ninth talk: workshops


A writing workshop (the close cousin of a literature seminar) is a beguiling but also frustrating concept. The idea is that a group of well-meaning and hard-working people get together to criticize each other’s work. In colleges and MFA programs around the country, the writing workshop is the basic unit of exchange. For most people, it’s how the work of creating literature gets done. There are a lot of crackpot opinions about the horrible influence of writing workshops on American literature. Some folks cry out that they result in “Stepford Fiction” while others see them as just a con job meant to do nothing more than employ a bunch of mostly unemployable mid-list writers like yours truly. They assert that workshops are unproductive at best and damaging at worst, that the real work of writing is done when we’re alone, “forging in the smithy of [our] soul[s] the uncreated conscience of [our] race.”

Well, that’s all bullshit.

Except when it’s not.

Let me explain: a writing workshop can be all the horrible things that naysayers attribute to it, but, then again, a hammer can also be a deadly weapon. That’s not what hammers are designed for, though, and workshops were not designed to be deadly weapons, either. In the cyber world of this course, our workshop will be held on the discussion boards. This may be more likely to result in blunt trauma or less, I’m not yet sure, but I think I can offer some powerful ground rules that, if maintained, will result in the hammer being used to build rather than destroy.

First of all: there’s a stupid way to do a workshop and a smart way. The stupid way is to make it about yourself and your writing. Get yourself a big cup of joe and read the posts to see what everyone thought about your story. On one level, this is quite reasonable. Of course you want to know what everyone thinks of your story. On another level, it’s insane abuse of the tools of the workshop. The reason that we call it a WORKshop is that we’re supposed to do WORK in it. You WANT people to find things that are weak in your story; you WANT people to show you where you went down a less vivid path. Praise is an important part of the workshop, but it’s not the most important part. If it were, we would call it a PRAISEshop.

Particularly among beginners, the workshop is often entered as though it were a contest meant to determine your worth as a writer. I’ve done this many times myself. You sit back and think now I’ll find out whether I have any talent. This is also a stupid use of the workshop.

I will now answer the question of whether you have any talent: Yes, you do. Now, get to work developing it. It’s not called an amItalentedshop, either.

Can I say it again? The real purpose of a workshop is work. How can you improve your story? Let’s roll up our sleeves and stick our hands into that greasy mess. Workshops are like a bunch of men standing around the open hood of a car peering into the engine. Not everyone knows what they’re doing, but everyone is willing to help. The discussion is always in danger of veering off in the direction of sex or alcohol or a great meal you enjoyed last week.

And, sometimes, in order to get the help you need, the writer will want to get creative about how she listens to all the well-meaning folks who are trying to help her. Her friends may not know the solution, but that doesn’t mean she can’t get enormous insight from listening carefully as they try to figure out what the problem is.

In a moment, I’m going to give you some strong suggestions about how to approach a workshop – virtual or otherwise. I would say they were “rules,” but I don’t want to freak anyone out. In my experience, these suggestions will keep us out of trouble and maximize the number of nails that make it into the wood.

First, though, I want to give you a general principle for what a “smart” way to approach a workshop will be. A smart writer will approach every story as though it were her own. A smart writer will approach every story as though it were potentially great. I have met a few truly great writers, and the thing that they seem to have in common is an overwhelming interest in their genre. Hacks are interested in good/bad, talented/untalented, worthy/unworthy. Great artists are interested in art. A poet is interested in poetry, wherever he finds it. A storyteller is interested in story, whether she finds it in Crime and Punishment or in a dirty joke. My advice: be a great artist. As the poet Marilyn Hacker said, writing is just a much more difficult form of reading.

Workshop suggestions:

1.Assume that everyone is capable of producing a first class story. Because everyone in this course is.

2.The writer herself is a fly on the wall. She does not ask questions. She does not answer questions. She does not preface her submission. Anything the writer can say will prejudice the reader and dim the power of the workshop. It doesn’t matter if you intended to write a masterpiece of sadness and despair. If everyone is laughing at your story, take it as a big gift and do your next draft as humor. Also, if no one “gets” your story, they will be in the exact same situation as your readers. Take responsibility for their reading and revise with it in mind.

3.Start the critique with what I call “the TV guide version.” The workshop should be able to agree what the story is before they do anything else. If Angie thinks it’s a sci-fi adventure about a homecoming rebel leader on Alpha Centauri and Roger thinks it’s a tender meditation about a man with Alzheimer’s trying to mow his lawn – then we should get that worked out first. I call this the “TV guide version” because The TV Guide is one of the great repositories of story in our culture. If you want to know the engineering principles of a story, read the TV guide. When you can write the TV guide, you’re worthy to be called “a story analyst.” The TV Guide does not say, “Gilligan’s Island: a study in alienation and community-building set against the backdrop of an island peopled with characters representing various socio-economic backgrounds.” It doesn’t say that because that doesn’t tell you what you’re going to see. It says, “Six castaways on a desert island try every week to come up with crazy plan to get home.” THAT’S the story. The rest is the English paper that someone is going to write someday.

4.In your critique, start with what’s strong, what’s working, what you really enjoyed. This is not because we are nice people – although we are nice people. This is because it’s much easier to talk about what’s not working than what is. We need to understand what should be encouraged in a story as much as what should be discouraged. The writer needs this information, and so do we. Sometimes it gets walked over in our rush to explain what’s “wrong” with the story.

5.When you talk about problems, missed opportunities, mistakes, please be specific. Saying “the second half doesn’t work” is meaningless (and maybe cruel) unless you point to the specific text that supports your contention. A friend of mine used to make his students put their fingers on the exact sentence as they spoke in order to enforce this powerful discipline. You’re on the computer: how easy is it to paste the section you’re talking about right into your critique? The workshop can’t do much with what you “feel” about the story unless you can point to a specific experience you had with the text. The truth is that if you can’t support your opinion with the text you’re probably mistaken. I had the privilege of talking with a woman once who hated a novel that I had given her to read. She kept telling how much she hated it and she wasn’t able to point to anything specific in the text. It finally came out that the novel was set in a snowy winter landscape, and this woman HATED the cold. She’s entitled to not buy books that are set in the winter, but this is not a proper criticism of fiction. As powerfully felt as it may be, it doesn’t help anyone.

6.As the person who is getting workshopped, try not to focus so much on the solutions that the other writers are offering as the way their solutions help to define the story itself. It’s rare in my experience that a workshop will know what to do with a story, but it can always offer valuable information if you know listen carefully. For example, I had an editor once who suggested, for my book John Wayne: A Novel, that a certain scene would be much more vivid if my father’s character were to hit John Wayne in the face. Now, this specific suggestion was wrong in so many ways and seemed so vastly stupid – my father would have rather scooped his own eyes out with a spoon than hit John Wayne – that I spent several hours on the phone with my agent trying to figure out how to get a new editor. When my blood cooled, I realized that she was describing the lack of physicality in that section of the book. Too much talking, not enough action. I went to work on that problem, and when I sent the book back to the editor, she took complete credit for guiding me in the right direction.


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