Podcast Archive: What Makes a Good Workshop Citizen?
Writers often say that the workshop experience is crucial in developing their art. Creating a vibrant and productive workshop is not a matter of luck — there are things we can all do to be better workshop citizens. For this special edition of our podcast, we asked a selection of the dedicated writers, authors, and instructors in our community what we should all be doing to ensure we become valuable, productive, and responsible members of any writing class. From focusing on writerly intent to embracing contradiction, overcoming shyness to accepting all genres, these snippets of advice provide a sound starting point.
Alysia Abbott, Chip Cheek, Nicole Terez Dutton, Jonathan Escoffery, Regie Gibson, Ethan Gilsdorf, Brionne Janae, Sonya Larson, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, Ron MacLean, Sara Daniele Rivera, Matthew Salesses, and Dariel Suarez.
Find your favorite section quickly with these handy time codes:
|What is Workshop Citizenship?||00:00 to 3:07|
|Stretch Beyond Shyness||3:08 to 4:21|
|Don’t Over-Talk||4:22 to 5:23|
|Embrace Contradiction||5:24 to 6:23|
|Have Conversations||6:23 to 7:12|
|If You Don't Like the Story||7:13 to 8:59|
|Focus on the Writer’s Intent||9:00 to 12:30|
|Things to Avoid||12:31 to 16:17|
|Embrace All Genres & Styles||16:18 to 17:13|
|The Most Valuable Workshop||17:14 to 20:00|
|Addressing Race, Culture, & Bias||20:01 to 37:52|
|Workshop Magic||37:53 to 39:33|
Eson Kim: Welcome to a special edition podcast that focuses on the writing workshop. In recent months, writers around the country have been discussing what it means to be a good workshopper, especially when discussing unfamiliar and sensitive ideas. But what does it really mean to be a good workshop citizen? How might we put it into practice? We asked several GrubStreet staff members, instructors, and writers to find out. We’ll start with Jonathan Escoffery.
Jonathan Escoffery: I think what makes a great workshop citizen is someone who is conscientious, and is coming into the workshop prepared to meet other people where they’re at; to consider where other writers’ goals lie, so that you are not necessarily putting any kind of prior expectation onto other people’s work, or making any assumptions about their experiences or where they should be as writers. I think a good citizen listens to what his or her classmates say - I think a good workshop citizen asks more questions than makes assertions, probably, because a good workshop citizen is curious and wants to know more about the world and wants to know more about other people’s processes in a way that they can learn how to best create their own stories, and essays, and poems.
Eson Kim: Dariel Suarez has a similar philosophy.
Dariel Suarez: Someone who comes with an open mind, willing to learn and listen, and be challenged by new ideas or new ways of thinking about writing. I also think of someone who is going to try to keep in check some of their bias when it comes to cultural, social, political aspects of writing, simply because, I think, you know, writing is a global phenomenon and I think that it’s important to come into it with a certain, sort of a way of thinking in terms of discovery, and not so much of imposing our own experiences into it, but rather experience something new.
Eson Kim: Sara Daniele Rivera applies a little theater experience to answer this question.
Sara Daniele Rivera: There is this idea in a certain kind of theater where you are using movement to generate ensemble, and people might be walking around a room, and they always have to pay attention to the balance of the space. So if there a lot of bodies in one half of the space, you move to another one, if, you know, a lot of people are moving quickly, you rise up and you match their pace. And I think that’s a little what the creative workshop is like, in that we have to pay attention to what voices are being heard, and if you are dominating the workshop, and if you’re speaking up all the time, you’re not creating a balance of voices, and you’re not creating a balanced energy. So, I think that that comes from paying attention to the full group, rather than just paying attention to the story or the poem in front of you.
Eson Kim: Contributing can be difficult for the shy or quieter individuals. Alysia Abbott favors quality over quantity, but she does suggest a little bit of stretching outside your comfort zone.
