Right now it’s all we’ve got whether we like it or not: sitting around a room together under the watchful gaze of some Published Elder, reading snippets of each others’ work, critiquing word use, sentence structure, character peccadilloes, scene quality and, if you’re lucky (or very unlucky if you’re the reader) an entire chapter.
… followed by crushing self-doubt, anger, calling your judges, jury, and executioners idiots, then doing your own thing anyhow.
More and more, the public discourse on the proliferation of workshops (and courses based on the model) are pointing out the same thing: it’s not making us better writers, and it’s not making our output better.
In fact, it’s possible the Workshop Model (thanks, Iowa) is the most destructive component of the writer’s development.
That’s because the model is not only flawed, but flawed in the worst ways possible. It’s not just one thing, but any combination of some or all the flaws that ruins it for developing writers.
1. The Mentorship Factor
Oh, she’s up there at the front of the group. So is he. You might have once heard the name. Somewhere. At least you think so – no, you’re positive. Maybe. Well, at least they’ve reached that Pinnacle that is the brass ring for all writers: Being Published.
Because Being Published must mean you know what you’re doing, right?
It’s possible your Published Elder is even famous or better still a Somebody, all capitalized and everything. Just meeting them makes you suddenly inarticulate and gushing. Your ability to make direct eye contact lowers proportionately with the heights of their accomplishments, but by the end at least you can brag about being on a first-name basis with a Somebody.
So you crack your knuckles, ready to get all smartified by osmosis. Or something like that.
There are real dangers in letting this unquestioned dominant-submissive interplay take charge of your writing and your development as a writer:
- Bias – We are biased, and therefore they are biased. Biased opinions can snuff out your individuality and your voice – the very qualities you’ll most need to develop as a writer to differentiate your work from everyone else’s. The group mentor might hate genre, hate everything but social realism, hate lyrical prose and linear execution. Guess what? Do you think you’ll actually get as fair a shake as s/he believes will be delivered? Do you think s/he’ll give you the wide berth you’ll need to develop your own voice and style, or will you be judged against some personal template and found wanting? Chances are, you will be funneled and pushed in an approved direction. Chances are with every comment and well-meaning critique you will be driven farther and farther from the story you were meant to write, and the farther away you get the harder it will be to come around to your own center again. That’s if your center isn’t completely obliterated by then.
- Lack of perspective -There is no way your mentor can understand your project holistically from bits and pieces of sample submissions or from its raw stage of development at that particular moment. How can anyone help you reach something they don’t know about or can’t share, especially if they don’t understand narrative development to begin with?
- Blind spots – Not everyone who has been published is smart enough or deep enough or perceptive enough or intuitive enough to achieve full and clear cognizance (in fact, that number is realistically zero). If aspects of your work meet your mentor’s blind spot, there is no way they can help you in a way that won’t be compromised by that blind spot.
- Perceptual limitations – A short leash intellectually, artistically, emotionally, psychologically, experientially means they just won’t get it because they don’t have the mind to deal with where you’re going, and they don’t have enough (or the right) tools in their toolbox to overcome their own limitations sufficiently to make your work shine. What it took to get them somewhere is not what it will take to get you anywhere.
2. The Trusted Person Factor
A little secret: as a rule, first rate writers wouldn’t attend writer’s groups or workshops if their lives depended on it, graduate work being an exception that mercifully only lasts a year or two.
(Oh, but they’ll teach them all right.)
They know something you don’t know, and that’s how dangerous it is to have many valueless voices interfering with a work-in-progress. Anyone allowed to have a hand in the unfinished project of a truly powerful writer has to be a Trusted Person offering the writer uncompromising vision as well as reason, someone who won’t undermine the writer’s voice or developing narrative, but who will call them on their BS.
Finding that Trusted Person is about as likely as finding a gram of astatine in your back yard, and in fact many of the finest writers have no one to whom they can vet their work at all except the editor who will see them through the publishing process at the end.
That we would ever find more than one Trusted Person to play that role in our writerly lives is tempting the bounty of the gods. To expect that the Published Elder will volunteer to be your Trusted Person when s/he can’t, by virtue of a vested interest in their own work and development, care about you or your work enough to also invest themselves in you in any way that matters, is unrealistic at best.
But a room full of rank amateurs with fragile overblown egos, all Trusted Persons? That’s not just tempting the gods but strutting across the divine stage and delivering atomic wedgies.
Bounty will not be had.
3. The Sampling Factor
Really? Five or ten static pages here and there, and we really think we’re going to understand the dynamism necessary to tell a story anyone cares about? Five or ten pages to represent the entire project vision, and if that sample happens to be the worst – or the best – of what we can do, how can anyone see the full truth we’re trying to reveal, much less help us reveal it?
