Friday, March 6, 2020

Workshop Warnings

Since I do the whole writing workshop circuit around my neighborhood, I get to see a lot of different ways a group can help its writers. Some provide a close and supportive community, others establish specialized groups to help with particular aspects of the process, and there are even those that take on a collaborative feel, with very active and integrated participation. Every writer needs to find what serves then best, and some writers (such as myself) gain benefit from more than one group. Today, however, I would like to bring out a few warnings about the bad habits that occur in some groups, and what might not benefit you in your pursuit of this noble craft.

Let's say I write a story and take it to a group. This story is about a person contemplating the meaning of life while having dinner in a Chicago restaurant, enjoying a well-done steak with heavy ketchup. As a writer, I am trying to find a way to walk through his thoughts about life with a symbolic connection to his meal, so I take it to the workshop. This will be our setup for spotting some of the situations that might give us pause.

Some people might jump on the obvious stand-out of the story: a well-done steak? With ketchup? In Chicago? Well, that does kind of leap off the page, but is it worth critiquing? Honestly, I do not know one Chicagoan who wants their steak cooked longer than medium-rare, and none of them dare have ketchup on it. However, that is not a criticism - that's an observation that has nothing to do with the writing. Now, if the writer wants this person to come off as the average Chicagoan, a criticism might be that Chicagoans usually don't put ketchup on steaks (or hot dogs). However, there is nothing wrong with that in general - it's a writer's choice, and perhaps a good one if the objective is to get the reader's attention.

A more dangerous area within writing groups is when it comes to interpretation. Not everyone in a writing group is going to see things the same. Some might see the contemplation of life while eating a steak as symbolic of how in the end we all get swallowed up by things, others might see how one life can offer sustenance to another, and so on. When a group offers what each reader sees in a story, it can show the writer which parts worked and what might've fallen short, and maybe draw out some insights they didn't see themselves. However, group members should discuss this not as whether they are right or wrong. If they do, it does not help the writer. Only the writer knows the truth in their words, and only they can feel who got it and who didn't. Now, if nobody in the group says they saw what the writer intended, maybe the writer did fail to hit the right notes. However, it is not the group's responsibility to tell the writer who is wrong. That's not a workshop - it's a judgment chamber.

Here's a couple of personal notes as well on some critiques that do not help me whatsoever. Let's say I read my man-with-his-thoughts-and-his-steak story to the group. Person A wants the steak place to be more like Morton's, because that's how they envision steak houses. Person B wants an emphasis on side orders, the completeness of the meal, and whether it's balanced. Person C is a vegetarian, so he didn't care for it. These aren't critics who want to help you grow. These are people who want to write your story in their words or integrate themselves into your works. This happens more often than some writers are comfortable with, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The critiques that help me grow as a writer make me think about my process, my creation, and how I can better myself. A good critic will ask me questions about pieces and what my intended result was. Workshops should involve a good amount of back and forth, with each person's comment not being a judgment as much as one of many equal perspectives that make up a reading audience. If you can find a group like that, hold on to it closely.

And seriously, if you cook a steak any further than medium-rare, is it even a steak anymore?

3 comments:

  1. Great post! I personally prefer my steak "just shy of walking." Do you think you could incorporate that into the work?

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    1. I have heard a bunch of similar comments about how rare a steak should be. I might start a list (and yours would be on it)

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    2. Ya know I was playing into the critique that does not help you whatsoever.

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