Monday, December 2, 2013

Why Workshop

"‘I don't want no help,’ he said. ‘I'm doing all right by myself.’”
–The Misfit, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
There are several good reasons you should be part of a writing workshop, and the most critical ones probably aren't what you think. 

Obviously, in a workshop you get feedback on your writing, and that can be invaluable depending on the group you're stuck with and the instructor.  Unfortunately it seems like the chances of getting a good writing instructor at university are only about 60/40 for, if I'm generous.  This ratio goes down if you're interested in anything other than well crafted, relentlessly mundane, epiphany based short stories.  This is especially the case at schools with creative writing MFA programs.  I don't know.  Some instructors feel they stand atop the tower of academia, guardians of the literary world.  From their sharp perch, they sneer down at anyone not trying to come up the same way as they did.  The letters go to their heads.  Forgive these poor, prestigious invalids.  They know only one way to write.  Their own.  Not all of them are like this, though, so don't despair.  Anyway, getting your work looked at is actually the least reason you should join a workshop.

The real reason is so you can see other peoples' work in process.  At worst you end up with a group that isn't the most critical, or that just isn't into what you're trying to do.  So what?  Unless your writing is a unique and delicate flower that only blooms once in a lifetime, and never in the same country twice, there is plenty of good writing like what you want to do lining the shelves.  Go and find it.  You're in a workshop to watch other writers struggle on the page.  It is your responsibility to look at their work as your own, and figure out where it's good, where it isn't, and how to make it better. 

The reason you should put first drafts in a drawer to cool off is to distance yourself emotionally from the project so that it isn't your writing anymore, it's just the writing.  You join a workshop to get better at exactly this.  You'll be reading work by writers with varied interests and skill sets.  This means you will really have to stretch sometimes to figure out what a story needs, or even what it is trying to do.  You'll start to store up a catalog of common mistakes, and how to avoid them, as well as hopefully a few clever ways to navigate the craft.  Now when you sit down to write you'll catch yourself and say, “No, What's-his-name tried this.  It didn't work for him, why would it for me?  I'll have to find another way.”  Your shelf reading should help supply that other way if it doesn't come up in your writers' circle.

If you're lucky, you will meet a few people—it only takes one—who you connect with on an artistic level.  Doesn't matter if you want to write different kinds of stories, you can challenge each other with your expectations.  What's important is that you have the same drive to improve, and some overlap in what you like to read.  It doesn't take much, but the more the better.  Then you can talk about your favorite stories, written or otherwise, and why they're so good for hours and hours.  You can also lament where they go wrong, probably for even longer.  Now you're writers together.  Misfits.  Writers are always misfits.  You can help each other make the climb.  At worst, you've already started your own little workshop of horrors that will last long after the other class is over.  At best, you've made a real and true friend. 

If you aren't at university now, heading to, or returning, there is still hope.  Community colleges sometimes offer creative writing courses.  There is also such a thing as writing groups.  You can track them down online, at a local bookstore, or anywhere artistic types congregate.  Look for the coffee.  Where you find the brew, you find the writers.

What have been some of your experiences with writing workshops or groups?  Helpful?  Frustrating?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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