Workshops vary a lot—good or bad, helpful or not, weird or really weird.
It’s the natural effect of getting a dozen creative people together. Something off the wall is bound to happen. When you’re lucky, the off-the-wall stuff comes from a fellow workshopper instead of the leader. I have not been particularly lucky in this regard.
I once had a workshop leader who outlawed a color—to wit, “indigo.” Indigo was not permitted in a poem in this person’s class. Of course, I hadn’t considered writing about indigo until there was a moratorium on it, but then every poem seemed to require the night sky.
A friend tells me about a fiction workshop question proffered by the leader: “What if all the men were women and the women were men?” We sometimes joke about that when we’re talking about creative work; it’s just a choice bit of silliness, a joke that never stops being funny. Like a ban on “indigo,” it’s pointless, but it makes us smile.
Within workshops, there were always more than a few clichés from other participants. Here are some classic examples:
· This has been done. Once we unlock “This has been done” as a workshop criticism, we find that everything has been done. Poets have always talked about things like love and loss and beauty—yawn.
· Show, don’t tell. As advice goes, this has its place. It’s better, generally, to have an image instead of a lot of blah-de-blah. But more seasoned writers know that there is a place for exposition in a poem, story, or essay, and that there can be such a thing as too much showing. That’s when you tell.
· I don’t feel it. Isn’t that an odd comment to make to someone regarding a piece of writing? It’s more a commentary on the reader’s capacity to feel than it is on the quality of writing. And I guess it’s a good idea to be properly wary of any comment starting with “I.” It shows where the reader’s attention is, when it should be on the work and the writer at hand.
· That would never happen in real life. Some of the weirdest things have happened in my real life. I once found a human eyeball in a field. Our planet is endlessly strange, and that’s most of what makes me want to stay on it.
· Write what you know. Or you could, you know, use your imagination to figure out something new. It would be terrible to be limited to what we know when we enter into a world of imagination.
· This needs a few more drafts. Of course it does; that’s why it’s in a workshop. People don’t bring their polished work to a bunch of peers for advice, or if they do, they shouldn’t.
One of the most problematic things that happen in workshops is that our fellow writers begin to rewrite our work. I see some value in a straight-up assessment of what works and what doesn’t, but I have a problem with specific advice about how to rewrite a piece.
As I recently told a friend, I don’t need feedback that says, “The narwhal in stanza three should be a nurse shark.” Obviously, I’m keeping my damned narwhal. Have you seen those things?
To take the point further, my narwhal can’t really be switched out with a nurse shark, because the narwhal is in service to the vision of the piece in a way that only it can be. Its selection was never arbitrary. The fact of the matter is that the narwhal poem may be a complete disaster, but making it a nurse shark poem doesn’t help, and that big of a switch to the vision means that it’s no longer what I wanted it to be. It’s not my narwhal poem.
The way I see it, I came up with the narwhal, and I sink or swim with it. The nurse shark didn’t come from me, so I can’t accept it offered up on a silver platter in a workshop. It’s not my poem when I do.
A workshopper can point out clunky words or phrases, maybe suggest replacements for me to consider; it is also useful to point out a passage that falls flat or an image that doesn’t work. The suggestion of bizarre additions that aren’t the product of my own imagination is never going to work for me, though, if I haven’t specifically invited a larger collaboration than workshop feedback.
A piece of writing, and particularly a poem, is the product, ideally, of sustained, private thought. If we’re comedy writers for a late-night show, we might have a lot of luck sitting around a table and spitting out ideas that aren’t our property anyway and then seeing what we can do with them as a team. But that’s not what a workshop is, unless it’s a very unusual workshop. And, heck, I’d enjoy trying an experiment like that—something totally collaborative, where all participants put their heads together to make a shared new thing. But until I’m lucky enough to sit in a workshop like that, I’m probably going to focus on my own writing—and maybe I need the help of a dozen people who aren’t me, but I don’t really want it, and I’m not going to accept it if it’s offered.
For me, a workshop is one of the best ways to get a quick sense of how work is being received by an audience. It’s also a nice setting to make small repairs, which is when it functions most as its name would suggest. In an automotive workshop, I might gap my spark plugs or change my air filter or tighten my timing belt, but if I came in with a silver 2000 Volkswagen Golf with a dent in the driver’s side, I expect to drive out in it—although maybe without the dent, if I’m lucky.
Because if I’m driving out in a new Lexus, the chances are good that I stole it from someone. The title is not in my name.