Friday, July 6, 2012

How not to workshop

The wonderful Charlotte Wood tweeted this beauty today.

I love it so much that I'm going to use it - in my workshops!

Workshopping in writing classes is a bit of a contested area. Some writers, teachers and students swear by it, and equal numbers loathe it with a passion. 

My personal experience was that I gained confidence from the process. I went to university with an 80,000 word manuscript that wanted to be a novel but which for the life of me I couldn't see how to finish, or if in fact it was worth finishing. Friends and family had said nice things - but that's kind of what friends and family do. I went along to writing class because I *wanted* strangers to read my words and tell me, was it working? Did they care about the people, the story, the words? I wanted to replicate the experience of writing something for publication, sending the words off into the world where they would be read by people who weren't related to me and felt no compulsion to love me - or be kind.

I was fortunate to be in a class where most of the students took their role as workshop participants very seriously. They read in advance. They were thoughtful. They considered what the work was trying to do, rather than what they personally "liked" or "disliked," and provided feedback that was constructive.

I've since been in workshops, and taught workshops, where for the most part people have tried to do this. But the thing that I loved about this "workshopped" poem is that is a great example of everything that can go wrong in a workshop. 

Over critiquing work, critique for the sake of it, doing a line edit of a small piece rather than thinking about the big and basic questions is a common failing in workshops. This often goes hand-in-hand with lack of preparation.

In each semester I found there were always a (mercifully) few participants who - without fail - never prepared responses to other people's work. Excuses would range from "didn't get the email," "couldn't print it out," "thought you were bringing it." They would then make up for their lack of preparation by being overly-critical, critiquing on the fly, obsessing over full stops and commas. 

I can still hear their voices as I look at the comments on poor Emily's work here. 

The image comes from this blog  if you want more literary goodies.  

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