The Workshop Model lives and breathes on samples that can’t possibly impart the breadth or depth or vitality of what a story will or can or should be, nor can samples adequately represent the whole picture or the movement of narrative.
So what exactly will our workshop critics be helping us with? How will they ever be able to sink their teeth into anything that matters long enough to help us sink our teeth into what matters in the story?
Of course, this point is far worse for long projects like novels and novellas, not so bad with short fiction. But still …
4. The Ignorance Factor
Ay. What do these people know? Really, what do they bring to the table that matters, that isn’t wrapped up in their own egos, their own ideas, their agendas, their resentment toward you for being a slightly less terrible writer than they are or for having their time and energy wasted by so many writers so much worse than they are?
Does anyone in that room actually know how to help you? And if they did, what do you think might get in the way of even their most noble motives for enlightening you? (Hint: return to beginning of post and re-read).
The Workshop Model might be therapeutic and a mutual support venue that allows writers to feel better about their dreams and the very real struggles of trying to be a writer, but putting together a group of people who don’t know enough about the creation and development of a work of narrative is not the way to make better writers.
Or better writing.
The Workshop Model should be like group therapy where you talk about your frustration and fear and hopes and dreams and trials and errors.
It should not be allowed to touch anyone’s literary junk.
5. The Limitation Factor
What we really need to understand about narrative – where story begins, how it develops, and how we can attract and sustain reader interest from beginning to end – can’t be provided by the Workshop Model.
How do you reach the reader? Do we ask the workshop’s Publishing Elder, who once sold maybe a whopping 1, 287 copies to friends, relatives, colleagues, and a few curious strangers, or do we read about it from Stephen King who admits to being so stoned throughout most of his career that he can barely remember actually writing many of his works?
(Although his output does make being a junkie seem pretty darned attractive …)
Stephen King and writers like him have a lot of important things to say about writing, and we should all pay attention.
As a generality. Like that stuff about adjectives and adverbs and purple prose, all good. All industry boilerplate. It just feels better coming from someone who has accomplished a heck of a lot more than we have.
What you will hear from your Published Elder and even a Somebody is – well, nothing you can’t get for free on the internet. From anyone. Anyone at all. Your Published Elder will point out your purple prose and weak character development (whatever that means, since they have no way of knowing where you’re going with it), your lack of focus, your misdirected blathering, your pathos, the same advice you’d get from anyone anywhere online. Likely, there is even software out there that will take care of some of these pesky problems with the same efficiency offered in a workshop.
To specifically understand your own work through someone else’s filters, it’s just not going to happen (for more information, return to top of post and re-read).
Most people teaching writing workshops are not exactly (how can I put this delicately?) Stephen King or Tolstoy material. How can any writer who can’t reach readers teach other writers how to reach readers?
It’s by studying fiction that has succeeded in reaching readers, all kinds of it from literary to straight genre, rather than the writer’s opinion of their own work that writers learn what they need to know about themselves and their projects.
Your work is not special to anyone but you – until it hits the marketplace and you find out the hard way whether or not you’ve made it special to anyone beyond yourself.
Unless you understand first how to make the story born in your imagination come to life in the reader’s imagination.
The only chance you’ll have at figuring that out is if you learn how narrative develops from its very DNA on until you have a perfectly articulated, functioning, vital story instead of some patchwork monstrosity you’ve stitched together and set lumbering into the world.
I’m not saying writers shouldn’t participate in workshops ever or that you can’t gain anything of value if you do participate in them, but if you do please go with an understanding that it’s not a venue built to help you develop the voice or the individuality you’ll need to create a meaningful, unique, original narrative from the inside out from beginning to end, which is something writers need to do more and more in order to stand head and shoulders above what’s become an ocean of published books that will never be read.
The workshop is there to criticize your literary hair and clothes, sometimes in the nicest way possible like your friend’s good-hearted mom who shows you how to use a scarf to deal with that turkey-wattle neck of yours, or sometimes like your own mom (“You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?”); other times it won’t be so nice or benign, like a group of guys Snapchatting (did I get that right?) your most vulnerable moments because berating you makes them feel better about their own failures.
Well, at least you might have a shot at telling your kids you once knew a Somebody. That’s pretty cool.
After over 20 years spent deconstructing and analyzing the best fiction ever written, Sandra is now developing a course specifically to help writers understand where story begins within themselves, how to develop narrative infrastructure organically so the story establishes and sustains its natural strength, dynamism, and power, and finally how to maximize the potential for reader engagement.