The Writer & The Beasts of Workshop

I would get sick.

Almost repulsed by the idea of what was to follow. I would learn that having your work critiqued by others is both the worst and the best of times. The day of a workshop I would pace like a caged animal. I was beyond worried. Apoplectic comes to mind.

The process, for me, back then in the dark ages before digital delivery was to print off a copy of your story, have it photocopied for the number of classmates, and place it in a special folder at the library the week of classes. The copies would be picked up and presumbly read. On the day of the workshop, studens arrived with your story and an index card or two of anonymous comments which they submitted to the professor.

And then the discussion began with the professor reading out comments from the cards to move the discussion along. The writer was instructed to remain quiet — quiet and calm — and take notes.

Still it was painful. Still it was enlightening. Sometimes — not often — your work was praised. Of course, as a young writer most of what you heard about your story was disregarded. You were a genius; your classmates idiots and your professor an old fart of the highest order.

A workshop is not an exact science. Everyone — surely the writer — was trying to avoid the dreaded “story by committee.”

Much of my undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, and personal/professional workshops have followed this same format. I get less ill now, listen more and hope I project a sense of calm.

Workshops are a bizarre part of the writing process and they’re mostly useful because as writers we often need help killing our recalcitrant darlings and their deviant habits. Workshops too are recursive in that way that in reading the work of others the writer can’t help but improve their own work (at least steal the good stuff from other writers).

The more workshops you do the better you get at surviving them and come to even thrive through their odd angles and such. Time comes when you subvert them or will want to. But that’s another kettle of guppies.

Along the way the writer comes to know how their work is perceived and the will to either change the perception or to damn it. As with anything else in writing it comes down to choice.