The Six Perils of Writing Workshops

(Another post from the Literature Network. This was originally published in November 2009 and it was these ideas that led me to start Not for the Faint Hearted)

Writing workshops help make writers. But are they always constructive?

Imagine if driving was taught by something like writing workshops. Each session, a group of learners would watch a colleague try a manoeuvre. Afterwards they would take turns to say what they felt went right and what went wrong, with occasional input from an instructor. It would be chaos, and not in a good way. As the New Yorker declared, in a review of Mark McGurl’s history of creative writing programmes and American fiction, The Programme Era, “[workshops are based] on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem

The workshop is one of the most popular ways of learning writing. Members of the group take turns submitting work which their peers respond to. Most academic workshops are facilitated by a tutor, but there are many successful workshops without a senior figure.

Workshops are popular, not just because there are so many writers about, but because there are so few readers willing to respond to unpublished work. In a workshop a writer receives critiques in return for responses to the work of their critics. In an academic context, workshops are cost-effective, proving cheaper supervision than regular one-to-one tuition.

Writers can gain much from workshops. All writers have points in their development where the help of a literate audience is invaluable. But workshops need to be approached with care- they have their problems too:

  1. Is your work suitable for workshopping? Workshops can be conservative. Unless members have very similar aims, they may respond negatively to work that makes them uncomfortable. Furthermore, workshops work best with short stories or episodic novels. Complicated structures or demanding works can suffer from being broken into digestible chunks, producing inappropriate feedback. What would a workshop make of Lolita or Naked Lunch?
  2. Is your workshop sustainable? Workshops are prone to personality clashes. Good, hard-working groups do happen, but also I’ve heard horror stories of plaigiarists, toxic personalities and people who are outright crazy. Some groups work well, but the chemistry is fragile – workshop groups seem to be inherently unstable.
  3. Do you have anything to say? In every workshop I’ve encountered, members are expected to comment on each piece, even when they have nothing to say. It’s hard to express indifference in a workshop and be valued as a useful member.
  4. Do you lack motivation? Some people value workshops for the imposing deadlines. But do you really need other people waiting on your writing to provide a reason to do it? Who are you to drag other people into your neuroses? If you need a dozen people to stir you to writing, you could do better things with your time.
  5. Do workshops tell the truth? Few people enjoy conflict in a social situation, which inclines workshops to encouraging and sensitive responses. It is easier to find limp praise than robust criticism in most groups. Think of every time you’ve not expressed your true feelings on some inept piece of writing, then ask how many times people have held back from giving you the truth. Is your workshop giving you the responses you need?
  6. Are workshopped novels ever finished? My main problem with workshops is that they encourage people to produce works-in-progress. There’s no point asking for critical comment on finished pieces; but does your workshop encourage and support its members in going beyond handing in a few thousand words every few weeks? What are the aims of the group’s members?

I’ve had some great experiences with workshops. I’ve been privileged to work with some very talented people, made great friends and enriched my life. But I could also tell tales to make your tummy go cold with terror.

The main thing most writers gain from workshops is a social space. It’s an opportunity to talk about writing and habits with people who share those interests. But often workshops seem to work best as a book club where people are reading different books – a place to hang out and talk. I wouldn’t suggest anyone stops doing workshops – but work out what it is you want from them and whether they provide the best way of doing this. It might be more effective to spent your money and time on one-to-one tuition if you can find someone good enough.

Or maybe I just haven’t found the right workshop yet. Maybe there’s some secret ingredient I’ve not yet spotted. Are there workshops that have lasted for years without tears and tantrums?

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