Alysia Abbott: Some people process aloud, and some people process internally, and it doesn’t mean that that person who is maybe more quiet might not write more notes that could be helpful. But I do think that from the perspective of an active and interesting workshop experience, where comments can build on each other, I think it’s important to try to hear from everyone. Especially to hear from people whose point of view isn’t represented or hasn’t already been spoken. If they feel comfortable enough to say, “Well actually, I see things a little bit differently.” Sometimes that’s not easy, to speak out and make yourself vulnerable in that way. I think as an instructor, or as other workshop citizens, that you be open to that point of view, and not react to it defensively, you know, that you sort of try to consider it.
Dariel Suarez: For the quiet students, I think speaking up is just a way to get to know yourself, and your own view of writing. So, I think it’s a good exercise to speak in public, to speak in front of other people, to disagree with an instructor, which happens to me once and while in a classroom, and I love it when it happens, when they don’t agree with my view.
Eson Kim: Some people have the reverse problem, and are over eager to fill the silence. Regie Gibson has a suggestion for that.
Regie Gibson: I like to write down “W-A-I-T,” which is an acronym, it means “wait,” it’s an acronym for “Why Am I Talking?” Is what I’m saying right now important and germane to what’s going on, or do I just like to hear my own voice because I’ve got x-amount of people listening to me right now, and I can get on whatever literary soapbox I feel I want to get on. So, that I put always, up in the right-hand corner when I’m in meetings, “Why am I talking?” And I try not to say it, if I don’t think I absolutely have to say it.
Dariel Suarez: If you’re someone who has a tendency to speak a lot, which is completely fine, it is important to know when it is a good moment to speak up, meaning, you don’t have to have a comment about everything that we talk about in a story. You know, pick two or three things that you really want to talk about, and then talk about those things when they come up, and if they don’t, then bring them up. And then give space for others to speak up, but allow the space, at least give a pause.
Eson Kim: As with any discussions, sometimes there are disagreements. But it doesn’t mean we should shy away from them.
Sara Daniele Rivera: In workshop, contradiction is a huge opportunity for the writer, and I think that that’s an important thing. When you see people reading your work in drastically different ways, you can find the midpoint, you can figure out which point of view you prefer to align your work with. So I think that sometimes some of the richest feedback we get from workshop comes from people who don’t agree with each other.
Eson Kim: And according to Ron MacLean, these disagreements don’t need to be resolved.
Ron MacLean: There’s a tendency in a room to keep wanting to sort of argue a point, as if winning the point is what matters, and one thing I keep trying to remind students is that the goal here is not to come to agreement, the goal is to provide the most broad-based information we can to the writer, not to say, “Here are five things, and we agree on these four.” The agreement isn’t what matters, the information is.
Eson Kim: And Sonya Larson reminds us that it’s all about the conversations; That’s where the true value of workshop begins to reveal itself.
Sonya Larson: The magic of a workshop is the conversation. It isn’t simply the delivery of everyone’s input submitted to someone for which they can go home and chew on it. If that were the case then we could simply just send one another feedback by email and it would be done. I think that to play to the real strengths of having a group of smart people in a room discussing the same thing, is that the conversation itself, as it grows over the course of the hour, is richer than any one of those pieces of feedback, or all of them cumulatively; that they have to build on one another.
Eson Kim: But what if you really don’t like or enjoy the story that’s up for workshop? Chip Cheek has some guidance for that.
Chip Cheek: Even if you don’t like the story, and even if you think it’s bad, and you think the writer is very much a beginner, it is still incredibly beneficial for you to critique that story and discuss it as deeply as possible. It’s not only beneficial to the writer, it’s beneficial to you and your understanding of fiction. If you don’t like the way it works, it’ll help articulate your own taste for you. At GrubStreet, we say we have a “No-Diva” policy, and I definitely have that in my classroom. I think those are, to me, the most important things, to just, do not harm, be encouraging, even in master classes, find what’s really working, and then have an honest critique on the level of the writer’s intentions.
Eson Kim: Keeping that in mind, it’s always good to review workshop manuscripts with a little bit of humility and perspective.
