Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Your Writing Workshop is Dumb

By Steve Weddle

I've been to organized writing workshops. I've been to those that were quite disorganized. I've been to seminar classes that acted as writing workshops. I've read 3,000-word stories each week for a semester, offering detailed comments each week. I've skated through writing workshops without reading a damn thing I was commenting on. I've gotten great feedback. I've gotten terrible feedback. I've been useful. I've been an asshole.

And let me say, your writing workshop is dumb. The ones I've gone to are dumb. The ones I've never attended, never heard of, and never imagined are dumb.

Here's why.

The person whose story is first is in the worst spot.
No one knows what the tone is. Are you supposed to attack? Support? What is the workshop like? Are there ground rules? After the first person says something negative about your story, you're going after that person as soon as her story is up, aren't you? I know you, you hateful bastard.

Your ground rules are dumb.
Do not frickin tell me that this is the first three chapters of a novel. I will slit you stem to stern as soon as I find out what that means. You don't get to say, "Oh, yeah. I totally get that you don't understand Sebastian's motivation and all, but, like, that's all covered in the ninth chapter." Screw you. Am I reading the ninth chapter? No? Then shut your frickin mouth.

The person whose story is last is in the worst spot.
See, if you're the person who goes last, you've probably tried to be nice all throughout this. Now everyone just wants to get this over with. No one cares about other people's stories. They're not in this workshop because they want to learn how to make other people's stories better. They want to make their stories better. So now that they don't have to be nice, no one cares about you and your crappy story. Oh, a coming of age story about a young man who discovers deep secrets in his family? Feh.

All criticism offered is useless.
See, nothing you can say in a workshop is helpful.Those typos you pointed out? I do not care. Seriously, it's super neat that you saw how I alternated misspellings of "Candace" throughout the story, but that's not terribly helpful.You're reading this story and offering tips on what you'd do if it were your story. Shut up. Tell me if you lost interest and stopped reading. Oh, but you can't. Because it's a writing workshop and we're creating a false reality in which you're forced to read this. Great.

Your crappy story is now in my brain.
Damn it to hell. That thing you did with the person walking by the mirror and looking at it to describe himself. I did the same thing in my story. Am I that bad a writer? And now when I go back to work on my story, all I have is your character's voice in my head. Damn it.

Seriously, shut up your mouth.
Yes. I appreciate your comment that for the first thousand words I was writing in omniscient third and then for that paragraph I slipped into limited second and then later for two sentences I wrote in omnitrix tenth person. Just please tell me did the overall story work. I don't need the nitpicking. I know you're happy that you could find something to comment on, but stop proofreading. Just read. Or don't.

Workshop readers aren't real readers.
You want to know if your story works? You have to send it to readers who will read the story when they normally read stories. Reading as an assignment for a class or workshop is not how most of the people will read your story. At least, you're hoping that's the case, right? People need a chance to abandon your story. "I started it, but I had these reports for work to do. I'll get back to your story." That means your story needs serious help, by the way.

Workshops spend too much time validating.
In the margins of my stories, people would write stuff like "LOVED THIS" or "YES!!" That's nice and useful if you're getting feedback from a magazine editor. But in a workshop? How is that helpful? You read a sentence and liked it? Of course you did. It's good. That's why I wrote the story. Do you mean you like how I brought the symbol back around and tied it in from the opening page? That's what it's there for. Glad you can read, dillweed.

I'm sure I missed some points. Writing workshops are not conducive to getting your best work. Sending to a couple beta readers, then off to some mags seems a much better approach.

Maybe your mileage varies?


seana graham said...

I understand what you're saying, and I'm kind of averse to writing workshops myself. Still. Coming from the resistant side of the spectrum, I think it all depends on the workshop. If they like you, they're great, if they nail you on something that you can instantly see they're right about, they're fantastic, but if they dis you on something that they totally misunderstand, they suck. If they undermine your own sense of what you're trying to do, they suck to highest reaches of heaven, and the lowest depths of hell.

Yeah, it's complicated.

Steve Weddle said...

You're right about the liking and not liking. Personality has so much to do with how folks react in a face-to-face situation like that.

I guess a "blind" reading probably wouldn't work, either.

And, yeah, if they can nail you on something that you can clean up, that can be helpful.

Nick said...

I never been to a workshop at a college but we've done some in a coffee shop and those work a lot better than what you talk about. Lot of people you know are writers and they want to talk about stories and writing.

Dana King said...

It's not often I disagree with Steve, but i do today. My sole workshop experience was a semester at George Washington, led by John McNally. I was the only "genre" writer in the group. John set definite expectation on how each sample would be received and evaluated, and the author and reviewers could not question each other.

It would be hard to overestimate how much I learned that spring, or how much my writing improved. I still refer to my notes from time to time. I also made several good friends who continued to critique each others' work for several years afterward, where I was able to continue to improve.

I know my experience may not be typical, but I would almost certainly have become discouraged and quit long ago were it not for that workshop.

Steve Weddle said...

Coffee shop meet/chats might be easier, more laid back. Sounds like it.

I think the critique from lifelong pals is key. I still email/visit with fellow workshoppers from my MFA days 83 years ago.
Author and reviewer not questioning each other? That sounds interesting.

John McFetridge said...

I always like the story about the homeless guy. Every writing class I was ever in had a story about a homeless guy (okay, maybe sometimes it was a homeless woman).

Ben said...

This is why, ladies and gentlemen, I have always been reluctant to go to workshops.

EA said...

MHO: The only thing I learned to write in college was advertising. All the fiction I learned to write was from workshops and writers' groups, and it wasn't the act of writing that taught me, it was critiquing thousands upon thousands of pages written by other people. I learned to write vicariously, through watching others make mistakes that I then avoided in future. If a writer can afford an MFA, terrific. But if you can't afford either the time or the money, the "street" for writers is the workshop and the writers' group, where you'll learn it the hard way. To this day, I learn more from reading and critiquing others than I do from writing my own stuff.


I've seldom read anything as astute as this blog posting, pure genius.


Stay on groovin' safari,


Oh yeah, if'in ye EVER do a workshop for people of West VirginiƩ YOU MUST use the "H" word, "Hills," @ least once per paragraph.

It's de facto state law.

Ron Dionne said...

Hear, hear. Author! Author. Well said.
Writing workshops = procrastination with strangers. Instead, read what makes you want to write, then write.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

This post makes my day. I decided to offer myself a writing workshop last year. It meant not working on those days, traveling across the city and listening to some terrible stories.

No real criticisms were given, just, "oh I like this and that." I was so turned off I quit writing for six months.

Joshua Corin said...

As a creative writing professor, I have to say...you're not wrong.

Joshua Corin said...

As a creative writing professor, I have to say...you're not wrong.

seana graham said...

Of course, Annie Proulx wrote a homeless guy story too. It was called Postcards and it launched her career.

We have a story contest at our bookstore and though I don't wade through the entries myself, I have heard that there are a lot of stories about drug experiences. A lot.

Although one year the theme seemed to be zombies.