Wednesday, August 12, 2009

All Worked Up

I recently returned from my first-ever, face-to-face writing workshop. Sure, I've gone to writing conferences, most of them chock-o-block with one hour quickie craft seminars and those oh-so-lovely pitch fests. But this past spring I was feeling masochistic, a little itchy to get reamed, truly reamed, by folks who know what they're doing. Plus, I thought a workshop intensive was one way to try an abbreviated version of an MFA program. So the last week of July I sojourned to Cambridge, conjoined with Boston in my mind as the place I came of age.

Lesley University's summer writing conference is not for those who envision munching bonbons while idly discussing the niceties of third person versus omniscient voice. Sure, we chatted about that sort of stuff, usually over meals, but for the most part it was constant immersion in craft and critique. For five days, I rised and shined for workshop from 9-12, then gobbled lunch, followed by an afternoon of craft sessions and readings. After another hasty dinner, there were evening readings by resident and guest faculty until 9. Of course, afterwards I was so exhausted yet simultaneously ennervated by caffeine and ideas that walking to any of the squares (Harvard, Porter, Central, Inman - I hit them all) for ice cream and beer with classmates was de rigeur. Then there were assignments to complete, and the cycle repeated itself.

So what's it like to be 'workshopped'? Somewhat intimidating. Classmate Thomas and I walked the plank first. We prepared approximately 4000 words of a work in progress, which our fabulous instructor Rachel Kadish (more on Rachel in a separate post) and fellow students (there were six of us in all) read in advance.

I workshopped the opening of PURE. A little scary because this novel is so in progress. Plus, my head was with another character from another story, so I struggled to sink into the chapter's cannibalized mice and the funeral.

At the table, I was instructed not to talk. Those of you who know me understand how difficult it is for me to zip my lips. Rachel opened up with the question: "What is this story about?" Which is a wonderful way to approach critique because you can see immediately how clearly (or not) you've told your story. Also GREAT fodder for pitches. Then discussion opened up: what worked? what didn't? what confused? was the prose sufficiently elevated? did the characters ring true? did POV work? tense? were writing fundamentals present? was the research sufficient? And so on.

After more than an hour of such disembowelment (PURE, not me), I was granted the floor to clarify remarks and ask questions of my own. Later, I reviewed everyone's extensive written line edits and globals.

What a rich experience. And an illuminating one. While my prose more than passed muster and the story itself was deemed compelling, it turns out I had a few too many balls in the air, which confused my classmates and instructor. In other words, exactly where was this story headed?

My new mantra: clarify, clarify, clarify. I'm revising PURE now, using these golden kernals as my guideposts.

Have you ever been workshopped? If yes, was it worthwhile? If no, would you?

Peace, Linda


  1. This sounds like it as a great experience for you.

    I studied creative writing at university and we would workshop practically every class. It was one of the most valuable parts of my academic career as not only did it teach me what was good about my writing and what needed improving, it taught me to be objective, not defensive. In critiquing others I learned to critique myself. In experimenting with different methods I learned to think in different ways and be creative in lots of other ways. We had so much fun with each other and pushed each other to be better and better.

    I miss it.


  2. I belong to an online workshop, and although we don't talk face to face, the feedback I get is incredible as well.

    I would love to attend a face-to-face workshop, but there aren't any around my area. I've looked.

  3. Lucky you, Jai - you got to STUDY creative writing. Sigh. I was a chemistry major, then switched to pharmacy. I became very good at multiple choice tests.

    Jan, I have a fabu online group as well (we call ourselves the Nudgers), but there is something about face-to-face in a group that engenders an interesting group dynamic. Not necessarily better, but different.

    Not much around Baltimore either - I had to travel. It was my summer vacay.

    Peace, Linda

  4. This sounds like a really terrific learning experience. I think I'm going to have to try out similar workshops for my own craft in the near future.

    "While my prose more than passed muster and the story itself deemed compelling..."

    That had to feel good.

  5. Fascinating--I have always wondered what it's really like (though I don't think I have the patience and attention span to do RL workshops :P), so this is a great insight, thanks!

    I'm not sure I'd like to do it, given how antisocial I am in person and how little I like talking aloud. ;) Still, I'd love to observe a workshop like this... blog posts are great that way. :D


  6. My favorite part of a workshop is that time when you don't get to talk and you listen to everyone talk about your work. It's nice to get it out there, to hear voices (other than your own, inside your head!) discuss your characters, plot points, etc. And like you said it helps determine if you're getting your message across. Something about having a person identify one of your main themes without you telling them a word is pretty magical. And if they don't get it, that kind of feedback can only help your work.

    I've mainly attended workshops in my hometown, but the whole experience of traveling and spending days on end with a writing community like you did sounds amazing!

  7. I hope to have my first similar opportunity (on a much smaller scale) in October. I sent in a short story to Archon, and one of the bennies is that all the stories get feedback from the judges - professional writers. Just hope I made the cutoff. Fingers crossed.

  8. I went through this as a learning screenwriter many moons ago. Then I got a job writing for TV and went through it every week! At least when you’re getting paid you’re allowed to talk back… (Not sure what the secret sign is, I’m a Harbinger crewmate…)

  9. Jon, yes, those words will keep me flying for awhile. My fingers are crossed for you; commentary from anyone in the biz is ALWAYS helpful.

    Merc, thanks for dropping by. Blogs/internet are wonderful tools for connecting the shy among us to others. Glad you feel comfy here!

    Natalia, thank you for visiting (beautiful name - Italian?). Yes, hearing everyone say "This story is about..." and get it felt magical. The road may be long and wide, but at least this story is on the pavement...

    Ahoy there, matey! Hmmm... that's why your dialogue rings so true - your screenplay background. Welcome! Now I know where to go for dialogue ;^)

    Peace, Linda