Goodbye To All That . . . Workshopping

[Another entry in the ongoing blog "Would We Lie To You?: News from the Non-Fiction Career Lab"]

by Sari Boren

emily-workshopI have always been an evangelist for Grub Street’s workshop-based classes.

I took my first of many Grub classes (Memoir I with Michael Blanding) in the summer of 2004. Years before that I wrote science fiction and spent six intense weeks at the Clarion West writing program in Seattle, also run as a workshop. When I returned to Cambridge after Clarion, I spent six years in the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop, a member-run writing workshop. That’s about 72.4 bazillion hours in writing workshops (you can check my math).

I am deeply marinated in the workshop process. Almost everything I’ve learned about writing has seeped into me from the insights of instructors and fellow workshop writers, and from the efforts I’ve put into critiquing other people’s writing. The workshop process has made me the writer I am today.

But I think I need a break from workshops. Which makes me feel a bit like a traitor. I’m walking away from the key experience that, so far, has taught me how to be a writer.

I could be suffering from workshop fatigue. I’ve just finished the pilot year of Grub’s Nonfiction Career Lab and, as much as I miss my classmates (a lot!), I’m enjoying the break from so much work for time to just write and even read a novel, or three, for pleasure.

I think it’s more than fatigue. I think it’s a transition.

Part of what a workshop does is to teach a writer how to understand her own work. When I first started out in workshops, each person’s critique was, even in a small way, an education. Writing has so many elements of craft that any insight about my failure to get any one of these elements working was useful. The workshops also let me into the mind of the readers—where was a reader entertained, bored, moved or confused? At Grub Street the readers tend to be smart and thoughtful. They could spot the gaps between what I thought I put on the page and what the reader pulled from the page.

But as I improved, I worked through my rookie mistakes. I started to find my voice. More importantly, I improved my ear for hearing my own work. Certain sentences or paragraphs that I convinced myself to love in an early draft (Such a clever sentence! Such a gorgeous paragraph!) would grind against my ear as I revised. Sure enough, those would be the spots in my manuscripts that came back from the workshop with notes that said Cut? or I like this but not sure it works here.

Or course I still need readers. All writers do. I just don’t think I need ten readers right now.

Ten experienced writers/readers will each have good ideas about an essay. The problem is, at some point, the usefulness of hearing ten perspectives has diminishing returns. An essay under construction has dozens of possible points of departure. Each character, each scene, each sentence can be a signpost leading the essay in another direction. I have sat in workshops listening to critiques and thought: That’s a great idea, but that’s not what I want to write about. Or: You’re correct that the scene is confusing, but your fix is not taking me in the right direction.

And the uncomfortable truth about a good workshop is that everyone wants to be helpful. So everyone will find something “wrong” in every piece, even if they like it, even if they say: Send it out.

I polled several writers, writers more experienced than I am. Writers with prizes and books. Each of them said they have two to three trusted readers. Maybe four. What’s a good reader? Someone who understands what you’re trying to do and what’s unique about your voice and approach. Someone who is smart and critical and widely read. Someone who can point you to other work that may instruct or inspire you. A good reader knows when to stop offering ideas and advice; she knows when to tell you wrap it up and send it out.

There’s another important reason to keep good readers in my writing life: I need to read and critique other writers’ work. It’s often easier to hear the off sentence or notice the stray path in someone else’s writing. Also, through the effort of carefully reading someone else’s work, and by seeing how other (and better) writers revise, I learn more about how to write well.

I doubt I’m leaving workshops behind for good. I suspect one day I’ll find myself in the midst of a project craving the feedback that only a workshop of smart Grubbies can provide.

So as I make this transition, a big thank you to all those fellow workshoppers who kicked my ass this far.

Sari Boren is a partner, exhibit developer and writer at the exhibit design firm Wondercabinet Interpretive Design, Inc. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Alimentum; War, Literature and the Arts; and The Unesco Courier.

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