In the culmination of her Mythbusting series, and the follow-up to last month’s “Why Workshops Can Kill Your Writing“, Katey Schultz is back this month to break down what a writer should do when preparing to enter a workshop—at the right time. And if you missed them, read Part One and Part Two from earlier this year!
All Workshops Are Created Equal
Last month I went out on a limb, stating that workshopping your writing should be the exception in academic and continuing education writing classes—not the norm. I even went so far as to suggest that most workshops are premature and misaligned with the writer or the writing, and therefore risk killing a manuscript that could have otherwise been award-winning. I believe this so firmly, I risked the entire success of my business by flipping the critique model on its head and inventing a pedagogically deep mentorship model that more pervasively integrates writing and revision skills into a writer’s life.
But there is, in fact, a time and place for the well-curated workshop experience. If writers and teachers can approach workshop with an inquisitive mind, and if recruiters and registrars can approach marketing with a platform of deep integrity, workshop could, indeed, make a profoundly positive impact on a greater number of writers’ lives.
Let’s break that down in terms of something you can take with you the next time you consider submitting a stand-alone piece, an excerpt, or a full manuscript for review to any paid service.
Do ask the instructor how they guide a group toward useful feedback, given what your unique and current goals are as a writer. What, according to the instructor, constitutes a concrete, applicable “suggestion”? What you’re looking for here is clarity about whether or not the instructor is willing to routinely guide the conversation toward specific, pinpointed, useful feedback that meets you (the writer) and your writing (the draft) where they are, at the time. The instructor must be willing to stop at any point and give a sort of “mini lesson” to drive home a particularly good suggestion, making it useful for everyone in the workshop—even those whose work is not under consideration at that moment.
Do ask how other participants are vetted, or in the least how they are taught by example in the workshop itself, to guarantee a small group experience that is both useful and demonstrative. This does not mean that participants have to submit resumes, have gargantuan egos, or be published. But it does mean that the instructor or sponsoring organization needs to have a clear set of protocols and expectations for the kind of learning it values most. Seriously—try asking them that question: What kind of learning do you value most and how do you guide writers toward that during workshop? That will tell you a lot about the kind of workshop you’re walking into.
But there’s more; you can also ask: Does the instructor or organization offering the workshop come with a lot of prestige or hype? If so, make sure that the hype is about the workshop itself—not about someone’s CV or latest award. I can’t say that enough. Too many writers get star-struck angling to “get in” with so-and-so amazing writer, only to find out that so-and-so amazing writer isn’t actually an amazing teacher or that so-and-so amazing writer attracts hobby writers with big wallets. Not many writers I’ve met on the literary trails are willing to say what I just said; after all, programs need to fill workshops in order to run, and all writers like to be “invited back” to teach at coveted places (therefore they’re also under pressure to fill-fill-fill those workshops).
Do ask the instructor what they think about creative process and its impact on early drafts. What you’re looking for here, in my opinion, is a response that demonstrates the instructor understands an early draft at workshop is more about mining the draft for clues about what’s at stake in a particular piece of writing. Why? Because this will reveal that the instructor understands something inherent about the process of writing from germination to completion, and hopefully also understand where any given piece of writing being workshopped will fall along that spectrum.
Do be prepared to advocate for yourself through gentle but firm, tactful communication before, during, and after workshop. In the best situations, you won’t need to do much advocating. But more often than not, you will need to have done some “self-work” to quiet any defensiveness or attachment you might have about your piece of writing, and instead focus on advocating for your next best draft. I’ll say that again—you’re fighting for your right to access the next draft. Not to defend the draft everyone has just read.
What that looks like in real-time, in a classroom or in a one-on-one with an instructor, is a writer saying something like this: “My intention here is to explode the metaphor about the flowers so that it stills the moment in this scene. Not because I care about the flowers, really, but because the metaphor highlights the parallel concerns that the narrator has about being able to blossom in her own life, so to speak. Knowing that, have I pulled it off? If so, where and how did I do it and how can I do it again, to up the ante and the stakes for my story? If not, where am I coming up short and what clues have I left myself about how to fix things?”
All of that said, I want to give a nod to throwing caution to the wind, signing up blind for a workshop, and coming out the other side not only as a better writer but a better reader. As fellow author and advocate Karen Schauber shared with me, “I thrive on workshop feedback and learn a great deal both about how I write, and how I can best express my own ‘writing’ voice. With the feedback I received (and gave) in small workshop milieus, I learned how to write fiction.”
Indeed, a good workshop isn’t a bad place to get your feet wet. But what makes it good is that it must also be a good place for seasoned writers to go deeper. A workshop that has a mix of open-hearted, keen beginners and similarly tempered seasoned writers, might be the best one can hope for in a workshop. Every writer needs to grow and keep learning, after all, even “the best of the best.” That—more than anything—is what workshop proves again and again.
KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for both titles, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Sign up for my newsletter and receive a free craft lesson and resource guide The 5 S’s That Will Help Get You Published at www.kateyschultz.com.