Workshops

Jan. 18th, 2005 07:38 am
lullenny: (eats)
[personal profile] lullenny
From today's entry:
"By putting your story up for discussion you learn how to listen to criticism and how to deal with it. By hearing the reactions to other stories you begin to recognize who in the workshop is perceptive, judicious, and balanced in judgment. Probably you should pay attention to those persons when your story is discussed. You recognize that the opinions of some people should be discounted. Some are negative bullies and others are uncritical enthusiasts. A person may vehemently attack some aspect of a story that isn't worth more than a minute of discussion because it could be cleared up with the insertion of a single sentence. Someone else may wax rhapsodic about what you recognize as contrived and dishonest. What if that person loves your story?"
Ha! Fanfiction in a nutshell! But I say so in all seriousness: this is what I see happen to fanfic writers. It's a large part of my experience as a fanfic writer. Stern speaks only of how the workshop process affects writing; what he doesn't explore (but happens) includes the friendships made (or ended), the thrilling energy generated when creative minds click -- and, in fandom, the never-ending wank.

*

The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.



Workshops

On the evening of the day that the first person thought up the idea of telling a story, he or she probably shouted the story around the fire. Friends and relatives congregated. One listener said the story made no sense. A cousin said he could just smell the bear's breath. Someone else said no one could throw a spear that far.

The form evolved to wigwams, wickiups, stoas, and brigantines. It happened in pubs, clubs, gardens, dens, parlors, and sewing rooms. Friends or relatives sat around and made comments, some sarcastic, some admiring, some helpful, and some plain stupid. Storytelling moved to bars and restaurants, newspaper backrooms, and editorial offices. And finally to classrooms and conference rooms, where these gatherings got called "workshops" and were immediately blamed for whatever was wrong with fiction.

Which brings us up to now, and to questions about your own relationship to fiction workshops. Are they good or evil? Do they help or hinder? What are their uses and what are their drawbacks?

Fiction workshops are generally organized so that writers can critique each other's work. The structure of the workshop gives you, first, a test audience. You see what flies and what doesn't. Second, the reactions and suggestions by your fellow writers are supposed to be helpful to you; they isolate problems and offer solutions. Third, the person who is organizing the workshop provides criticism from his or her own perspective.

In a good workshop, the test audience is fair, open-minded, and knowledgeable enough to appreciate a variety of writing. The participants accept the story on its own terms, whether it's about quilting, basketball, or alcoholism. They also understand that there are different ways to tell a story, and that each way has its own integrity. They read as all good readers read. They accept the spirit of the story, and then judge whether it fulfilled its own aspirations. They recognize achievement and generously acknowledge it. They notice problems and bring them up for discussion.

In a bad workshop the participants become blocked by their own reactions: "Oh, I hate sports stories," or "I don't want to read about sordid things." They aren't open to different ways of telling a story and insist that there is one right way. A bad workshop can be bad in many ways. If the participants are not sufficiently well read, they'll often praise sentimental, clichéd, and contrived stories, and will condemn fresh, innovative, and honest fiction. If the participants are too well read, they may become negative because the work at hand is not equivalent to something they recently saw in some journal that the writer "really ought to read."

Workshops can turn into mutual admiration societies, a relatively benign phenomenon in which everyone tells everyone else how wonderful they are. Though there's not much real criticism in these meetings, they keep people's spirits up and let writers grow at their own pace. The disadvantages in the long run are obvious. Writers who use such a workshop as a point of reference -- "Everyone loved this story so much" -- are puzzled or bitter when they are criticized or rejected by the outside world.

Workshops can also become mutual destruction associations, a more malign development in which each participant tries to convince the other members that they are incapable of writing fiction at all. These workshops can do real damage. The criticism is articulated with such ferocity and dogmatism that a beginning writer can be silenced for years. It's best to escape such groups as soon as possible.

Having said this, I believe the experience of fiction workshops is worth the risk. By putting your story up for discussion you learn how to listen to criticism and how to deal with it. By hearing the reactions to other stories you begin to recognize who in the workshop is perceptive, judicious, and balanced in judgment. Probably you should pay attention to those persons when your story is discussed. You recognize that the opinions of some people should be discounted. Some are negative bullies and others are uncritical enthusiasts. A person may vehemently attack some aspect of a story that isn't worth more than a minute of discussion because it could be cleared up with the insertion of a single sentence. Someone else may wax rhapsodic about what you recognize as contrived and dishonest. What if that person loves your story?

A good workshop will often result in useful reactions. "This character does not seem clear." "That scene was confusing." "The ending doesn't work." But it is easier to see problems than to sole them. The solutions that are suggested by the workshop are to be tasted gingerly and not swallowed whole. You need to sort them out and reflect on their usefulness. Other writers may be accurate in focusing on what's wrong, but their ideas on how to fix things can tell more about them than about you. Your hope for help can make you leap too eagerly at what may sound like plausible solutions. Stay loose and remember that useful suggestions sometimes come from unpredictable places.

A good workshop is guided rather than dominated by the person designated to be in charge. You should find a workshop run by a central person who has more experience and insight than the participants, who moves the discussion along, prevents various excesses, and adds useful commentary.

Good workshops can occur anywhere -- in community centers, churches, colleges, and art associations. Friends organize their own workshops, meeting in living rooms, and keeping each other productive.

In some workshops, writers read their stories aloud. In others, everyone reads the stories before the meeting. Each method has its adherents. I think it works better to have stories read beforehand. That saves meeting time, and allows participants to mull over the stories. Some fine stories don’t' read aloud particularly well. The prose may be too rich, the time shifts complex, or the voices difficult to follow.

Some workshops allow the writer to explain the story as part of the discussion. This can be productive, but often a writer will defend his story, denying the validity of this critics' reaction. Embarrassing impasses can occur -- someone says the character of Julia seems sexist, and the writer says it is not, that the critic has misunderstood. So what is the answer? My feeling is that since writers can't follow their stories around to explain what they really mean, doing that in a workshop is counterproductive. If the writer gets his audience to assent to what he intended rather to what really is on the page, it's no victory for anybody. But all kinds of workshop formats have their own successes.

It's difficult to try to be a writer. Workshops can provide deadlines, criticism, encouragement, and give you a few useful calluses which will be helpful when you collect the inevitable rejection slips.

In that first workshop, the people sitting around the fire probably made some useful suggestions, and the teller of the story, though irritated that night, by the next day had decided to revise the ending.

See Advice, Reading, Revision.

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