Chip Cheek: I make this point: “What is a ‘Master’? How do we define what a ‘Master’ is?” And I make the point about, say, Alice Munro, everyone would say she’s a master, right? But you could also make a critique about her, as people have said that her prose is plain, or Flannery O’Connor, that her characters, you know, verge into characterization. Some writers are terrible at dialogue, that we think are masters. Some writers, like Henry Green, have no interiority. So, what you do, you try to find your heat, where you think the energy is in your stories, and let’s try to cultivate that, and it may be totally different from someone else’s energy and heat. So you know, I think by doing that, I’m encouraging the students to just really broaden their notion of what’s masterful and great.
Eson Kim: So we know we want to have engaging and thoughtful conversations about the work, but how do that? Especially if we’re new to the writing or to the workshop process. Brionne Janae gives us a good starting point.
Brionne Janae: I always try to look for the best line in the poem, you know, make sure I have a line in the poem where I say “Okay, this is the poem at it’s best,” and I mean it’s gonna be a little bit subjective to what I like to see, but at least I’m looking at what the writer has put on the page, and so this is their aesthetic, this is maybe what I think is their best, and then try to get the rest of the poem to arise to that level, you know, with that one line or with that one stanza. A phrase I’ve heard a lot in workshops is to “Go with what the poem wants,” so it’s not necessarily what the author wants, and it’s not what the rest of the table wants, but it’s what the poem itself wants. So that can be, you know, going with that best line or that best idea, and really making sure that that’s realized, or that the rest of that poem has risen to that occasion.
Eson Kim: And we shouldn’t lose sight of the writer in this whole workshopping process.
Alysia Abbott: Respecting the intent of the writer, really trying to understand what the purpose of the piece is, and that the purpose of the piece may not be the purpose of the piece you would write. But you want to be able to meet the writer on the train of their intent.
Eson Kim: Speaking of trains, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich reminds us not to derail workshop conversations by focusing on our personal preferences.
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich: Let’s say someone turns in a memoir in which there’s a long scene in which they talk about trains; it’s not good feedback to say “I loved that scene, I’m so fascinated by trains.” It’s equally bad feedback to say “I’m totally bored by that scene, I hate trains.” We don’t care how the reader feels about trains. Readers out there in the publishing world might end up caring, people have idiosyncratic responses to books. But when you’re a reader in a workshop, it’s not like being a reader out there in the world. It’s really trying to ascertain, usually through lens of craft, I think craft is often a shortcut to get us there, but it’s trying to ascertain what the story itself is trying to do, what the memoir itself is trying to do, and what the narrative purpose of that moment is, and kind of take it on its own terms, whether it’s succeeding or failing at what it’s trying to do, whether or not you like what it’s trying to do.
Eson Kim: It’s actually okay to use as a starting point how a piece makes you feel, or the impression it made on you, as long as your conversation doesn’t end there. Here’s Ethan Gilsdorf:
Ethan Gilsdorf: If students don’t know quite what to say about a work because they don’t feel comfortable with the literary, the language of literary criticism around identifying different aspects of the craft, they will tend to just have a personal reaction to something. They’ll say “Oh, I really could relate to that, it reminded me of the time when I was 16 and had this argument with my mom.” So they often have a personal reaction. I think on its face, you know, that’s not the worst thing to say, because at least it lets the writer know they’re struck a chord with somebody. (12:00) When I hear a writer, a fellow precedent, say something like that, what I’ll often say is, “So, can you bring that back to something on the page? Can you first of all show me where you most locked in to the story or the essay, where did you really feel like you were identifying the most with the character of the writer in the scene,” let’s say. And let’s talk about why, how did that writer do that effectively? So I try to help that writer, to sort of move beyond that personal reaction and try to identify what’s happening on the page.
Eson Kim: And since we’re trying to build a positive and artistically enriching environment, there are certainly some behaviors that are good to avoid.
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich: I never wanna see somebody rewrite it for the writer. There should never be a situation in which you’re literally crossing out this person’s sentences and substituting your voice. That, again, it’s almost like, it’s rude for one thing, but you’re talking over the writer, and that’s not the point, you’re not writing this person’s book. Your job as a workshop citizen is to help that person write the best version of their book as they can. And so you really want to take a step back in that moment, and try instead to reflect your reading experience: “Oh this was confusing to me,” “I couldn’t quite see what you mean by these words,” “This took me away from the main narrative that I thought we were in,” “Time is jumbled here,” whatever that is, rather than rewriting it.
