As promised, USC Master of Professional Writing Program faculty weigh in on workshop: What’s the point? What makes for a good one? How to get the most bang for your buck as a reader and a writer?
Madelyn Cain says: Workshopping allows you to find out what’s working, what needs retooling and to ask direct questions about your work i.e. “Did you understand what I meant by _______? Should I say more about _________?”
It is each writer’s responsibility to offer insights into what they read, to neither remain silent nor to offer bland approval. We are here to excite the writer’s imagination with new ideas as well as support the writer on his or her creative journey. Offering our reactions to work can be a stimulating and creative experience for both the critic and the writer.
From Tim Kirkman: I love the workshop format. One of the most helpful exercises I use is on Day One. It has no direct connection to the project the student brings in to “workshop.” This written exercise begins in class with a directive for students to describe their bedroom at age thirteen — colors, furniture, objects, doors, windows, what’s outside the window, ceiling, temperature, odors, quality of light. The next step is to put their thirteen-year-old selves in the room and I ask the question: what do you look like? They write. I prompt: hair color, height, weight, clothing.
Then I ask them to describe what they’re DOING in the room. Action words. Describe what they see. Then I say, “Someone comes to the door. Who is it?” Write. Describe his or her physical characteristics. Finally, I ask, “What does this person want?”
Assignment for next week. Write a two-page scene between these two people.
The results are often wonderful, sometimes breathtaking. The places feel lived in, authentic, whole. The people are dimensional, quirky, surprising.
This exercise accomplishes two things very quickly. (1) It helps the participants get to know each other – indirectly – but in a way that demands a level of vulnerability that is shared; and (2) it illustrates how their own memories and experiences can be useful when they need to invent scenes or situations or even characters that bend toward cliché or stereotype.
Syd Field writes: So, the first thing I do is make an agreement with everyone in the workshop that this is a “safe” place. They can give their observations and critique on the material as long as it’s not personal.
Two: Only say something when you have something to say.
And third, we make an agreement to “protect everybody’s material.” Meaning, anything said by the participant is “sacred.” We don’t talk about ideas, personalities, other’s experience, etc, outside the classroom.
Whatever I say is fair game – they can repeat it, comment upon it, criticize it, whatever, anywhere and to anyone. But the ideas are safe, not to be repeated outside the classroom. And everybody has to make that agreement.
It keeps a complex thing, simple.
Bernard Cooper sent in the following:
From “Workshop” by Billy Collins:
” . . . I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none”
And Prince Gomolvilas says: Since philosophies around teaching creative writing vary and since teaching styles are highly individual, all workshop leaders have different approaches to framing discussions and handling feedback around students’ creative work. Therefore, workshop participants should not try to impose their own feedback methods upon the class–but, rather, they should always follow the workshop leader’s cues and adjust their feedback accordingly.
Advice from Rita Williams: One thing you should do in workshop: Respect the confidentiality of the space. In other words don’t tell the folks back in Iowa about the great script you read in workshop about . . .
Another suggestion: read closely for specificity. It’s not a bird in a tree, but a mother blue jay protecting the oak nest where she was hatched, by pecking the blade of the approaching bulldozer.
And thoughts from M.G. Lord: Twenty years ago, nonfiction writers didn’t need workshops; they had editors–professional fussbudgets who excised grammatical errors, superfluous words, and incoherent passages from stories before publication. In today’s blogosphere, however, editors are pointedly absent. Writers must themselves remove blather from their writing. Workshops help writers gain the skills to do this. Traditionally, editors berated and embarrassed writers who fell short of their goals. In a workshop, fellow writers can identify weaknesses in a story, often without reducing its writer to suicidal mush. Yet such civility is not always beneficial. In my experience, being reduced to mush provided a strong incentive not to repeat mistakes. In workshop classes, I like to coordinate writing exercises with reading assignments. For example, in my travel-writing class, we recently read Alain de Botton’s essay “On Anticipation,” then wrote an exercise that tackled Botton’s subject—the disparity between what we expect a destination to be and what it actually is. We discovered a pattern that I find true in most areas of life: if you expect something to be utterly terrible, you will likely meet with a pleasant surprise when it is merely disagreeable.
