The traditional workshop has its pros and cons but it is successful, partially, in that it brings writers together and provides an opportunity for them to focus on their craft, learn from their peers and potentially improve. For one, writers need a place to retreat and be with other writers because no one understands writers like other writers. And much like writers need to continuously read and write in order to grow, we also need to continuously reflect, share our work, brainstorm ideas and be mentored. Workshops provide an opportunity for all of this.
Francois Camoin says: “The workshop may take place in the same classroom as the literature course, but what goes on there is a scandal, an affront to the English department. Imagine a class in which the teacher is, for the most part, silent… Most of all it contradicts the metaphysics of literary study, which asserts that there is a place outside of texts where the scholar, the critic, can stand, and, like Aristotle’s God, comment without being commented on… every day, I walk into a workshop and deal with living writers who are full of as many intentions as anyone can stand, and then some. The Law of the Workshop, which does not allow them to speak, is both necessary and terrible.”
Camoin’s words support the need for the traditional workshop while pointing out challenges. I agree with him and I would even add that, in some ways, the parts which are most challenging are also the parts which are most necessary. For example, the concept of putting the writer in a bubble where he or she must listen without responding has deep rooted flaws, including misinterpretation from both sides. However, if the writer being critiqued was permitted to exist outside the bubble, nothing would get accomplished because writers would constantly be interrupting, explaining or defending their work and the critics might hold back or feel stifled.
I’ve participated in workshops and have had both positive and negative experiences. I once had to listen to someone who clearly hadn’t thoroughly read my submission. She missed a key detail in the first paragraph and kept going on and on about how I’d left it out. If I could speak, I could have clarified (maybe even pointed to the sentence) and she could have saved her breath and perhaps moved on to something else. Another time, a fellow writer continuously asked me questions—not rhetorical questions but questions requiring answers—and I felt compelled to answer but couldn’t. I’ve also witnessed people simply agreeing with someone else’s comments rather than adding anything worthwhile of their own. Don’t get me wrong; my experiences weren’t all bad. There have been plenty of times when I’ve received invaluable lessons from the feedback provided (whether meant for me or someone else) or a new way of looking at something or the answer to a specific problem. In one particularly successful workshop, the teacher asked that we swap notes at the end and give the physically marked-up pages back to the subject. I liked that a lot because I found there was often far more written down than verbalized during the critiques. Another teacher would, at the end, summarize everything said, provide additional feedback and allow the class the opportunity to ask her and each other questions about what was said. This helped clarify misunderstandings and promoted discussion.
The traditional workshop is certainly not without its challenges. One of the biggest in my opinion is the bubble in its current state, mainly because it makes the assumption that the person giving the feedback is correct. Plus if the writer can’t speak, then he or she cannot ask questions, clarify, defend, explain or even provide context. Another issue is the need-to-change mentality. Camoin says, “In the workshop there is no outside; we speak and everything changes.” So many writers get feedback and then run home and change everything based on what they were told in the workshop. Sometimes they even re-submit the changes as if they are trying to please the class. This is a big mistake. Processing feedback, much like working on a revision, requires much thought, time and digestion. Other issues include discrimination, caddy competitiveness, people not doing the work and others doing the work but simply not “getting it.”
Solving some of the problems would obviously make for better workshops. For example, the bubble could be tweaked to allow some level of interaction. Minimally, the writer could have the opportunity to step outside of it and respond when the critique is complete. Also, the teacher could play a more active role. Teachers have far too much experience, value and insight to simply serve as moderators. Finally, rather than have everyone in the workshop read everyone else’s work, students could be able to choose who and what they read and evaluate. I like how the online classes work in that most teachers require students to select and provide feedback to just three other students (with the exception that one be the person with the least amount of critiques). It’s too much for a student to read everything, provide feedback to everyone and also write. There’s not enough time; and creativity requires time, energy and focus. Additionally, reducing the load would enable writers to focus on the areas in which they excel and that would benefit both parties. For example, the quality of review and feedback between a romance writer and a horror writer may not be quite as beneficial as romance writer to romance writer or horror writer to horror writer. Perhaps workshops could be broken down by genre for increased benefit.
While it is not possible to eliminate every issue, such as discrimination and people not doing the work, addressing issues which can be solved, brainstorming solutions and admitting that other issues may in fact exist will help the workshop and its participants evolve.
Camoin, Francois. “The Workshop and Its Discontents.” Colors of a Different Horse. Bishop, Wendy and Ostrom, Hans. National University. 3-7.