(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)
Your standard fiction workshop, as made popular by the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, revolves around the idea of a round table discussion between a group of writers that is led (or, if you will, orchestrated) by a writing instructor. A small number of students, say three or four, depending on class size, submit a work of fiction to the group a week or so before the class meets in person. Everybody is required to arrive at each class having read the week’s submitted work with the understanding that they will participate in critiquing it during class. The general idea is that not only will the students who have submitted their work learn about their own work but the class will learn together as a whole, both from each other and the comments the writing instructor makes.
As you may have deduced from this setup, there’s a great number of variables in how well the workshop process works for both the student whose work is being critiqued and the class as a whole. The quality of a workshop session can fluctuate not only from week to week but from story to story.
By variables I mean things like:
Has everyone in class actually read the submitted work?
What quality is the work itself? Does it deal with any hot button issues like rape or racism that are likely to dredge up strong emotions in the other students?
What level in their writing (and reading) development are the students in the class at?
What’s the energy in the room like? Is everyone fresh faced and ready to engage or worn out and exhausted?
How well does the instructor maintain control of the workshop session without strangling it with authoritarian fervor? How adept is she at drawing out the timid students and putting a lid on the garrulous students?
The writing workshop is a true group effort and even a veteran instructor can have their hands full with a group at odds with itself. Writers, especially younger ones just beginning to take their lumps in the gory world of fiction revision, can be as sensitive as spooked rabbits and ready to take offense at the smallest slight (either perceived or actual). They have not yet learned to distance their own personal identity from their work on the page. Having invested so much of themselves in their work they’ve not fully realized, through the magical grind of time, that there will be so much writing, so many words, ahead of them that emotionally latching on to only one small work, and such an early work, is a waste of energy that blinds you to the lessons you need to take from the workshop experience to improve.
A fiction workshop can be a very useful learning process but it can also be a minefield of prickly emotions and smoldering anguish. Its members (especially the adjunct instructor looking toward being rehired) engage in a subtle verbal dance any Japanese businessman would find familiar and employ a lexicon unique to the workshop process. Let’s say the following story is submitted to the workshop process:
The Phone Call
By David YoungWriter
Ralph woke up hungover and alone. His wife had left him the week before and their house felt empty without her. Ralph got up and looked at himself in the mirror. He was a fat, balding man with a frizzy beard and pale white skin. He had dark circles around his eyes from staying up so late drinking.
Ralph’s dog came into the bedroom and sniffed Ralph’s crotch. Ralph shoved the dog away and stood up with a big yawn. God, Ralph thought. Another day without Patty. Grumpy, chain-smoking Patty. How he missed her. At least her cooking. He did miss her cooking. The night before he’d tried to make a stir-fry and he’d burned the chicken so bad he’d set off the smoke alarm.
The phone rang. Ralph stared at it for a second while his dog ran around in a circle, chasing his own tail. Ralph answered the phone.
His voice sounded like a bullfrog croaking. A hungover bullfrog.
Ralph coughed into the phone.
“It’s me. Patty.”
“Yeah,” Ralph said. “I figured.”
“How are you doing?”
Ralph scratched the side of his head and looked at his dog, who’d stopped chasing his tail and was now licking his balls like they were covered in cocaine.
“All right,” Ralph said. “I’m working at the bowling alley later. I’m picking up an evening shift for Jimmy behind the counter.”
“That’s good,” Patty said. “I’m glad you’re keeping busy.”
Ralph nodded, forgetting Patty couldn’t see the gesture.
“I want a divorce.”
Ralph’s forehead creased together in a frown.
“Yes, Ralph. I’m not happy. I haven’t been happy for a long time.”
The dog looked up from licking his balls as if he could hear Patty on the other end of the phone. His ears were perked up and he was giving Ralph a look.
“Okay,” Ralph said. “A divorce it is, then.”
“I’ll be in touch, Ralph.”
Ralph hung up the phone. The dog looked at him and barked.
“I guess it’s just you and me from now on, boy,” Ralph said, standing up. The dog twirled in a circle and ran to the doorway. He needed to go outside.
Maybe they both did.
Ah, what a great profound literary story by Dave YoungWriter! Here’s how the workshop discussion of said story might play out (picture, if you will, fifteen students and one instructor all sitting around a table with marked-up manuscripts and various beverages in front of them—nobody’s gotten a good night’s sleep all semester) while student Dave YoungWriter, per standard workshop operating procedure, looks on without commenting.
Instructor: So, what do we like about this story?
Student #1: I like the dog.
Student #2: Yeah, he’s funny. He provides, like, comic relief.
Student #3: Ralph is so sad. I just feel for him, you know?
Student #1: But he’s got the dog to cheer him up.
Student #4: I kind of wanted know more about the dog, actually. What kind of dog is it? What’s his name?
Student #5: Yeah. Is it, like, Patty’s dog or Ralph’s dog, you know?
Student #6: I don’t know about the dog licking his balls. I don’t know if it was really necessary.
Student #7: I liked the ball licking. It was funny. My dog licks his balls all the time.
Student #8: But what she means is did it add to the story?
Instructor: You’re wondering if the ball licking was a telling detail?
Student #6: Right, exactly. I didn’t know how to feel about it.
Student #9: Maybe the ball licking is a metaphor for Ralph’s neutered sex drive.
Instructor: Now that’s interesting.
