Archive for the Workshop Category

Workshop: Putting my work out there…

Posted in Workshop, Writing on April 23, 2011 by Melissa Henry

All you seasoned writers out there, I’m sure you’ve had your good and bad workshop experiences. Some of you may be like I was, just getting started with no understanding of what workshop entails. If you’re of the latter group, I hope my experiences will encourage you to get out there and find a workshop. If you’re of the former, hopefully I’ll send a few laughs your way and you’ll find yourself being wistfully nostalgic of your first workshop…

It’s difficult for me to comment objectively on the workshop experience, because my experiences are limited and I have few comparators. My first workshop was, perhaps, a unique experience.

Over three quarters, an entire academic year, a core group of us stuck it out through the three-part course. Having the same instructor and many of the same writers for a year, allowed us to really get into each other’s stories and build a good amount of trust. It was creative nonfiction, mostly memoir and many stories dealt with sensitive topics; trust was paramount. While I’m sure this sort of connection and camaraderie occurs in MFA programs everywhere, this class wasn’t part of an MFA program. So when you read this and other posts about my non-MFA program workshop, keep in mind this experience is likely a little different.

Workshop can be daunting to say the least. In the beginning, you are sitting in a room full of unknown personalities nervously making small-talk and hoping they won’t completely decimate your writing. It’s good to be nervous, nerves can help you put your best work out there, just don’t let it paralyze you.

During the first quarter, I definitely feigned having more confidence than I actually had. That’s just what you do. Much of the time it was: see an opportunity, hold your breath, and jump of the cliff. When we signed up to be workshop’d, I took one of the earliest dates. Better to just dive right in. When there was an opportunity to read a piece in class (horrible as that first piece was, now that I look at it), I did, shaky voice and all. When extra workshop dates opened up, I took a second shot. There is no doing it halfway, it’s all in or go home. I was all in.

When you take a workshop, the success of the class seems to be dependent upon two things:

1. Your instructor’s ability to keep everyone on track and control the mood of the feedback.

2. Your fellow writers and their investment in not only their own work, but the work of their peers.

What workshop really doesn’t depend upon:

To a large degree, workshop doesn’t necessarily depend upon how well you write but rather your ability receive feedback and better your work. This is easy to do if the correct tone is set.

I would think (hope) that the following would be true for any workshop:

Beyond simple participation, the most crucial aspects of a workshop course are respect for and generosity toward one another.  All feedback — written and verbal — must be provided in a constructive manner, with the intent of helping the author improve the work. Your goal is not to tell the author what she should be doing differently; your goal is to help the author understand how it feels to experience the work from a reader’s perspective. Two simple methods to ensure helpful and respectful feedback are to avoid value judgments, and to be as specific as possible.

We were encouraged to say things like:

On page X, I liked how you really grounded us in the scene by…

-On page X, the way you introduced the ——— character after ——— happened was effective because…

Then, towards the end, asking questions about the scene or story to highlight what might not be coming through for the reader:

I like the ——— character and would really like to hear more about him. How does he relate to the main character? I’d also like to see more…his mannerisms, physical characteristics, etc. and how he relates to the main character’s struggle.

So that’s how we began the class, a few guidelines and many jangling nerves. More on my first experience with feedback coming up…

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