Blurring the the lines between reader, writer, and critic, the writing workshop has become somewhat of a cultural point of contention, with heated and ongoing debate over whether creative writing degrees are responsible for or inhibit quote unquote good writing. I have no opinion about this (I guess I have some opinion about this). I think a graduate degree is only one of a multitude of ways to go about being a writer, and it’s one that I chose to pursue. I don’t think I would be less of a writer if I weren’t in school and I don’t think being in school is toxifying my inherent writerly instinct. As with anything, there are both good and bad elements of the creative writing workshop. It can be helpful to watch others develop ideas, to be guided by a group, to witness close analysis of your work in real time. It can also be maddening to sit through two hours of discussion about whether a protagonist’s name really fits, or to be compared to one of three woman novelists available to the room. I have participated in more than a dozen workshops—is that a lot? I can’t tell anymore—and here is how I’ve learned to approach them (though there is no right way!):
Trust the instinct, not the advice
I heard Bill Hader say in an interview, “When [people] tell you [writing]’s wrong, they’re usually right. When they tell you how to fix it, they’re wrong.” Is it okay that I’m quoting Bill Hader in an article about literary fiction? Anyway I agree with him. Most of the time you can trust your readers’ instincts, but try to limit your absorption to what is and isn’t working. When the response crosses the line between reaction and recommendation, take a step back. I think a whole workshop could instead run on nods and shakes of the head. This is of course not to say that you will never receive good advice in a workshop, but to suggest you trust yourself first as the author, and take the temperature of the room of readers rather than let them rewrite the piece for you.
Submit unfinished work
Submitting a piece you consider complete can be far less helpful for you and others. One of the benefits of workshopping, in my opinion, is thinking through ideas while they’re still developing. This can help you catch common stuck points in your process or expand your thinking about literature and your personal creative process. It can be helpful to receive critical feedback on something you feel happy with, but that’s going to happen throughout your career anyway. A great value of the workshop is that it’s a place meant for works in progress. One of my professors once said there is no such thing as a finished piece of writing. I agree, but I also think there’s such a thing as a piece too finished for the workshop. Think of it as a place to shape, rearrange, and expand, but not to line-edit. Plus, vulnerability is invaluable to the writer. Submit something sort of bad and see what happens.
Protect your ideas
I try never to pitch. I don’t talk about what’s happening next or how an excerpt fits into a larger piece. This isn’t because I think my ideas are incredible and at risk of being stolen, but because talking about an idea changes it, and so does hearing what someone else thinks about it. While a piece is in the more formative stages I try to let it stand alone, and really hear how others are responding to it. Eg. What are they taking away? What information might be missing? Does anything just not make sense or throw them in entirely the wrong direction? It’s okay for an excerpt to leave a reader with questions, in fact that can be a sign of having achieved good momentum and tension, but if authorial comment is required for a reader to feel grounded in the writing, that’s a problem with the writing itself.
Remember where you are
It is the modus operandi of the workshop student to try to find something wrong with your submission. If you’re in a graduate program, students are often even being paid to read and critique your work. Remember this is a very specific kind of reader, and not a consumer picking up your book in a store, or a subscriber reading your publication in a journal. There is a significant difference between what you might call an “organic reader,” free to enjoy the work or not, and a workshop member, conscious while reading that they’ll be bringing their marked-up copy to class. There is also a significant difference between an academic and the average reader, but I won’t get into that. What is important to note is that different things happen in the brain when we’re meant to find fault. Workshopping a piece is only one way of considering it.
What happens in workshop stays in workshop
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The forced and immediate intimacy of the writing workshop is a lot like group therapy. If you’ve never done group therapy, what I mean by that is entering the workshop is choosing to expose yourself in front of a room full of strangers. You will be sharing your work at its most vulnerable stages and hearing the opinions and advice of people you have likely never met. You’ll also be offering feedback on others’ work, which can feel equally vulnerable. There was a rule in an Emotionally-Focused Therapy group I was in: EFT stays in the group room. We were instructed never to mention something we heard someone say in therapy outside of therapy, even to that same person. Being granted insight into someone’s most private work, process, and feelings is a privilege and a great help to your own work as a writer, but it isn’t permission to assume the person wants to continue to be vulnerable outside of the context of the workshop. Don’t offer advice on their published work, don’t ask them for notes on something you’re writing outside of class, and don’t share or talk about their works in progress with others. Above all, just be cool.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Fawn Parker is a Giller-nominated author of five books including What We Both Know (M&S 2022), Soft Inheritance (Palimpsest 2023), and the forthcoming Hi, it's me (M&S 2024). Fiction and poetry have appeared in The Literary Review of Canada, The Walrus, and Maisonneuve. Fawn's official website has been surrendered to the great artificial intelligence and she is not in fact a gambling expert or addict.