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Critique of the Writers’ Workshop

September 27, 2014 at 11:42 pm (Uncategorized)

As someone that has both a BA and an MA in Philosophy, I am a firm advocate of questioning and debate. If a view can’t be defended, or if a person is unwilling to express a view that they may have to defend, I’ve tended to reason, then the view is probably not a good one. In the very least, they have given me no reason to accept their viewpoint as valid. An undefended view is just some random person’s opinion, and only a fool will accept a random person’s opinion without question.

For this reason, I’ve held a skeptical attitude towards the writers’ workshop as it is typically conducted. The idea that the author should be silent while a group of fellow writers discussed their work, allowed (if they’re lucky) only a few minutes at the end to respond, struck me as asking for trouble. How can people be counted on to be diligent in their reading and comments if they don’t have to risk being corrected? Still, I also realized that an outside perspective could be potentially useful. So, with a mix of skepticism and hopefulness, I recently chose to immerse myself in a workshop environment.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of structure in the workshops I participated in. It struck me that certain things needed to be incorporated: such as restricting comments to what’s actionable, learning to separate personal biases from an objective aesthetic judgment, and incorporating craft theory. If you’re the sort of person that would enjoy a coming-to-terms-with-stuff tale and you’re reading a tragedy piece, don’t try to convince the writer she should turn it into a coming-to-terms-with-stuff piece just because that’s what you like to read. Your job, your only job as I see it, is to think about the author’s project and help her figure out how to better execute it. It’s not to vent your annoyance that the person wrote something that isn’t what you would read in your leisure time. This isn’t your leisure time. Suck it up and think about the author’s overall project and critique on that basis. It seems a simple concept, but one that got tossed out the window pretty much from the beginning.

I came to believe that a single group may not be sufficient to get valuable feedback on one’s work. In many ways, a person might be better served by simply going to a wide range of conferences and participating in workshops. Why? Because workshop groups can vary wildly. They vary in terms of age, geographic location, given aesthetic, desired subject matter, academic background and general personality. There’s no guarantee that a given group will be within a million miles of your intended audience. I’d argue that to get valuable feedback, you’d need at least three different workshops in unrelated environments. If a given piece  has the same problems noted by 25 year old midwesterners as it does by forty-something hippies in Vermont or 30-ish new agers in New Mexico, then maybe there’s something to it. If the information contradicts, though, it may just be the group in question. (That goes double for memoirs, by the way.)

Still, group-hopping may not be feasible for a lot of people, which is why something needs to be modified to compensate for the otherwise static nature of a given writing community. For starters, workshops need to have a Q and A period before the critique. I’d suggest the following format for a forty-five minute workshop:

Author’s Statement of Purpose: 5 minutes. This is where the author clarifies what sort of work the piece she’s writing is and what her goals are. This also helps the people in the critique, as it ensures that the author will enter the critique having thought the piece through thoroughly.

Q and A: 10 minutes. This is where the audience asks those basic questions, the stuff they maybe didn’t understand while reading but will nonetheless help them to provide a better critique. In some cases, this may actually give them more fodder for critique, because they may realize an unsuccessful intention.

Critique: 20-25 minutes

Author Response: 5 minutes, for any misunderstandings, issues, remaining clarifications, etc.

This allows for a certain degree of accountability with both the writer and the reader. The writer has to be prepared to explain her work but also this gets out of the way needless conversations about whether it’s this sort of piece or that, why this or that choice was made and so forth. It also disrupts the “committee” feel of the workshop. It reminds everyone that they’re there to help one another with their projects and helps mitigate a lot of the inattentiveness, confusions and theatrical antics that tend to ruin the workshop experience.


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