More on Writers’ Workshops

by Ed Davis on August 13, 2009

The “Fix”

After reflecting, I find I do agree with Rebecca McClanahan’s comment at Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) that poets should beware of letting writers’ workshops fix their poems. (I’m assuming she’d say the same about workshops that fix short stories or novels, too). However, I also believe workshops, if responsibly managed, can still help writers perform magic on their works-in-progress. How do I reconcile the two positions?

Checks & Balances

“Fixing” cedes all power to wise, all-knowing superiors who will have the final say. “Fix” assumes the poem or story is broken and will not work until superior craftsmen ply their trade. However, a better model might be borrowed from government: a strong executive with a powerful vision, aided by an excellent legislature (preferably of the writer’s own party), jointly forge a “bill” that will work. But the checks & balances model is not rule (art) by committee, where everyone has an equal vote. The executive is always the final authority.

The Spirit of Collaboration

Thus, in this model, members of the workshop are collaborators, in the same way Lennon and McCartney were: Mostly each Beatle wrote his own basic song to which the other added more or less important ingredients. For a literary model, consider the way Ezra Pound edited T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Of course one must be lucky and judicious enough to find a Lennon to play to your McCartney. And you must be wise enough never to lose ownership of your work to even the most trusted collaborator; you’re the President, remember, with the line-by-line veto. Collaboration also reduces the importance of the writer’s ego, since the work itself is what should matter most—not who is writing it. To my mind, that’s getting your priorities straight.

Workshop: Pros and Cons

But can a workshop provide you with the best venue for such checks & balances and opportunities for collaboration? I know quite a few who prefer to submit their poetry and fiction to a few trusted friends to critique at their leisure by mail. However, not all writers have found such friends. Also, if the live workshop is fairly large (say, at least 6-7) and diverse, your chances will be increased of finding those “legislators” most sympathetic to and compatible with your vision; moreover, the live process provides a lot more instantaneous give and take. It’s quite possible they can penetrate to the heart of your “bill” without gutting it with their not-so-hidden agendas. The above does assume quite a bit of self-knowledge on the writer’s part; I concede that not all beginners are self-aware enough to avoid being confused, even hurt, by the most well-intentioned, articulate legislators. Experience, willingness and humility will help.

Parliamentary Procedure

The workshop, of course, depends on a mature, writer-friendly process, so be alert for toxic situations that won’t advance yours, or anyone’s, artistic goals.

Before the discussion begins, it’s good for writers to mention specific aspects of the work that they’d like to receive feedback on, to help focus the critique, at least partly. If, on the other hand, the writer-exec says everything is negotiable, then he loses the chance to guide these sometimes unruly politicos. But that can often be a good thing. Politicians sometimes wax eloquent!

Another good idea is encouraging the group to state positives first. I always insist, if I’m the facilitator, that members first discuss what is working well. The highest praise usually won’t register nearly as well if the group moves too quickly to the “suggestions for improvement” phase.

Also, I don’t do brutal–at least not intentionally–and recommend that you don’t, either. The writer asking for it is often the least likely to accept a blunt, punishing critique. I enforce a more diplomatic approach, one that doesn’t assume at the outset that things are broken and need to be fixed, which contradicts the legislative model. The way a critic makes suggestions is as important as the substance of those suggestions.

Furthermore, it’s good if exec-writers keep their mouths shut and let the legislature do its job. The authors’ job is to listen and take notes, especially those that would help them follow up with questions but not until after the suggestions have all been made. (Relax, Mr. President: you can always veto later.)

Finally, no filibusters. Keep the ball rolling or you’ll never get out this bill out of committee!

Free Handouts

The above is the barest-bones response to Ms. McClanahan’s offhand comment at AWW. Over the course of three decades I’ve built a stock of other techniques that work for me, based on my own as well as others’ teaching experience, such as evaluation sheets for short stories. Also, I regularly use the handout “Guidelines for Critique” distributed by a workshop leader at Cleveland State University’s “Imagination” conference I attended years ago. An experienced workshop leader knows that “one size does not fit all” and stands ready to amend his/her process, at a moment’s notice. So what are your ideas on this highly controversial subject? I’d love to hear them.

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