Monday, July 20, 2020

Writer Workshop Warnings

Last week, I discussed some of the features that should be part of any writer's workshop. In short, they should be places where the writer can be open with their work and receive input that helps them build their craft. There are plenty of other aspects for good workshops, and many blogs post their own top ten lists (or fifteen or twenty or whatever). Individuals ultimately have to find those qualities that help them grow, and pursue those groups and writers. However, the flip-side of this is the idea of bad traits of writer workshops, and this is a far more complex discussion.

The difficult part about workshops with bad qualities is that the workshop can be good, but too often a negative trait becomes an undercurrent of an otherwise positive experience. In the cases where bad habits dominate, it's easy to just walk away. More often than not, however, it becomes a task like pulling weeds from the garden before they strangle the growth out of the other plants. Sometimes it's easiest to treat these negative elements as isolated situations, but other times we need to check and see if they are isolated, or if they quietly infiltrate the underpinnings of the group itself.

These are just my notes, and subject to criticism and counterargument. I would even offer you to take the opportunity and mention a few other qualities in the comments section, so everyone (including myself) can learn from them.

There is no I in workshop. Let me offer an example to explain this point. A few years ago, I brought a piece to review about the passing of my father. He had died several years earlier, so this was a reflective piece rather than something processing immediate grief. Anyway, I read the piece, then let the critiques come in. The first person mentioned how it reminded them of when their mother passed away. The next person talked about losing their brother. A few other people talked about recent losses, and everyone had a heartfelt conversation. In the end, however, nobody had actually talked about my writing, and I was offered nothing to improve my piece, which is kind of what I was going for.

Don't get me wrong - if someone's piece evokes personal memories, that's a sign of good writing. However, the focus should remain on that person's writing, and not wander toward group therapy. Personal reflections are fine, as long as the feedback ultimately discusses the work at hand. And every group may have a little drift toward the personal now and then, but the important part is that the group does not live in that area of self-interest. Otherwise, this is not a workshop, it is a group of people who would rather tell their story than critique yours. 

Opinion has its limits. This one is tricky, so hold on. In these days of partisan politics and strong personal opinions, one of the most difficult things to do is to critique a work based on its own merits rather than whether we agree with it. This can be daunting when someone writes a political or philosophical piece that goes against everything we believe in. We get this uncontrollable urge - triggered, as the kids say these days - to point out how an opinion is wrong, and invariably arguments start. Sometimes they don't stop.

If a workshop tends to go after content rather than writing, be careful. Having opinions is fine, and they should be safe in a writer's workshop. If the group is about Philosophy or PoliSci 101, that's different. Writing should be the emphasis regardless of subject, and groups that drift away from that with regularity might not be the most productive.

The next post will be about things you can bring to a workshop that can cure some of these pitfalls.

2 comments:

  1. Ha, I just read this post. So how did the last session go in your view?

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    1. I think the last session went well. Any session goes well if the writers walk away a little better than when they entered.

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