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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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By the Mark: A Writer's Workshop Offenses
by Kathleen Davis

Nothing, not love, not greed, not passion or hatred, is stronger than a writer's need to change another writer's copy. - Arthur Evans

All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things. - Bobby Knight

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book. - Cicero

It seems to me that it is entirely unfair for three great individuals who have never witnessed a workshop to comment so maliciously on the nature of writing. (It’s a pretty safe bet that neither Cicero nor Bobby Knight would sacrifice the ego for that long; one can only speculate about Arthur Evans). It would have been much more polite to allow those of us who have survived the torture to relate the survivor’s experience.

The art of the workshop is often defective, but as it is centered around the art of writing (also defective in places) it really had no hope of escaping the genetic predilection. There are a number of “rules” governing the modern workshop, and most gatherings of writers—small-minded and high art alike—violate all of them at one time or another. Take the top ten, for example:

1. That a workshop shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. Often, with the best of intentions, all workshops truly succeed in doing is muddling the whole affair. What the writer was sure of going into the workshop will be in doubt when he exits; what he disliked upon embarking on the critique, he will be told is his “strongest stuff.”

2. That the conversations within a workshop shall be necessary parts of said workshop and shall help to develop it. In other words, workshops should be all about production. However, they are often about latest loves, group gossip, coffee, and whether co-workers are “gettin’ it on.”

3. That the participants in the workshop shall be alive, except in the case of the truly hung over or dejected (who often resemble corpses), and that always the leader of the workshop shall be able to tell the recovering alcoholics from the others. However, this is often not the case as participants regularly shy away from “dissing” a friend’s piece, but will voraciously attack the rookie housewife’s short story about life in the deep South, for she has no true “family” in the group. Attitudes change weekly in this political state.

4. That workshop participants shall assume a sanctity akin to a small AA meeting within the four walls of the venue, keeping all the rhetoric, latest loves, group gossip, coffee, and knowledge about co-workers’ sex lives inside. However, workshops leak like a sieve until, as the last man on the sinking lifeboat, you’re bailing for all you’re worth.

5. That authors can disassociate themselves from the “speaker” in their poems or stories and, therefore, don’t take criticism about motives, dialogue or plot personally. As workshop participants, we all believe that when an author describes the main character of a piece, that the conduct and conversation of that character shall fit the character’s personality. But, as the authors of works being critiqued, we often feel like our characters can be any damn way we want to write them. Thank you very much.

6. That writers who are passionate about their work will listen carefully and take notes, and that writers who are only there to be coddled will interject at every suggestion. Unfortunately, after a few months of any workshop, participants discover that those two different types of writers often co-exist in the bi-polar mentality of a single author, namely themselves.

7. That the participants of a workshop shall confine themselves to true suggestions and let extensive flights of fancy alone (and he could steal a car and turn evil and have the skills of James Bond and bed hundreds of women and blow things up); or, if they venture an extensive flight, that it is based, at least remotely, on the genre and plotline of the text being discussed. However, everyone turns into a five-year-old hyped up on red Kool-aid and Pokemon once that floor opens for comments.

8. That the author shall make a real effort to write something worth the fine-toothed comb that will be dragged across it by the workshop masses and not slap crap together in the ten minutes after his afternoon nap before he rushes out the door to make it to the group twenty minutes late. Alas, workshops see more first drafts than the NBA.

9. That those who cannot make the meeting call so that the group isn’t twiddling collective thumbs for a half-hour awaiting stragglers. Participants in a workshop aren’t just trusting that their fellow writers will give all the copy a good read; they are also trusting that all the workshop participants respect each other enough to be considerate. (In fact, though, what can’t be said for individuals in the secular world cannot be applied to the microcosm that is a writing workshop, but it’s a nice dream anyway.)

10. That a writing workshop will have a good and steady flow and a warm and honest rapport among its participants. Truth is: all writers are petty, jealous, backstabbing thieves who go after each other like each possesses the last cold and juicy thigh of the Donner party.

There have been daring people in the world who claimed that workshops give writers the pure and genuine opportunity of a Girl Scout jamboree: all hand-holding and collective singing—the Whos in Whoville, if you will. But those people are all dead now, having been eviscerated by the true artists of survival, the ones who can take a writing workshop for what its truly worth. If those “rules” are a “Plato’s ideal” of the workshop, we should be happy to get just one or two of them right on occasion. It’s all we can really ask for. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that workshops are about the poorest excuse for true collaboration as a writer can get, but they are also all we’ve got.

Counting all these rules out, what is left is good. I think all surviving writers must admit that.