Janet Fitch writes: The secret of getting the most out of workshops:
In any workshop of ten people, there will be:
>>two who hate your work whatever you do.
When they critique your work, don’t argue or defend, just close the mental curtains. No matter how you twist and turn the work to please them, they’ll still hate it. They don’t get you, so save yourself the effort.
>>five who are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
Listen carefully and if something seems true, take that on, but don’t take in everything. They’re wrong as often as they are right. Trust your intuition on a case-by-case basis.
>> three who get what you do.
These three understand not only what you’re doing now, but where you’re trying to go. They like your work, and they see how you can make it more what it should be. Hang onto these people. They will save your life.
The Word: Take a word—short simple, preferably a word that can be a noun or a verb (chair, light, root)—and write two pages, double-spaced, a story inspired by that word. Use the word at least once. (Examples in my blog.)
David Ulin’s counsel: The only thing I would say is that the primary lesson of the workshop (or one of them) is knowing how or what criticism to disregard as well as what to listen to. i take it on faith that everyone is commenting in a workshop with the best intentions, but still, one of the key things a writer needs to learn is when to go his or her own way. In that sense, critiques that are well-meant but not quite apropos can be very useful in terms of toughening up a writer and teaching him or her when it’s okay to follow personal vision, even if it goes against the grain.
And from program director, Brighde Mullins: I have a metaphor from my other life as a swimmer. The writing workshop is where the writer-as-swimmer surfaces, comes up for air, gets the necessary oxygen to go back underwater where the writing happens—in solitude. After a long underwater swim, when you put your head up above the surface you don’t want a hand on your head dunking you back under. If the workshop cannot constructively help the writer at least it should do no harm (see the tenets of Buddhism). The workshop is a setting, a mise en scene– for a group mind to apprehend a text in progress—and this is a useful experience– to have your work read, discussed. I don’t think of a workshop as a place for “criticism” per se—criticism is what happens when a text is finished, when it is published or produced—not when it’s in progress. The workshop is composed of other writers, who are an ideal audience of passionate, sympathetic readers. The act of reading the text and responding to it should increase the possibilities of the text—not reduce them. Yeats writes that “Everything that is merely personal soon rots—unless it is packed in ice or salt.” The ice and the salt are elements of craft, of technique—the images, the cadences, the shape. These are all up for contemplation and discussion in a workshop.
Workshop Exercise: When I teach playwriting I ask my students to write about their first theatre experience—whether as an actor or as a member of the audience. These are usually childhood memories, often they are Christmas pageants or community theatre fiascos– and I ask them to go back and describe every aspect that they can conjure—through writing through their senses they go back to the place that was the origin of their desire to write for the stage. They often describe a sensation/obsession that they still write toward. I’ll isolate aspects of their memories to use as scene ideas.
Nan Cohen adds: One of the functions of workshops is to help you find the people who will be your best readers–best in the sense of most demanding and most challenging, as well as most supportive. One of your best readers may be someone who pats your back, but others may be people who are very skeptical and very hard to impress. Both kinds are valuable.
As for me, what he said, what she said, what he said, what she said… And a note to writers: We’re inclined to defend our work—to say, I meant to do this and I meant to do that. But at the expense of losing the reader? Probably not. We readers, meanwhile, should try to remember: We’re not supposed to fix the work, but rather to say what’s there; where we’re engaged, and where we bump or snag, if we do. Worth reminding ourselves before we weigh in: This is not about me (how I’d write this story)—and so to consider: Has this writer done what she set out to do?
Another thought: With nonfiction it’s important to remember we’re talking about the prose —not the conduct or judgment or values of the writer. Along those lines, keep in mind this advice from Vladimir Nabokov: “To be quite objective in these matters is of course impossible. Everything that is worthwhile is to some extent subjective… But… the reader must know when and where to curb his imagination and this he does by trying to get clear the specific world the author places at his disposal. We must see things and hear things, we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people.” Check out his primer of an essay, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” available online.