Proceed with Caution: Writing Workshops and You and Me and You and That Guy

I’ve been around the sun long enough to have a few well thought out opinions and theories. The downside of this is that most of the subjects that I have a solid foundation of knowledge and theory are things that aren’t useful to you, dearest of readers, or even to me. Large portions of my brain have been dedicated to the useless. For example, I could, at any time, close my eyes and draw the original Call of Duty: United Offensive maps. Or, I could talk about the lore behind World of Warcraft, Warhammer 40k, or expound on how great and amazing Ants are. But none of this would really concern you (but if it does, look me up, we’ll have coffee and pretend to talk about uppity things in public) except that sometimes I think about writing.

And I’ve been thinking about one aspect of writing that is overlooked or maybe, needs a rework: the writing workshop. If you haven’t been able to take a creative writing class as of yet, a writing workshop consists of a mentor/leader/teacher with a group of writers of all different skills in a room sharing their work and getting constructive criticism. And for those of you that haven’t had the opportunity to do so, you need to do this, especially if you’re new at this.

There are benefits to a writing workshop and I could spend all day sharing the moments that I’ve had that forever changed my writing and person. Instead of regaling you with the good old days brought to you through the lens of Patrick Johnson, I’ll just throw a few reasons as to why workshops are a good idea.

There is community building. The idea of throwing a bunch of writers in a room and forcing them to read their work out loud to one another does something. Everyone feels vulnerable and exposed and because of this, the peers can become some of the best people to share with for the rest of a writer’s life. And working with a published writer is always a valuable experience. They have a different perspective and can open doors to ideas about writing that only comes with experience. And on top of that, at the core, a writer will get numerous new perspectives on their work that they can use to improve their work.

The previous paragraph does not, and should not be what people take away from this. Again, a writing workshop is so much more than what I could ever say. It’s a special experience that everyone needs.

But there’s something I’ve been worrying about when it concerns workshops. Though they are useful, sometimes I watched a good piece of writing from someone become a mediocre piece of writing. And I could never figure out why or what was happening until I had a discussion with one of my colleagues who has moved on to better places.

We spoke about how having a reader’s perspective on work is a great thing to have. Writers struggle to find active readers that do more than read something and say “that’s good” and then wander off. So having a room full of them has to be great. Right? And this is where I have to say that no, it’s not always good.

Because we desire feedback so much, sometimes we take everyone’s ideas and opinions and try to incorporate them into the work to please the workshop community. And though it is hard, we manage to do this and they, at the end of the year, read our revised work and praise our improvement. Then we move on with our lives and find, later, that the draft isn’t as good as we thought it was. And why is that?

During my conversation with my colleague, we came to the conclusion that when we’re in a workshop, we sometimes try and write to please the workshop. And though that seems like something we should be doing, a lot of the ideas that are given to us during that time may sound good initially, it turns out later, that it wasn’t such a good idea.

This has went on longer than it should and I can tell, if we were in a room together you’d have a glazed over look or be thinking about food. I know I’m thinking about food. Anyways, the whole idea is that workshops can be beneficial, but at the end of the day, a writer ends back up alone with their work and they have to know what’s good and what’s not. So take caution when in workshops. We’re all still learning.

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