Sara Daniele Rivera: Don’t use workshop time to focus on things like grammar. I’ve seen that happen too, when somebody wants to be like, Grammar Police, and that’s something that you can put in the comments, if you wanna circles somebody’s clauses usage or whatever. I will occasionally bring up something grammatical if I think that it can be helpful for the whole group, or if I think that it’s important in telling the story. “Look if you arrange the sentence, how it brings us into the action so much quicker.” But focusing on that in the workshop, or bringing it up every time, that’s not the kind of feedback that people are necessarily looking for, and at worst it can make somebody feel embarrassed and self-conscious. It’s not the most productive thing.
Chip Cheek: Any sort of like “I hate this,” it’s just never helpful to say that, even if you hate something, it will be clear if you put your squiggly line, and say “I don’t understand this,” or “This isn’t resonating with me,”but just not “I hate this,” cause that’s just saying that, you know, a lot of people “hate” James Salter, you know, but I think a lot of people would agree that he’s great, too. Also, I mean I guess maybe it’s not as bad, but even “I love this so much,” saying that you really like something? Great, you know, and tell us why, like try to articulate what is it about this that sort of, that’s speaking to you, because maybe that’s something that the writer is doing that they can sort of capitalize on, or it can help them as they are, as we all are, trying to not only just finish this one story, but trying to figure out where our heat is, and what our kind of aesthetic sensibility is. It can also, in the workshop, when someone is sort of effusively saying like “This is the best thing I’ve ever read, this is such genius” you know, it can kind of make other people in the class feel like oh, okay, great, you’ve never said that about my stuff, you know? There’s kind of a, you try to keep all competition out of a classroom obviously, there’s some of the healthy competition, like “oh my God, that story was so good, I wanna try to like do that too,” you know? Or get that kind of praise, but I think excessive keeping on of the love can be damaging, too, especially if it’s gonna blind a writer to some of the weaknesses in the story.
Eson Kim: Nicole Terez Dutton also reminds us not to read things into the work that we happen to know about the author.
Nicole Terez Dutton: Especially in poetry, people have a tendency to associate the speaker with the writer, and I think it’s important to remember that the speaker is not always the writer, or expressing the writer’s position or views on anything. We never want to be critical of the writer in so much as we know of their own personal history, and try to read that into the work and speak about that, I feel like that’s a really important thing to do in order to keep a space safe and productive.
Eson Kim: In every workshop, there’ll be a wide variety of manuscripts, and it’s important to give every one the same level of attention. It’s a total cop out to skimp on a mystery or romance story just because you don’t typically read those types of works.
Dariel Suarez: It’s still writing, it’s still literature, there’s still an intent behind it, there’s still a purpose to that piece of writing, and I think as a reader I can make some informed responses, I can have an informed response, to some extent. I think it is important to know if I’m not someone who is very well-versed in that particular genre because I do want the writer to understand that, where I’m coming from. And maybe you yourself could learn a little bit, I mean there are things you could learn from genre. I think that myself, I’m always intrigued by mystery writing, you know, because I don’t write mysteries, but I do have elements of suspense in my writing and I wanna learn how do those well, and sometimes mystery writers are much better than literary writers at this, and they write essays about it, and so you can always learn something,
Eson Kim: Speaking of learning, one of the most common misconceptions about the writing workshop is that your own workshop day will be the most valuable.
Jonathan Escoffery: I think students sometimes don’t realize that one of the best ways to learn how to become a really good writer is to read a lot, but also to read their peers work, because that’s when they turn on the internal editor in their minds, and that’s when they learn, “Hey, what’s working in this story, and why isn’t it working,” and then they have to actually articulate why a story is or is not working, and then they bring that back to their own work when they start either writing or editing their own work, and I think you don’t necessarily, as a student, think about that muscle that you’re building up in the workshop. So the more generously you give, you’re actually giving back to yourself, and I think whether you wanna think of it selfishly or selflessly, I think giving as generously as possible is the best thing you can do both for yourself and your fellow students.
