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.
A while back, I was writing a scene in which my protagonist is given a choice. I made that choice for her, assuming I knew best. I wrote along my merry way, into the next chapter, la-la-laaaa…
The story slowed. My writing slowed. I found myself typing with two fingers instead of ten, sitting back in my chair with a scowl on my face.
I’d made the wrong choice and that wrong choice leeched the energy from the story.
Back when I first started writing, I would have done one of two things:
- Forced the story forward like a crazy driver whipping a horse, not caring that it is dying on its feet, or
- Decided the idea behind the story wasn’t strong enough and stopped writing it altogether.
Now I know better.
Now I know the energy of any story can be killed by my agenda. My outline. My ideas. My knowledge. My morals. My point.
I also know that any story idea strong enough to get me to sit and write is strong enough to propel itself to completion.
I’ve learned I must be sensitive to the energy of the story. To what the story wants. I need to listen and feel and intuit as I write. Sometimes this means slowing down. Sometimes it means sitting and waiting. Sometimes this means getting up from my chair and scrubbing the bathtub.
In my experience, stories are like fireflies. They buzz around, all fascinating and beautiful, going this way and that. I have a choice: I can trap them in a jar or I can leave them free and watch them shine. If I trap them in a jar, they won’t buzz and they won’t fly. Eventually they won’t even blink.
Sometimes writers want to boil down writing into steps and charts and easy-as-1-2-3. But in my experience, writing isn’t like building a cabinet or setting the clock on your car stereo. Writing is an act of creation. And there is something mysterious about creating.
James Sallis talks about writing this way: In the corner of the room, in his peripheral vision, there is a form. It is out of focus. As he writes, the form takes shape,. The more he writes, the more he understands what the shape is, what it is becoming, what it will be.
Back to that story where I’d made the wrong choice for my character. I didn’t want the story to die. So I read back through, found where I’d gone wrong and rewrote the scene. The story sparked to life again, and — sensitive now to the story — I eased my grip on the steering wheel. I let the story decide which turns to take.
Being sensitive to the energy of a story alerts you to where you’ve strayed off track, where you’ve left something out, where you’ve gone too far. Being sensitive to the creative process sets a story free, gives it energy, makes it shine.
Are you the sensitive type?