterday, someone posed a question about the value of writing workshops. There has been much discussion lately among creative writing teachers (and students) about the relative merits of the traditional workshop model in academia, and I certainly agree that the workshop alone shouldn't be the only element of any writer's education - in or out of the academic setting. However, I don't think workshops should be abandoned, either in MFA programs or the wider writing world, and I also believe that more writers have been helped by workshops than not. That is, writers who go into a workshop with a healthy dose of common sense – and some humility.

As a writer-participant, I have had some wonderful experiences and a few not-so-hot ones around the workshop table, and the same goes for when I lead workshops – some situations turn out better than others, depending on a combination of the mix of writers at the table, and the attitudes and expectations everyone brings, including me.

When someone asks me about how to prep for a workshop, I advise (in addition to turning in your very best work!) learning something about the workshop leader, and asking enough questions in advance so that you understand how the workshop will unfold, as there are different models and approaches, and workshop leaders have varying policies.

Know, for example:  Does everyone get to hear feedback from every other writer at the table? Will the writer whose work is being discussed need to remain silent during the discussion? Does the workshop leader also provide in-depth written detailed feedback as well as roundtable discussion? If it's an on-going series, how many times will your work come up for discussion?  Will there be an instructional component as well as peer review?

One thing I think a lot of people fail to realize (including me, at one time) is that a workshop exists not only so that writers can get feedback on work, but also to provide an opportunity for us to improve critical reading skills and practice articulating what it is about a piece of writing that works (and doesn't) -- and why, and to cogently express ideas about revision possibilities.  When we are better able to do this for others, we are better able to see the possibilities -- and holes -- in our own pages.

When I decide to attend a workshop, I make sure my tough writer skin is in place, my mind is in the open position, and that I've brought along my sense of humor. I try not to expect that the workshop will be a life-changing experience (though two workshops come to mind that did positively upend my writing life.) The same holds for when I lead a workshop, though then I tend to soften the tough skin criteria – a bit, but not too much, because I wouldn't be doing anyone any favors if I metaphorically pat heads and avoid the difficult writing issues presented on the pages.

Everyone who has sat around more than one workshop table will eventually understand we all tend to emerge with a grab bag of mixed options for our work -- terrific feedback, insightful suggestions, exciting possibilities, and some pretty awful or unworkable ideas, and occasional harsh opinions.

Post-workshop:  Digest. Hold onto the good ideas, try out the promising suggestions, see what's possible.  File the rest away.  I won't say where.


Andrea said...

Great advice! I recently attended my first MFA residency, at which I had one terrible workshop experience and one terrific one. Advice I would add includes: a) try to get your piece workshopped early on, before people are comfortable enough to unsheath their claws (this may involve changing your last name to something that starts with "A"), b) along with tough skin, make sure you go into your workshop having taken care of yourself (a good night's sleep, healthy eating, minimal drinking, and some "alone" time, if you're an introvert) so that if it does go badly, you will not overreact, and c) be kind--when you critique others' work, make sure you're talking about the WORK and not the person--and hopefully they will return the favor.

Lisa Romeo said...

Those are great additional tips, Andrea, thanks -- especially making sure one's feedback is about the work and not the writer.

To help with this distinction, in nonfiction workshops, we speak of "the narrator" and not "you" when referencing the main character/author.