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich: I think in workshops people think the day that will be most useful to them is the day that their work is up for workshop, and if it’s a good workshop, that is probably the day that is going to be least useful to them. Because, all they’re getting, not that the workshop feedback itself won’t be useful, I very much hope it is, and for most people it is useful. But then you’re sort of just being told what to do with this piece. What you really want to spend the rest of the workshop time learning is what to do with all your pieces, right? And that has to do with building this ability to separate your intent, when you’re the writer, from what’s actually on the page. Which is very similar to as a reader, learning to see what’s actually on the page, what the piece wants to be, rather than what your hopes for it are as a reader. So it’s almost like you’re practicing that separation when you’re giving people feedback, and that I think is probably what’s most useful for taking workshop classes, because by reading other people’s work, you become a better reader of your own. (19:00) It’s incredibly useful to see that a technique doesn’t work in someone else’s piece, and see it in maybe like four other pieces, and think to yourself “Huh, I really don’t think that technique works,” or something, and then open your manuscript and see “Oh! That’s what I’m doing, never saw that before!” Conversely, to have a moment that really strikes you with such power in somebody else’s manuscript and really notice, Oh it’s the pacing that makes it so powerful, oh it’s the vividness, oh it’s specificity, oh it’s the verbs, you know, whatever it is, and then start to feel that inflect your own work as well. I think we learn most in workshop when we are not the ones being workshopped. That’s what I wish people would understand from the start rather than understanding at the end. They always seem to understand it at the end! But it would be great if people understood it from the start so that they came in on Day 1 just as invested in helping their classmates as they are in getting their own work read.
Eson Kim: So far we’ve addressed some workshop best practices that are rooted in common sense - “Be professional, give generously, engage with the conversation”- but what if your workshop starts entering less-comfortable discussions about race, cultural narrowness, and stereotypes? Some of you might be wondering why we need to even engage in such discussions at all; Can’t we just ignore it? And is the workshop environment the best place to discuss these things?
Nicole Terez Dutton: I would encourage for folks to, even though it is difficult, and it is hard, and there’s some kind of trepidation around the possibility of offending people, I think it’s worth getting into, because part of our job as writers is not just to read widely, which it is, or to write widely and have a practice, or to try to become sufficient in our craft, but to develop a habit of mind, to develop a way of thinking that’s nuanced and dynamic and able to consider complex things in complex ways, and embrace that, not as a problem or a bad thing, but as something really fantastic that is worth getting into. Essentialist thinking and essentialist writing challenges neither the writer nor the reader, but I think as workshop participants we can challenge each other to be more complicated, in a wonderful way, with our writing and thinking.
Eson Kim: And sometimes, our mistakes stem from good intentions. One common error is when we try to write a certain character, and then we look to someone in the workshop who we think is like that character, and we ask them specifically to chime in. So in other words, we’re asking someone to specifically be an ambassador for an entire group of people. This type of approach has some inherent problems.
Alysia Abbott: To always to turn to one minority voice to ask them to comment on a whole group is to draw attention to that person in a way that’s apart from their writing. You know, we’re there to comment, to say what we respond to individually, but no one should have to feel like they have to speak for a whole group. I think it just is reductive, it just sort of reduces their identity in a way.
Eson Kim: Assumptions can be tricky. As we all know, even our own siblings can differ wildly from us, even though we came from the same family.
Ron MacLean: A lot of it, for me, I feel like comes down to always trying to bring it back to down to anything that anybody is saying at any given point is one data point - that’s all any of us are.
Eson Kim: And how helpful are generalities, anyway?
Dariel Suarez: All great writers, I think, are the ones who delve in nuance, in layering, in complexity, in contradiction, so to think of something in one way, to have a one-track mind about a culture, about your expectations of a culture, or about someone speaking for an entire group of people, is just downright silly, you know? Every group, and it doesn’t have to be just countries, but even within countries, every group has a large number of different ways of approaching things and thinking about things and doing things. Cultures are very complex. I try to let people know, that in writing, when we’re thinking about writing, and we’re speaking about writing, we should always concentrate on the different ways in which you can write about something. Whether it’s a culture, a society, or it’s women or men, I mean that’s just so general to expect anybody to be a voice for all men, or even for a certain kind of man, like middle-aged men or whatever it might be. Yeah there are traditions in literature, of certain kinds of topics and themes and tropes, but I don’t think that we should pigeon-hole a conversation about one thing or expect someone to speak for an entire culture. I think it’s unfair for anybody to expect that person to do that.
