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The point of the workshop

Nick from Thursday night short story sent this link to me, and I thought it was a good, provocative little ditty. It’s so true that we often field complaints about the workshop from people who don’t see the true value of it (“But when are we going to learn how to write?  All we do is read each other’s stuff!”). And undoubtedly workshops aren’t for everyone, and some can be downright unhelpful, but good workshops do accelerate, I think, the learning process for writers. Here’s what Jeremiah Chamberlin has to say:

“You become a strong writer by writing critiques, not reading them, ” I say. Being forced to analyze the effectiveness of other writers’ stories and to then provide them with clear, concise, specific suggestions for improvement will do more to develop a writer’s craft than almost anything else. Through this process writers develop a stronger objectivity about their own work, sharpen their critical thinking skills, and hone their language. A writer can’t always recognize flat dialogue or abrupt scenes or uneven pacing in her own work, but she can sure as hell see it in someone else’s. And the more adept she becomes at identifying it elsewhere, the more easily that skill becomes adapted into her own writing—it becomes second nature. 

More here.

Do you agree?

8 comments on “The point of the workshop

  1. Lisa Kenney
    April 1, 2009

    I completely agree. The most productive workshops I’ve been a part of have been those where most, if not all of the participants understand this. It seems to me that when we focus all of our energy into analyzing and writing up critiques, by the time it’s our turn, we ought to have a pretty good idea what the feedback will be. Over the course of three different 8 week novel workshops, I noticed that the people who seemed to put the least amount of effort into writing critiques were the most baffled at the feedback they got on their own work. Getting a stack of critiques on my own work is almost like the bonus part of the experience. To me, the real benefit is learning how to critique.

    • andreadupree
      April 1, 2009

      Lisa, I agree with the ratio between care in critiquing and ability to take critiquing. Perhaps it’s just a maturity thing that not every writer ever achieves. I do know that some of the best writers I’ve worked with have evolved into the best readers of other people’s work, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Thanks for sharing your thoughts… hope your novel’s humming along.

  2. humanbeingblog
    April 1, 2009

    I totally agree. It’s difficult to write well in a vacuum, and that’s why I like workshopping when I’m serious about writing. The thing is, though, that some people in the workshops I’ve been don’t do the work. They offer, pithy, off-the-cuff remarks that are unhelpful at best. Not Michael,though. I’m still thinking about the use of the word vinculum in a particular poem.

    @ Lisa, yes getting a stack of good critiques back is a gift unto itself.

  3. andreadupree
    April 1, 2009

    I hear ya, Lynn… but I think his point is a good one — that really the crits you receive are secondary to the ones you write. (But now Mike’s working with a kicking group of poets — amazing in both departments.)

  4. J Diego
    April 3, 2009

    A couple of years ago, I dropped a bunch of dough to take a poetry workshop with Billy Collins. I was a bit bummed by his tepid response to my submitted poems (I think he did call one “skillful…”), but I did manage to make an impression on him with my critiques and suggestions for the poems of the others in the workshop. Just another little victory that I somehow owe to Mike Henry…

  5. andreadupree
    April 7, 2009

    Hey, I’d take a “skillful” from the likes of BC. Now, you didn’t make an impression by wearing that propeller cap you usually wear, did you? Or those oogly eye glasses? Yes, let’s blame Mike.

  6. mjhenry
    April 8, 2009

    Yes, people, it is all my fault that you are amazing writers, critiquers, readers, and garlic saute-ers.

    You are all so very welcome.

    –MJH

  7. mjhenry
    April 8, 2009

    But really, to be serious–I find that giving feedback is certainly a powerful way to learn: to get a sense of what the work might be aspiring to do, and how best to help the writer get it there. It’s a difficult point to articulate, always, but I think you get better at it, and then you get better at learning how to make that process flow in your own work.

    Then again, the most helpful workshops I’ve received are the ones where someone notices something about the work I didn’t consider. Call it putting the mirror up and letting me truly see what the work is trying to say. Call it therapy, call it discovery: That epiphantic moment is worth all the dimes in the couch cushions.

    –MJH

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This entry was posted on April 1, 2009 by in The Scoop, The Write Idea.

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