December 8th, 2008

Dead-hot Workshop

Once, I wrote a story called, “In the Time of the Radio Gods,” about my usual favourite themes: love and awkwardness, death and music, ghosts and grad school. I did a couple drafts and then read it aloud to 20-odd other writers. Then everyone said what they liked and hated about the story, a teacher corralled some of the comments into usable form and added her own insights, and then I revised it again. That was my first workshop, in high school Writer’s Craft class, and I’ve been workshopping on and off (mainly on) ever since.

Workshops are not for everyone. I’m sort of infamous for wanting to do everything as a team sport–I’ve never seen why I should choose a narrative direction, a life course or an entree all alone when there are so many estimable opinions to be accounted for. Not everyone feels that way, and to have to face those 20-odd opinions when you really only want to sort out your own feelings about the work can be very hard. Workshopping too early, too much or with jerks can be very upsetting.

Nevertheless, I sort of feel that any writer who would like to publish ought to try workshopping once. Just to see how it feels to get other people’s opinions on your work, to learn how to discount opinions that don’t help and make use of the ones that do. I know there *are* writers who work perfectly in splendid isolation, who can produce work that resonates immediately and powerfully with no oustide help, but I do not think they are the majority. The rest of us need to know how our work will be read to help us write it.

I’ve actually seen some talented writers set themselves way back by slaving over work for ages, and then having the first person who reads it be the slush-reader who rejects it with a one-line form-letter (I’ve *been* that slush-reader). The year before that lovely workshop, I actually had a story published in a lit journal, and I found the editorial process devastating. The ed in question liked the work but want it to be better than it was, and he had no patience with my tiny 17-year-old feelings. He had a job to do, and that was create good writingl, not necessarily a good writer (though, honestly, the best editors do both). In a workshop, people have the time, energy and impetus (grades, the fact that you’ll be commenting on *their* work) to be thorough, tactful, and to try to say something you’ll actually be able to use. A good workshop leader will at least try to keep students on-task and thoughtful, and to push readers to go with the writer’s ambition wherever it might lead.

Of course, I’ve workshopped in not-so-ideal circumstances: profs who didn’t give a toss, colleagues who cried in the face of criticism, friends who felt awkward saying anything but, “It’s great!” Once, a class workshopped a rather good excerpt from a semi-autobiographical “mom-lit” novel. Then, at coffee break, I ran into said mom in the hallway with her coat on, car keys in hand. “Babysitter issues?” I asked her. “No,” she shrugged. “I just only like the part of class where we talk about *my* work.”

But I also got my first tastes of absinthe (blech) and Bukowski (well…) in workshop, got told my work was boring, poetic, post-modern and brilliant; made amazing friends, learned how to deal with rejection, learned how to write a query letter, learned a lot about sex (not all workshoppers want to talk about their sex lives, but a fair number do). My workshop leaders and colleauges have been some truly talented writers, some truly famous writers, a kitten named Chub-Chub and some genuine friends.

This post is sparked partially by having lunch yesterday with the leader of that first-ever workshop leader, Pam North. So many years later, I am still so grateful for her attention and insight, and so many years later, she is still giving that same attention and insight to class after class of maybe-writers-to-be. Also this week, I’ll probably be relying on the attention and insight of my writing-friend (a dear one, but no one who would ever so succumb to the urge to say “It’s great!” just to make me happy), Kerry. *Also* this week (this is quite a workshoppy week, I guess) my four-person monthly workshop will once again reach quorum, when our fourth member returns from the coast for a holiday cameo. I will thrilled to hear of her adventures and give her a hug, but I am also thrilled to be reading her work again. Following the path of other writers through their giant leaps forwards and occasional missteps is another reason to workshop–you learn where you might want to go.

My worst moment in a workshop was one a prof handed back a story without any comments at all and, when I asked what he thought, sighed and said, “Oh, Rebecca, I don’t care what you write.” Not awesome. But the fact is, most people don’t care what the writers are up to, and in a workshop there is an unusually high concentration of those who do. Which helps when, like after the moment above, you need a little honest feedback, a little genuine praise, and maybe a hug.

Alex never gets what she wants

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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