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Workshopping Pros and Cons

A Session with Peter Murphy

It has been my experience that any discussion about creative writing workshops can become emotive, divisive and, on rare occasions, downright combative. So let’s begin by assuming that there is, as in most things, both good and bad.

For a great many aspiring writers, including myself, workshops can be the classrooms in which we can learn the accepted dos and don’ts of writing and where the acorn of whatever talent we possess might get all the encouragement and nurturing it needs to grow.

Presenting workshops can also provide a means for writers; nascent, struggling, and published, to keep body and soul together until the reading world discovers them, and that is not such a bad thing either. But for the habitual workshopper, and we all know a few of them, they can become the couch of complacency. “Going to workshop,” can become a salve for the conscience when the aspiring writer might be better off alone in a garret, sweating and bleeding out every word of the great book that will forever change human existence.

All that said, let’s have a look at some of the more common reasons given for attending workshops.

Making the commitment

Yes, committing time and usually money is a definite “pro.” It is a declaration to yourself and others that you are serious about this. Never mind that you have previously taken out membership at gyms that you never got around to using; this is about writing and, deep down inside, you’ve always known that you were born to become a writer – and as an aspiring writer with a fresh and unique insight into the human condition, you have learned that a commitment means nothing if it is not kept.

It is also a statement of intent: you are going to go and learn something about the craft of writing and, hopefully, about yourself and your abilities. My experience would suggest that going in with a clearly defined goal is important. Those who assume that a few workshops will turn them into writers might be risking disappointment. But fear naught; with workshops that specialize in many of the different aspects of the craft, it is possible to select a series of courses that will allow you to become familiar with the topics you will need to know.

That said, it would seem logical to me that you begin with a general topic to see if you have what it takes. Beyond that, consider following a linear trail from plotting, through character development, to all the nuances of backdrop and all the other things that you will need to know.


Exercise 1 Research, find, and commit to at least one workshop.


Writing to deadline

We often hear of the value of good habits, and getting involved in a regular workshop where you are expected to produce a new or reworked piece of writing is, for the most part, a good habit for any writer to cultivate. Learning to write on a schedule is an essential part of the trade and failure to master this will come back to bite you later on. No matter how brilliant and gifted you are, if you cannot produce by deadline, you are bound to try the patience of even the most supportive editor. Through workshopping, you will learn enough about yourself and your ability to produce work to be able to determine if this is really the life for you. Any inability to produce reasonable quality on demand should cause an examination of your commitment and/or, your suitability for the craft.


Exercise 2 Make a schedule of suggested writing exercises and see if you can deliver on time.


Dealing with feedback.

Most workshops are based on the model that you write your piece and share it with the rest of the group. Having others read your work and return their comments and observations can be daunting at first, particularly for the shy, introverted, and insecure would-be writer, but it is of huge importance. To gain the maximum benefit, you might want to considering learning how to do the following:

  • In the case of physical workshops, learn to sit impassively and listen. Avoid all of those body language signals that betray negative reactions as they might discourage others from offering you some very real and meaningful feedback.

  • In both cases of physical and virtual workshops, do not seek to debate or explain what it is you were trying to convey. If your writing has not done that for you, there is a problem. Often it is with the writing but, on occasion, it can be with the reader. I have always found it better to assume the former while never discounting the latter.

  • Filter the critique from the chaff. Workshops, just like any other gatherings, have their fair share of people who insist on having their say even when they have little of value to offer. Workshops encourage this if there is a requirement for everyone to say something. Notwithstanding, listen to what is being offered and look for and remember those comments that speak to the structure, tone, and flow of your work.

  • Avoid getting too high or low. Gushing praise can be very heady stuff and can often deflect a good writer from becoming great. Likewise, condemnation can discourage and stifle real genius (and the rest of us.) Try to position yourself in the middle space where praise is seen as encouragement and criticism is a challenge to do better. While this might sound like the stuff of saints, it is the only sane reality for those who would be writers.


Exercise 3 Find somewhere to submit a piece of your writing for critiquing.


Do unto others.

Without hesitation I would have to say that I believe the single most important part of workshopping is reading the work of others and learning how to form meaningful and constructive criticism.

I say this because we are human and are far more adept at seeing fault in the efforts of others while remaining blind to our own shortcomings. As in the rest of life, this can be detrimental to growth but in the case of the writer, particularly in workshop, it can be a great opportunity missed.

Really examining the work of others allows the would-be writer a chance to peek behind the veil. Of course, it will require more than a cursory reading in the minutes before the meeting begins. I would suggest that you read each piece multiple times and note your reactions each time. Note what was strong and what was weak and where your impressions were changed by additional readings. This can help to differentiate between those details that you overlooked and those that the author might need to improve on.

Such a thorough review will not only allow you to provide meaningful and insightful feedback, it will also allow you to develop the critical eye that is vital to every writer when dealing with their own work. For your own benefit, make a list of the things you would have considered differently, but do not be in a hurry to offer them until you are sure that they are useful and welcome.


Exercise 4 Find a short piece of prose and review it five times, noting and expanding on your observations each time.


Keeping it impersonal

Offering criticism, even when bookended with positives and prefaced with the politically correct “in my opinion” is always a tricky business, especially in workshops where egos, vanities, bruised feelings, and insecurities are always just below the surface.

This for me is the greatest single “con” about workshops. Like all gatherings of people, they are subject to the frailties of human behavior.

The late, great Maeve Binchy had a notice on her websites advising aspiring writers not to send their writings to her, suggesting instead that they submit to publishers. She qualified that with something to the effect that writers were competitors. And while not all competition must be cutthroat, that reality remains.

In workshops, someone who has previously submitted something that was panned might be tempted to lurk in wait for a chance to even the score. Not in the workshops you attend, you say? Then you are fortunate. Or are you being naive?

Likewise, gushing praise might induce gushing praise.

Then there is the matter of the tyranny of the majority. Everyone else thinks something is great, or awful, and you don’t agree.


Exercise 5 Write a description of a workshop group reviewing a piece. Create a varied cast of characters whose responses range from encouraging and insightful to mean-spirited. Develop each character and decide which one you would like to be.


The point of it all

In summation I would say that workshops have a place of value along the road to writing. I would also say that learning to have your work critiqued, and critiquing the work of others, is a vital part of that road.

To avoid the pitfalls described above a viable solution might be virtual workshops.

Think about it. You can still submit your work. It can be reviewed and feedback returned through a moderator. It removes the temptation to skip class and allows you to attend in your pajamas, which I believe to be a prerequisite for the writing life. The writer’s relationship to the reader is mostly through correspondence, anyway, so why not extend it? And for those, like me, who take workshops as a chance to meet favorite authors, remember the Wizard of Oz.


About the Author… called Peter Murphy “a natural storyteller,” and Savvy Verse and Wit said, “Murphy’s style is as complex as his characters, but readers will be absorbed in the forlorn myths and legends created and expounded upon.” Peter Murphy brings Ireland – both the real land and the land of legend – to life in lyrical, nuanced prose that has a music all its own.

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