Student #10: Maybe that’s why Ralph drinks all the time and Patty’s leaving him. Because he can’t satisfy her sexual needs.
Student #11: I wanted to know more about Patty, actually. All we’re told is he misses her cooking. What does Patty do for a living? Did they meet at the bowling alley or what? What makes Patty tick?
Student #12: Maybe Patty isn’t real. Maybe the whole phone call is a hallucination.
Student #10: Like maybe Ralph’s still asleep and the whole conversation is a dream?
Student #13: Maybe Ralph’s dreaming about the phone call because he wants to get divorced in real life. Maybe he wakes up and Patty’s still lying beside him, all gross and snoring.
Instructor: I don’t think that’s what the author is going for here. I don’t see any evidence that this is a dream state—
Student #12: Maybe that’s the point! Maybe the author is saying being awake is the same thing as being asleep if you’re trapped in a loveless marriage.
Student #5: And the dog represents their child. The ball licking could mean their child is going through puberty or something.
Student #6: I still don’t think the ball licking is really necessary.
Student #2: Are you kidding? The ball licking is the best part!
Instructor: Okay, I think we’ve covered the ball licking angle sufficiently. How can we make this piece better?
Student #14: I think Ralph could be developed more. We don’t really get to see what he’s thinking very much. What’s his motivation?
Student #3: Yeah. Also, what’s the conflict here? Ralph wakes up, gets a phone call, and agrees to a divorce just like that?
Instructor: That’s a valid question.
Student #7: I think the conflict is the dog. He needs to go outside and the phone call is delaying that.
Instructor: So you think the dog is the main protagonist in the piece?
Student #7: Maybe.
Student #11: I think the main character is Patty. She’s the one who’s been unhappy for so long. She’s the one who makes the call. She’s the one who is leaving and that’s really brave, you know? Like she’s a heroine.
Student #1: But Ralph’s about to leave, too. To take the dog outside.
Student #6: Actually, I couldn’t really visualize the setting and that held me back. I want to know what the bedroom looks like. Do they have wedding pictures on the walls? Is there a mirror above the bed?
Instructor: A mirror above the bed?
Dave YoungWriter, who has long since laid his head on the table, lets out a barely audible sigh.
I could keep this patter up for another hundred pages but I think you can see where I’m going with this. If my fictional class of faceless students can find so much to critique and speculate on in a one page story you can only imagine the spectrum of conversations that can be held by fifteen very different people regarding a story five to twenty pages long. Everyone brings a unique perspective to a work of art and everybody is going to comment differently upon it. What I learned by going through the workshop process was to keep my radar tuned to observations that I found most useful and to tune out the white noise made by students who just liked hearing themselves talk (or just didn’t know what they were talking about).
Sometimes it’s helpful when a class reaches a general consensus about an issue in a story—like a character they all want to know more about, or a plot point everyone found confusing. Indeed, the beginning writer would be well advised to think of the workshop environment as an informal polling venue, with the instructor’s vote carrying extra weight and serving as a tie-breaker when needed. Rarely outside of the workshopping process will you be able to witness firsthand how your work affects a general audience until it is widely published and it’s far too late to edit anything.
I’ve noticed that interpersonal relationships play a surprisingly outsized part in the workshop process. I suppose this is inevitable, since politics creep up any time you get a bunch of people around a table, but I’m still chagrined every time I see it play out. Students in a university setting, be it graduate or undergraduate, tend get to know each other pretty well as they pass through the system. They form alliances with each other, they personally dislike each other, they grow revolted by each other. Friends sit together around the workshop table in bunches and the loners ends up in the corners, scowling at everyone else. When a story is workshopped by a member of a certain clique the other members rally valiantly to its defense, absorbing any and all critiques of the story as some kind of personal affront to all of them, which inevitably causes the members of rival cliques and the seething loners to engage in their criticism with ever more tenacity. Feelings get hurt, metaphoric blood is spilled. What started out as a friendly, detached stroll through the fictional park ends with a The Naked and The Dead-type death march. I recall leaving more than one workshop session as a student needing nothing more than cold air and silence, beautiful profound wintery silence, and it hadn’t even been my own work being discussed!
How did I handle my own writing being workshopped, you ask? Well, it was exhausting, for certain, and more than a little like being at your own funeral (though instead of friends and family in attendance near strangers stand over your open coffin and comment on your gussied up appearance). I always felt slightly feverish afterward and like doing anything except writing. I’d take my pile of marked-up manuscripts and their attached page long editorial-style notes and shove them deep in my closet, or in the bottom of my desk drawer, and wait about a week or two before looking at them. They felt radioactive to me.
But it got easier, by and by, and I learned to take what I needed and leave the rest. I realized it wasn’t personal even when it was personal. Every one of my classmates was trying to find their own voice, make their own way through the world. I learned to slowly detach myself from their constructive criticism, turn it around in my mind, and suss out the useful observations for my own ends. I found that the workshop process, when it’s firing on all-cylinders and everyone is equally invested, having more or less checked their egos at the door, is a wonderful and useful tool that cannot quite be duplicated in any other manner. You may have an agent one day, and an editor or three, but once you leave the workshop world you’ll never again be a part of a small battalion of intelligent, bookish people too raw and too green to hide what they’re really thinking, which, like iron ore, has great value as long as you know how to process it into a more refined material.