I’ve participated in a number of workshops (a.k.a., critiques) over the years. Many have been great. Some have been not so great. I’ve come to some conclusions about what makes for a worthwhile workshop and what doesn’t.
I’ve decided to do a two-part post, sharing what I’ve learned in hopes of helping those who are just starting out on their writing journeys, and maybe some who need a refresher.
Part 1: What Workshopping Is
1. A time for listening
The most successful workshops I’ve experienced have always been those where the ground rule is set that the author of the piece being workshopped must remain quiet during the critique. This allows those giving comments and notes to do so without interruption or rebuttal. However, this is a difficult thing to do, listening to people talk about your work. The very best thing you can do as a writer is to listen and take notes. Write down questions and points you want to clarify. Save those until after everyone is done with their comments.
A workshop is a great opportunity to hear how your work is being received. It’s a proving ground where you can see if what you thought you wrote is actually what came across. Better to go through the process during workshop than read it in reviews. But you have to be willing to listen.
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” ~ Winston Churchill
2. A time for learning
A workshop is a time to hear how your work is being received. If you’re open to the suggestions made, you’re going to learn how to make your piece stronger. That will either come through taking on the suggestions given during the workshop, or by sticking with what you’ve written and your vision for your work. Sometimes the comments readers give are way off. Whether you follow the critiques or your gut, workshopping a piece teaches you how to be a better writer.
Some people will never learn anything, for this reason, because they understand everything too soon. ~Alexander Pope
3. A time for growing
It can be very difficult to listen to people critique your work. Some comments bruise your ego. Trust me, I know. One of the hardest but best lessons I learned (and continue to learn) from workshopping is to keep my ego in check. It is serious hard work at times. Comments — especially coming from certain people — can be so hurtful. The truth is everyone has an ego that rears its ugly head from time to time. Learning to take critique — to be teachable — will grow you in unbelievable ways. Not just into a better writer, but into a better human.
“One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.” ~ G.K. Chesterton
Check back tomorrow for Part 2: What Workshopping Is Not.
I’m sitting at a cafe with Jim Sallis. We’re eating oatmeal, drinking coffee, talking about writing. We’re both working hard to finish our current novels. He’s had 12 novels published and won a bunch of awards and had lots of movie options; so he’s pretty familiar with how this writing thing works. I’m working on my second novel, (*cough*) having sent the first into permanent exile.
(Well, not permanent, but when I get around to reworking that story, it’s going to take on a very different shape. More on that in future posts.)
Anyway, Jim and I are chatting and people watching (because everything is material) and we realize we’re both facing the same conundrum in our current projects. We both know how our stories end, we just aren’t sure how to get there. Neither of us is stuck. We’re just…searching.
We commiserate and consume our sundries. And then I ask him, “When does this get easier?”
“When does what get easier?”
After he stops laughing, he says in his wise and guru-like manner, “I’ve been doing this a lot of years, Amy, and the only thing I know is I have to keep learning it over and over again.”
There it is. The awful (and wonderful) truth.
Awful, knowing writing will always be work. If it continues to be work for a seasoned pro like Jim, it will continue to be work for me. And you.
Wonderful, though, isn’t it? Knowing this will be a lifelong journey of learning and discovery? If Jim Sallis is still learning, then when I get to where he is now, I will still be learning and discovering, too. At least I hope I am.
But beyond that, here’s what I think he meant.
Every time you start a new project, it’s a brand new thing. In the history of the universe, it never existed before the muse feathered your head with sparkly dust and gave you the idea. Once you put words on the page, you’re setting off on an unknown journey. How can it possibly be like any journey you’ve been on before?
Sure, you know some, if not all, of the mechanics of this gig. Tone and diction and POV and verb tense and passive voice and all that. But unless you’re plagiarizing or writing a very close copy of a previously-published book, your character and your story are brand-spanking new. And their journey, unique.
Of course you’re going to learn it new. Every time. Over and over again.
This is what I love about writing. This is what I love about living a creative life. It’s always new. I’m always learning.
I hope you’re always learning, too.