Everything I Learned, I Learned at Workshop

The only writing class I took in college was “Writing in the Sciences.” In science, writing is fitting your words into distinct categories: introduction, methods, results, and conclusions, whether its a paper or a poster (think glorified grownup science fair pictured right…a presentation I gave on neuroarchitecture differences in autism…worlds away from creative nonfiction). For me, creative writing became about making those distinct categories disappear. No theatre-goer wants to see the wires attached to Peter Pan, and no reader wants you to tell them how everything connects. Readers want to discover your story, trust that they can, they’re smart people. The best advice I’ve ever received: show don’t tell.

To figure out whether or not people could “discover” my story, I took it to workshop. On a whim, I enrolled in a three-part, yearlong, creative non-fiction workshop. The course description promised their potential students a quarter on “How to get started,” followed by “How to keep writing,” and ended with “How to get published.” It was perfect. My whims are often so much better than my carefully laid plans.

For me, workshop became the litmus test, my little focus group filled with writers who would tell me whether or not I had the chops to write. But that wasn’t my first thought about the course.

Initially, my thought (an incorrect one) was that I wanted to be taught by an expert, reviewed by an expert. Even I had had an expert at my disposal, a bespectacled little being I kept in a box on a shelf, I would not have gotten the kind of feedback I needed. I am not an expert on every single subject, and I can’t expect my readers to be either. They’re going to be diverse in their understanding of my subject, in the kinds of books they read, etc. and to reach all of them, I would need to hear from all of them.

My fellow classmates were the experts I actually needed. They generated ideas and asked questions about my stories, highlighting what was working and what holes I needed to fill in. In your head you see the whole story, from the Technicolor landscape of your surroundings to the micro-expressions of your characters. When another reader misjudges the emotional valence of a scene, you know you need to go back and rewrite.

What surprised me the most about workshop was how much their writing informed my own and, I hope, vice-versa. We were all writing on different subjects and yet, the way another writer crafted a sentence or anchored their story to a world event, sparked ideas in all of us. Our experience was as diverse as the subjects we were writing on; we were all at different points on the literary craft spectrum. If I had only sought the advice of a single “expert,” I would have missed out on some really important stuff.

Now for a little news…

I’m excited to enter the world of podcasting and will soon release the prologue to my book FINE: starved without physical evidence! Follow me on Twitter or visit my site www.melissa-henry.com for the latest updates.


Many many more posts to come on my workshop experience but, as promised, up next:

Day Zero: What I had to decide before I started writing…

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