Eson Kim: It’s particularly important to think about our own biases when we make statements about a peer’s work and it’s credibility.
Jonathan Escoffery: One example is when a student or workshop participant has the urge to say “But this character wouldn’t do this. A twelve-year-old girl from such and such area would not do this, would not do x,” that’s the impulse that drives me the craziest as an instructor, because your writer is there, many times they’re sitting there with this gag rule or this cone of silence, and what they’re thinking is “I was that twelve-year-old girl from that neighborhood and I did to that, or I did think that,” and I know you’re supposed to separate yourself from your characters, but I think sometimes participants in these workshops come from a place where they feel like they know what everybody would do. I think what they’re actually trying to say is that this character has not proven, or we haven’t been given the evidence as to why this character has done that in the story. And I think that’s what they’re actually saying, and I think it takes a patient writer to then kind of translate that in their head and say “Okay, I obviously haven’t put in the details or the evidence for why my character does such and such.” When people say a character wouldn't do this, or a character would not do that, what they’re really saying is “give us more detail and evidence that the character would do that.”
Eson Kim: And if you’re ever tempted to act as spokesperson for an entire group, keep in mind that there’s a high probability that you’re wrong.
Brionne Janae: I was in a workshop recently, and this woman brought in a poem about the Middle Passage, and it was called “The Atlantic Ocean Talks About The Middle Passage,” and then there was the poem, and one of our workshop members said that he didn’t know what the Middle Passage was, and he felt that she should put an asterisk next to “Middle Passage” and then explain it. I disagreed, because I feel like an asterisk detracts aesthetically, and you know, her title was clear, if you don’t know, you can use Google, it’s a magical thing. And then it became this big discussion. He felt that this woman, who was African American, should be responsible for educating people. (25:57) He felt that, “I didn’t know what this was, you need to help white people who don’t know these things” and he was very much being a spokesperson for white people, and claimed that no white people knew what the Middle Passage was, and I told him “No, I’m pretty sure that’s not true, there are plenty of people who know what the Middle Passage was, and they’re not all black.” But it became this big thing, and eventually I said to him, “It’s not her job to educate you. That’s not what she sat down to do as the poet. If it was, then she is more than welcome to, but she is by no means obligated to educate or to speak for African American women or to give a history lesson. And it’s gotten a lot easier to get the history lesson if you would like, you know, but she’s done her part by writing the poem that she wanted to write and bringing it into the workshop. There’s this big thing for where for people of color and women, the burden of explanation is always on us. We are expected to explain ourselves, and it’s not that we’re not understood, the expectation is that we won’t be understood and that we need to explain our experience. Where as reverse, there’s a certain experience with white men or even white women, where their experience is expected to be the standard, so they don’t have to explain themselves. There’s an inequity there that writers shouldn’t allow to dominate their work.
Eson Kim: Traditionally we used to see readers as more passive. Information is delivered from author, to the page, to us. But that is becoming an outmoded way of seeing things.
Regie Gibson: I think it’s incumbent upon the writer to point us maybe in that direction, but not to always hold us by the hand and lead us there step by step by step by step. I mentioned earlier that if it’s something unclear, we should go and check it out, we should go and look it up, maybe I don’t understand what is this type of food that they’re speaking about, maybe I should go and look that up, maybe someone doesn’t always to tell me “Well this means that and that means this.” If I have a personal investment in finding out what’s going on, it actually stays with me longer, you know? (27:59) I love the understanding of the word “symbol,” and it comes to us from a word that means “coin”, it was two halves of a coin. This is how folks would know each other, is that one person would take one half of the coin the other person would take the other half of the coin, and they would give it to people who they sent a message through, and if it was the right person, they’d get to that person and take out part of the coin, and if the other person has the other part of the coin, they’d put it together and say “Ah, now we have a whole here, we have a coin put together so now we can make an exchange.” And so I like to think that maybe what the author is doing, is giving us part of the coin, you know? And that for us to really understand the complete message, there’s something that we need to provide also.
