The Hardest Class 

Getting the most from your writing workshop

It's been 40 years since I conducted my first creative writing workshop, and in those years I've become marginally better at impersonating the old published person at the head of the table. I've learned to head off nasty wars between workshop members. I've learned to recognize the difference between people who sign up for workshops to learn to write and people who sign up to talk about writing. I've stopped making jokes about Our Narcissistic Personality Disorder Therapy Group, because I've learned writers need narcissism as much as they need talent, at least to the extent that they consider their talent special enough to command other people's time.

Most of all, I've learned that if you start with hard work, basic literacy and openness to new ideas, writing can be a doorway to a life of meaning. That doesn't mean it's not also a life full of inappropriate metaphors, long moments of emotional pain and occasional visits from the evil stranger who lives in your mirror.

So: Imagine you're in a writing workshop. Imagine you're an undiscovered genius. Imagine that you've given copies of your latest story to the members of the workshop. The next time you check, you have text messages.

"Outstanding," says one.

"Best thing I've ever read," says another.

"I stand in awe of your talent and skill," says a third.

"I've resigned from the faculty so U can take over the workshop and teach it the way it should be done," reads the text from the workshop leader. "My editor wants to buy U dinner. My husband wants to meet U. He's been so unhappy. I hope U can do something."

There. That was easy.

You wouldn't be in a writing workshop if you didn't have an imagination that could invent this scenario. But all too often, fellow workshoppers refuse to respond to your stories with the kind of delight you've imagined they would. They pout. They sneer. They mock. They laugh when you compare the stars to diamonds glittering on black velvet.

Possible reasons:

-They recognize talent and they hate it because they don't have any.

-You're really a princess, left as a foundling on your parents' doorstep. Everyone knows this but you, and they're jealous.

-They can't read. Never learned. They put all their energy into football and cheerleading.

-Your characters are so deep and nuanced that you've forced all of your fellow writers to evaluate their shallow vision of human nature as reflected in their trite, superficial characters.

-They've never seen diamonds glittering on black velvet.

There's another possibility: That the story in your mind never made it through the maze from your heart to your frontal lobes to paper, to your reader's optic nerves, to his or her frontal lobes, then to his or her heart. Something made it, but it was damaged in transit.

Learning to write is figuring out how to get people quite different from you to experience the beauty and wisdom you're capable of in the same way you experience it.

If the sentence above sounds sardonic to you, you're supplying the sardonicism. I'm simply pointing out how difficult writing is as a method of communication. I believe that most people have good stories in their hearts. I believe that most people have a core of wisdom that comes from living and suffering in this world. I believe that most of learning to write involves the technical difficulties of transforming what's inside you into words that can reach what's inside somebody else.

Here are a few observations that will help you get more from your writing workshop, and, with luck, get through to your readers in the way you want to:

-You are in a workshop to learn to read as well as to learn to write.

-That reading consists of careful, sentence-by-sentence absorption of other people's stories. Someone else has taken the time and effort to try to tell you a story. That story will almost always have flaws. But the story behind those flaws can be discerned if you're a smart and skilled and careful reader.

-If you take the time to annotate another person's story in detail, paying attention to what's on the page instead of how much you like them or loathe them, you'll learn a great deal about technical writing skills. That's because you'll have to articulate what it is that makes a sentence or a paragraph work or not work. You'll be surprised at how much you know about writing once you articulate it.

-Once you articulate your knowledge of writing, it's easier to apply that same knowledge to your own work.

-If you come to your workshop without having read and annotated all of the other stories, don't be surprised if nobody reads your work, no matter how good it is. A functioning workshop is a community, not a collection of disaffected, supercilious and misunderstood loners. (I said functioning workshop.)

Almost any workshop run by an experienced writing teacher will have rules. I've relaxed most of mine, telling people that it's OK to talk when their story is on the table, but when they're talking they're not listening to what people want to say about their story.

I tell them it's OK to put a first draft before the workshop if they don't mind being mortified when they recognize a bunch of foolish mistakes they should have fixed yesterday.

I even tell them it's OK to write magical realism in English, although I'd much rather they'd take up smoking.

I do have one firm rule: check guns and knives at the door. That's not an inappropriate metaphor. It's not even a metaphor.

Adapted from the MFA in a Box blog, mfainabox.com.

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