I taught my first writing workshop this past spring at George Washington University. I loved every part of the class. I was thrilled to be sitting in a classroom again, I adored my students, and I was often pleasantly surprised at the originality of the work they handed in (like a sonnet about Kesha). It was a funny feeling to be at the head of the table, to be the moderator of the discussion instead of just one of the members. I wondered if I was qualified to be a teacher, if I was going to be able to run a successful workshop. And then, as I sat there listening to my students discuss the believability of a character's obsession with cheese, I realized that I would never have to workshop my writing again. And I was ecstatic.
Now, don't get me wrong. I loved workshops. A fiction workshop that I took senior year in college was one of the main reasons that I decided to pursue writing. After graduation, I joined a workshop in Chicago and then decided to go on to get my MFA at the New School. Every workshop that I took taught me something important, and my writing wouldn't have grown the same way without them. (Even the nonfiction workshop that only taught me that I never want to write memoir.)
But here's the thing: Workshops are scary. It's terrifying to hand your writing over to a bunch of people, knowing that they're going to spend the next hour telling you what they think is wrong with it. The first day of class, as I explained the workshop structure to my students, I could feel all of them watching me with wide eyes, thinking, "You want me to do what?"
They had all signed up for an Introduction to Creative Writing class aware that they'd have to share their work. But that didn't matter, because (as any writer will tell you) knowing that you have to show someone your work and doing it are two very different things.
I told my students to always start the critique with something positive. This is a rule that's always used in workshop and helps to get the conversation going without the author crying or passing out. Usually, this resulted in the students saying, "I liked this," or "This was good," or "You're a good writer," or some other very generic and kind comment.
Watching the class at GW was like being back in my own college workshops, which tended to be very nice, and also very heavy on the plot drama. "Maybe you shouldn't let your character get raped, have cancer, and get hit by a car all on the same page," one of us would suggest to the writer. But then we'd quickly add, "But I love the character's voice. It's so real." And everyone else in the class would nod and say, "So true, so true."
I wanted my students to respect the writer and deliver thoughtful critiques, but also to actually give good insight, which means pointing out where the story doesn't work, or why a character seems flat. I have a memory of a teacher of mine from college, interrupting our discussion, grabbing his hair and screaming, "Yes, but what does the character want?" I now realize that we were probably dancing around the real issue of the story and offering observations, like, "I don't think cows eat meat," and other gems. It was a challenge every class to try to push my students toward a real observation of the story without taking over the discussion.
My workshops in grad school were completely different. In college, there were a handful of kids in each writing class that were actually interested in writing. Most of the others wanted to be lawyers or investment bankers and just needed to fulfill an arts requirement. But in grad school, everyone wanted to be a writer, everyone wanted to succeed. And so the classmates that were friends and editors were also competition.
It's not that everyone was nasty in my grad school workshops. It's just that there was a sense that the more you could find wrong with a story, the smarter you were. And so, unlike my earlier workshops, people were fighting to speak over one another, ready to point out that, "The character isn't just repulsive, but he's bland and not well formed, and no one cares about him." It was enough to make any writer run for the door.
The stories that were preferred in grad school usually took place in an alternate world, maybe a hyper reality, where odd characters sat around and mulled about society and its messed up ways. This is not the kind of writing that I do. But still, I found myself heading in that direction, delivering strange stories about towns that smelled like butter cookies and sad characters that worked in battery factories. It was, without a doubt, some of the worst writing I've ever done.
I started writing Girls in White Dresses almost three years after I graduated from grad school. I think I needed that time to let the voices of my classmates fade and to really figure out what I wanted to write and what I was good at writing. With so many voices and opinions coming at you in workshop, it's sometimes hard to hear your own.
Another rule that I employed in my workshop was that the person submitting his work couldn't talk. My students had a hard time following this. Someone would say, "I don't get why your character starts to fly on page three," and the writer would jump right in with an explanation of how the character just got his superpowers from eating the magic granola bar. This was the one time in class that I'd raise my voice, as I held up my hand and would yell, "No talking!!"
Because, as I explained to my students, it doesn't really matter why the character started to fly. All that matters is that a reader didn't get it, so you need to look back and see why.
Even now, when I get comments from my friends or my editor, I read them and then I walk away and let them set in. My first response is to write back and make excuses for what they obviously misunderstood. But after an hour, I usually realize that they have a point. And after two hours, I wonder how I didn't see what they were suggesting in the first place. Writing is personal, and it's hard not to feel a little defensive when someone gives a suggestion. But what I know now is that you can get too close to the writing ? so close that you can't even see it anymore.
Of course the flip side to that is knowing when to ignore an edit and stick with your gut. My students would come to me during office hours holding 15 critiques from their classmates. "So, a few people want me to make Brenda a bigger character, but one person suggested that I kill her off, and another wants me to think about making her deaf," they would say. "So which one should I do?"
When you have 15 people giving you different opinions, it's almost impossible to filter it down. And when you're a young writer and it's hard to trust yourself, these critiques take on more power than they should. "It's your character," I'd tell them. "Only you know what should happen."
They'd nod and make a note on their paper. And then they'd look up and say, "So, which one? Make her a bigger character?"
In one of the last classes, the students spent almost 15 minutes discussing what the correct term was for the inflatable jumpy castles that kids have at their birthday parties. The castles had oddly enough shown up in three stories that we workshopped, and everyone had an opinion on whether it should be called a Bounce House, a Bouncy Castle, Moonbounce, or a Moonwalk. I let them talk about it for a while, hoping that soon they would find their way back to the real part of the story. The writer sat biting her lip, wanting so badly to explain why she'd chosen the term Bounce House in the first place, but knowing that she couldn't talk.
I'm not done learning about writing; in fact, I'm not even close. Looking back on old writing makes me cringe, and probably next year I'll find this essay and it will humiliate me. But it's all part of the process. Now that I'm done with traditional workshops, I give my writing to a few writer friends, my agent, and my editor. It looks and feels different, but a lot of it is the same.
As I watched the Bounce House discussion gather steam and run away, I finally jumped in to guide the conversation back to the story. After many years, I'd found my way to the head of the table. And I was really happy to be there. (By the way, the general consensus was Moonbounce.)