Sara Daniele Rivera: I think one of the main dangers is that either when everybody looks to one person in the room expecting them to serve as an ambassador, or when people kind of claim that role for themselves, is that it flattens, in a way, the specific and particular experiences of people in a room, because naturally my experience as a Latina person is not going to be anything like the experience of other Latina people in the world, in the US, even in Boston. It’s a very particular experience, and that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s so important for people in a workshop to try to get to know each other, to try to get to know each other’s specific experience, so that they can catch themselves when they’re doing that, because I might come to your story and have more in common with your black character, or your male character, given my specific life experience, than with someone who you would think aligns with my “identity.” (29:55) I think that there’s a way in which we do that to ourselves, we try to appropriate that full group voice in a way when we try to serve as that ambassador. It’s a slippery slope because I as a writer am obviously not going to fit into all of the experiences of my characters. And I do want people, if a character aligns with who they are, to bring up things that don’t ring true. I do find that helpful. There are times when I think as long as you’re starting a conversation, it can be productive. (30:34) We had a situation recently in a workshop, where a male writer had a female character as his protagonist, and wanted to have the character, the character wasn’t pregnant in the first draft, and wanted to now, add that into the second draft. And of course, that brought up a whole slew of gender issues that weren’t present in the first draft, especially given this particular story. But what I was impressed with in this workshop, from this writer and from everyone else in the room, was that the writer was basically like “I know that there are nuances here that I would never think of. I know that there are issues here that I would never think of, as someone this cannot happen to, so I want to hear from the women in the room about what rings true and what doesn’t ring true.” (31:27) And it was great because the people who spoke to that issue in the room also weren’t saying, “You can’t talk about this, you can’t take on this character, this is not true to your experience, so you can’t write about it.” People wanted this writer to be able to write this character that he cared about. So I think that that was an instance in which I saw it going the correct way, where we’re trying to open up a dialogue in the workshop, rather than trying to put pressure on one person to speak for a group, or trying to be the one person who claims that entire group in a way.
Eson Kim: And maybe it’s helpful to acknowledge that there is more than just one side to us. We have many sides.
Regie Gibson: The more I think that we look deeper into ourselves, the more I think we find that we have more than one voice, right? And that each one of those voices needs to be expressed to its greatest potential, and to the degree that we realize that we have multiple voices I think we can accept multiple voices coming from other people, to the degree we believe we have “a” voice and this is “the” thing that we like, is the degree to which there’s going to be a narrowing of what we feel is acceptable or is within the realm of the kind of writing that we think has some value. (32:45) And yes, I think we need to know that about ourselves, and we also need to, the more we know that we have a broader range of expression, a broader palette, we can extend that to other people to have a broader palette of expression and I think it benefits everybody, if we can take in multiple ways of, understand that there are multiple ways of expression.
Eson Kim: It’s great to take risks as writers. Maybe we want to render a character who is very different from us. And sometimes those efforts are a little clunky.
Sonya Larson: We all have biases, we absolutely do. I certainly do. By the very definition, you don’t know what they are, and so you may bring that to the workshop, you may bring it to your writing, I certainly have. You may be called out on it in the workshop, I certainly have, and it’s an incredibly, emotionally vulnerable experience to be called out on that. I think that some of the most harrowing moments in my own life as a writer have been in those moments. (33:42) But, it was essential that I heard that. It was essential - it hurt, it really emotionally hurt - but it was so important, because I obviously don’t want that for my work, and the way forward is so complicated. But I will do no service to myself or to art not to tackle it.
Eson Kim: In the workshop, we have the opportunity to allow this risk without jumping all over a person. Here’s Matt Salesses:
Matthew Salesses: One thing that happens is, if we don’t let the writer talk, then we don’t actually understand their intentions, and also that we don’t maybe read the work generously enough actually. One of the ways around, not around that but through that, is to say “Let’s think about this piece and let’s ask the writer what they intended,” on a level where maybe they’re trying to do something that isn’t exactly successful here, right? And then it’s kind of in the room, and you can talk about it amongst your levels, one that “we’re not calling anybody racist, and we’re not saying this is reflective of your actual intentions, but we’re saying that these are some problems that we see on the way to getting to what you want to write, and how can we address those.”
