I spent last week at a writers’ workshop. Hamline University runs a Summer Writers’ Workshop every year, and while students in the MFA program get first shot at registering, there are always some non-student participants. Hamline calls this an “intensive residential retreat,” which is an accurate description. We leave the St. Paul campus and our normal lives to stay in the dormitories of St. Olaf College in Northfield. (There is a commuter option.) Mornings find us gathering in a classroom for seminars with a master of craft. This year, Hamline brought in Mary Ruefle for poetry, Ira Sukrungruang for creative nonfiction, and Ben Percy for fiction. After lunch, our time is our own. People usually seclude themselves until dinner in order to work on their writing and prepare for the next day’s class. After dinner, there are always some students congregating at the Contented Cow in town, where we both socialize and discuss the art, craft, and business of writing. Mid-week there is a faculty reading, and the workshop is closed with a student reading.
I am pro workshops and here are some thoughts about why:
1) Giving (and Getting) Feedback
Not everyone is good at this. The writer has to sit back and listen with an open mind as people discuss the merits and weaknesses of her piece. Sometimes this requires a thick skin, but more so this requires the writer to remain open to the variety of readings possible. Each reader will view the piece differently, so it is useful to look for consensus. It is also useful to listen for what rings true. For example, the story I submitted last week, “The Herd,” has a subtle, ambiguous ending. I was rather pleased with my subtlety, but the group, all twelve of them, agreed that the ending did not quite work. There is a build of tension throughout the story and my ending leaves them wanting, it is not a big enough payoff. It would have been nice to hear that my ending was flawless, but I’m happy to have a clear direction from the group: end with panic. I can do that. This is better news than if some of my readers got it and others did not. In that case, I’d have to make a judgment call based on which readers I most agreed with. In this case, however, I know less is not more.
Critiquing is a skill like any other: some people are better at it than others and it takes practice. In every workshop, group feedback is good for learning what is working and what isn’t, which of your intended messages are being received and which are fuzzy. There are usually two or three readers who stand out from the group, people who give exceptional feedback in terms of constructive criticism. These readers don’t only tell you what they do or do not like, they raise questions that help you clarify the direction of the piece as they bring to light things you hadn’t seen in your own writing.
This has two major benefits. First, in reading a sampling of your peers’ work, you get a sense of what kind of work your peers are doing. Sometimes it’s useful to take stock of where you are at and to what you aspire. Secondly, you practice your readings skills on works that are not polished and at the publishable stage.
If all you read are anthologized stories, you never get a sense of how many stages a story goes through before it gets published. Reading your peers’ work with craft in mind lets you break down a story into its components and analyze what works, why, and how in a way you can’t do with already published stories. When you see a story in a journal, there is a tendency to assume it’s good because someone has vetted it. There it is in print, after all. We come to a workshop on equal footing with each other. This is the work of a peer and we are not only there to, but have every right to dissect it and learn from it.
The feedback we give the writer is hopefully valuable to him. So much of the value of workshop depends on the attitude of those involved, both the readers and the writer—and in workshop you get to be both. Reading published stories is like looking at a diagram of a frog’s innards. Workshopping our peers’ stories is like dissecting a frog for ourselves. We learn about the internal workings through direct, personal experience. For example, when you see dialogue on the page that reads like a transcript of a conversation, you understand that dialogue can be so naturalistic that it interrupts the flow of the story. This is better than simply not seeing overly natural dialogue on a page. There is something about making that diagnosis for yourself that gives the lesson more punch.
3) Help Wanted
Whenever I have a workshop, I bring a piece that is strong and solid, but not complete, not polished. If I’m ready to send it out to journals, it’s past the point of workshop. I put before my peers a work that is both worthy of their time and attention and that I still want feedback on. Bringing a very rough draft to workshop does everyone a disservice. At that stage, the writer should be able to see the flaws in it, so readers end up telling the writer things he already knows; therefore, the readers are spending their time and energy on work that is redundant.
I bring a piece about which I feel confident, but not certain. I want to know what the readers see that I don’t. Working on a story can lead to a kind of myopic vision. Often some flaw in the piece becomes obvious to me as soon as a reader points it out.
I also want to know what tropes are apparent to a careful reader. Sometimes we write things intuitively, without realizing what we’ve done. I once heard Amy Tan say in an interview that someone sent her a thesis paper about the use of sevens in The Joy Luck Club, and she’d had no idea. Her response to the thesis was something like, “Aren’t I clever?” In “The Herd,” water is a clear trope. There’s a lake, ice water in a cooler, humidity, sweat, and urine. I wrote in each of those elements because they made sense at the time, not because I was trying to shape water in its various forms into a theme. Water as a trope had not occurred to me until it was pointed out in workshop. Aren’t I clever?
The most basic question a writer brings to workshop is, “What’s working?” I think it’s wise to bring a specific question or two to the table. I was going for tension in “The Herd,” a pretty subtle tension. My burning question was whether the readers would feel that tension and if it would sustain them through a nineteen-page story. That’s a big question. The success of this story hinges on the answer to that question. Thanks to this workshop, I got my answer.
4) What’s Next.
A friend in the same workshop remarked that he learns more about what to do in the next story from workshopping than he does what to do with the current story. Absolutely! Everything we learn gets applied to everything we write from that point forward. I also leave workshops excited to revise. I like to get on my revisions while the workshop comments are fresh in my head. In fact, “The Herd” has consumed a lot of mental energy this week. I am cycling through not only comments, but the resulting changes I want to make.
5) Caveat Emptor
Not all feedback is of equal value. The writer has to go with her gut and trust her voice. Accept the comments that feel right and reject any that are off base. This is where that balance of being open to criticism and confident of your abilities and your story becomes most important.
After a workshop, I’ll skim the copies of my story for comments—again, looking for consensus—and set aside the few that resonate with me. The rest I put in a pile that usually sits around for six to twelve months before going into the recycling. Those gems from the pile I give a closer read and some real consideration. Then I set them aside for six to twelve month before they go into a file for future reference. When I start revising “The Herd,” the workshop will be behind me, the feedback absorbed into my mind, and the important, true, resonating comments will resurface. The paper copies are on hand in case I want to revisit something, but usually I don’t.
6) Ego Boost
Workshop etiquette dictates that everyone makes at least one compliment on the piece. If nothing else, when you’re feeling down on writing, break out that list of compliments and remind yourself of what you are doing well…then break out the happy dance!
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