by Christi Fox
Among many tools available to fiction writers while working on a project is a writer’s workshop. Workshops are available in many different genres, including poetry workshop, fiction workshop and creative non-fiction workshop, just to name a few. As a graduate student, pursuing my MA in Writing, I’ve taken a number of workshops and in my own experience they’ve been useful to some degree but there were times when they’ve led to nothing but frustration due to battles among workshop peers as to what should or shouldn’t be in the piece I was currently working on. This led me to ask the question, are workshops helpful or harmful?
The writer’s workshop is a community of writers willing to share their work with others in order to provide and receive useful feedback on their current pieces. However, when we say “useful feedback,” how much is truly useful? What can the writer really use from the feedback given? Two sources that touch upon this topic are the online resource, 12 Writing, and William H. Coles from Editor Opinions Blog, a Companion to Story in Literary Fiction. Both of these sources discuss how to learn from a workshop and avoid an unnecessary sense of failure. Some workshops never instruct a writer on what they are doing right, leaving the writer to delete even the best parts of their work. I’ve experienced this first hand in one of the very first classes that I had in my master's program: the poetry workshop. Since I was a child, writing poetry has always given me a sense of security and pride, until my first workshop, when my pieces were completely ripped apart by some while praised by others. Those who ripped apart my pieces never once gave a bit of good feedback, which caused me to feel like, no matter what I did, those people would not be happy and I tore myself apart in continuing to try.
There is also the danger of workshops focusing on minute details, such as typos, which can “crush a beginning writer, or possibly make an intermediate writer very jaded,” according to 12 Writing, an online resource for writers and teachers in fiction, poetry and memoir whose goal is to provide free or inexpensive, accessible workshops for everyone. This was evident in all workshops that I’ve attended. In order for the students to focus mainly on their story and to plow through writing their first drafts and get their thoughts on the page, at least two instructors that I’ve had made it clear from the beginning that we were not to focus on grammatical errors. However, students still nitpicked grammatical errors, which caused many to be frustrated and feel inadequate even though many people's corrections were actually incorrect.
While reading Coles’ editorial piece, I found it interesting that fiction writers can have a more difficult time in the workshop due to the “difficult skill of storytelling.” Good storytellers effectively hold the interest and get as close to the reader as possible, locking their attention. Writers need to have a sufficient knowledge in writing since workshops do not teach the fundamentals; they are there for guidance and suggestion only. Students need to understand that feedback is advice and not all advice should be taken. Fiction writers need to develop more comprehensive knowledge and attitudes in the many elements of fiction writing, such as narration, characterization and plot, in order for the workshop to be useful. Such knowledge can “deflect unjustified feelings of failure and inability,” Coles states.
That being said, it seems most logical to take a workshop after most of the elements of writing have been mastered in order for it to be useful. Interestingly, this is not always widely known. In my own experience, workshops have been taken by students with no prior knowledge of the genre. Oftentimes, students are in these classes because they simply fit into their schedules or they don’t always understand what exactly is involved in a writer’s workshop. Advice should be taken cautiously because sometimes, as I’ve stated earlier, pieces are being critiqued by inexperienced peers who may incorrectly try correcting your material.
Failure in a workshop lies within the pedagogy, according to 12 Writing. Even the most gifted writers may have never been taught how to teach. In some cases, creative writing comes so easily to some instructors that they don’t remember learning it themselves; therefore, they don’t know how to successfully teach it, no matter how much they want to help their students. This can be difficult for both students and teachers, as “Both end up feeling as though they've failed - the teachers don't feel they've provided enough help, and the students don't feel they've tried hard enough to learn.”
In answering the question whether writers should even consider taking a workshop, Coles states that writers should, indeed, but only to add to their knowledge. For the sake of avoiding a sense of failure, writers should not expect to take away anything but mere “suggestions for improvement that may or may not be beneficial to their writing careers.” To this, I would add that, because suggestions may or may not be useful, a writer must decide what suggestions to take and what to leave behind. This could be especially difficult when there is feedback by multiple peers with conflicting opinions on particular parts of the piece. Whose advice is more viable to be valuable?
This is a question not easily answered since it is usually a matter of opinion to the writer. Besides grammar and issues on style for particular genre pieces, there is not a right or wrong way to write fiction. What one person may suggest could be helpful, while what another suggests could be harmful. It is ultimately up to the author to decide what may work best in their narrative and those decisions can sometimes be very difficult to make. What is good for one story may not be good for another.
There are instances when corrective feedback is given and the writer is not informed of what was good within their manuscript. This can leave the writer to revamp their piece and possibly eliminate too much of their manuscript, including the best parts, according to 12 Writing. This is another aspect of the workshop that I endured, eliminating a chunk of my manuscript to only have my instructor have me put it back in. There is also the opposite approach in which workshop peers repress their feedback on your manuscript and handle it with kid gloves to avoid hurt feelings. This approach does not reflect the true thoughts of the peer, whom, otherwise, may have very beneficial feedback. This is something that I was guilty of doing because I did not want to come off as a pretentious know-it-all.
Writing is a vigorous, strenuous and very lengthy process. Short stories can take months to write; whereas novels can take years. The dedication and motivation must be there since writing is generally a lonely art where the author spends most of their time in solitude as they put their art of storytelling to the page. Starting a project can be very exhilarating until the motivation starts to fizzle when things become rough. This is the moment when a workshop can do a world of good to a writer and rekindle the fire. I always feel most motivated to write while in a workshop, however frustrating it may be. Knowledge of elements are a must in any form of writing, so it should not come as a surprise that writers must know the fundamentals before entering a workshop.