Sonya Larson: It doesn’t mean that you are sexist, or you are racist, or anything like that, this is as interesting a discussion to have on the level of the art and what it’s doing, as talking about point of view or whatever. We should be able to have that conversation take place and have it be normal and kind of separate the idea of what your art is doing, versus what a human being is doing. And saying, “Your art may be showing this stuff, but that’s separate from who you are, and you absolutely have the power to think about these things.”
Eson Kim: And podcasts like this aren’t going to give you all the answers. This is just a starting point. It’s incumbent upon you to learn by doing, to learn by having these conversations in the workshop with sincerity. Like the writing process, there really aren’t any short cuts. And since we’re writers, let’s think about this in terms of books.
Matthew Salesses: People are out there thinking, Somebody’s gonna go out, read the books, and tell me what they say. No, just go out and read the books yourself. Like, it’s not gonna be that helpful for me to summarize, 15 300-page books for you in a minute. You have to go out and read those. It’s hard, but you need to do it, too.
Eson Kim: As individuals, we might have tendencies, preferences, biases, and varying skill levels. But together, we can acknowledge, then reshape those things into something useful.
Sonya Larson: Part of what we’re trying to do when we come together in a group is to sift through, together, what we collectively see and don’t see, and that’s the beauty of a workshop. It’s something that is possible in a group setting that isn’t possible, say, one on one. The best workshops that I have been a part of have set a tone where by everyone in turn can contribute both what they see, but also acknowledge their blind spots, artistically, politically, whatever it may be. In so doing, the group can keep ideas in play, can keep ideas throughout the length of the discussion about what the story could use, what it’s possibilities are. There’s a real excitement about not only the possibilities for the work, but what we’re all discovering together. And hopefully by the end of the discussion, we’ve arrived at a set of artistic possibilities for the piece at hand that is greater than the sum of our individual parts.
Eson Kim: You might have seen some horror stories posted on the internet about workshops gone horribly wrong, but in reality, most people come into the workshop with a great level of goodwill.
Chip Cheek: Just like people are incredibly mysterious, they’re also generally good. I believe that, maybe I’m an optimist, but I just believe people are generally good. No matter political differences, or whatever, people still think, you know, cats are cute, certain music is great. I mean, there are so many ways of connecting, and whether or not your sensibilities are different or similar in literature, you all have a shared love of it. So there’s at least one thing bringing us here in the room together. And that makes all the difference.
Ron MacLean: It’s not a teacher and 12 students, it’s 13 human beings in a room trying to help each other, and to the degree that every person brings the mentality of my presence matters here, and I will take this seriously and I will give myself to this, then everyone is lifting the workshop into a place that is something really amazing.
Ethan Gilsdorf: People can see that that three hour slot in their week is kind of a sacred place, where this is the one time during that week where they can treat their writing seriously, take themselves seriously as writers, and the tone and the kind of mood and sense of responsibility and sense of citizenship that you can establish, as much of that that can be established early in the course, really bares true I think over the course of the six or eight or ten or twelve weeks that you’re together. And when it works, it really works, it’s kind of a magical thing.
Eson Kim: Many thanks to all the following writing pros who participated in this podcast: Alysia Abbott, Chip Cheek, Nicole Terez Dutton, Jonathan Escoffery, Regie Gibson, Ethan Gilsdorf, Brionne Janae, Sonya Larson, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, Ron MacLean, Sara Daniele Rivera, Matthew Salesses, Dariel Suarez, and I’m Eson Kim. Thanks for listening, now get back to writing!
Eson Kim (she/her) serves as the Director of Community Engagement at GrubStreet, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Her stories have appeared in Calyx Journal, Denver Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, among others. She received a Writing Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and earned the David B. Saunders Award for creative nonfiction. She was also named to the Notable list of Best American Essays. She's appeared on Radio Boston's Summer Reads series and Stories from the Stage (WGBH). She loves any opportunity to talk about books for all ages, preferably while sipping on a tall glass of bubble tea.See other articles by Eson Kim