Workshop Hacks

While there are things I agree with in the latest attack on writing workshops, the author, Sam Sacks, builds his argument from some strange assumptions. First, he assumes that Best New American Voices 2006 edited by Jane Smiley is a representative selection of the best work from the best workshops in the U.S. He assumes that people who enter writing workshops aspire to be the best writers who ever lived. He assumes that great writers can be great teachers and poor writers are inevitably therefore poor teachers. He assumes great writers have enlightening wisdom to impart to young writers. He assumes that his experiences are typical.

All of these assumptions are at least weak, if not flat-out false, many of them for multiple reasons.

There are two basic values to good writing workshops in my experience: they teach people to pay closer attention to what they read, and they give them ways to think about what they write. Any loftier claims are horse effluent. The only real way to learn to write is to write and keep writing and read and keep reading. There aren't any great secrets held by a wise secret cabal that will help anybody become a better writer.

I was talking with a friend, a fine writer with an MFA, about another writer, a young one who has gotten some attention and who has never, as far as we know, been in any sort of writing workshop. "In five years," my friend said, "X will probably be a good writer, but at the moment s/he doesn't really know how to structure a story. That's where a workshop could help. The talent's there, the sensitivity to language, but some feedback on how stories like X's work and some ideas of other ways to make them work would be helpful."

Workshops provide time and impetus to write, which can be invaluable. They also provide a built-in audience, which is a mixed blessing. What Sam Sacks has to say about the much-(and justly-)maligned "workshop story" is accurate and well said, but the reason such stories pop up in workshops all the time is that they reduce the negative criticism by being predictable and mediocre. Certainly, too many of these stories get published, and the cause of that may be workshop indoctrination, but that's more a problem of editors without any taste, skill, or individuality than it is a problem of writers or workshops.

Not all workshops are alike, either. I liked an approach I heard once from the playwright Mac Wellman: he instructed students to write the worst possible things they could. The results, he said, were excellent. He'd given his students permission to write terribly -- indeed, commanded them to do so -- and thus circumvented many problems of standard workshops, got some interesting results, and thought the students learned a lot.

One of the more common weaknesses I've seen in workshops is that students are too young and have spent their entire adult lives (if they have such lives yet) in academia, so their general knowledge of the world is of ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls. It's remarkable what one or two years in the real world will do for a writer. I've just finished being in a screenwriting workshop with people of all different ages and experiences, and some of them wrote truly interesting, innovative, entertaining scripts, because, lo and behold, they actually had things to write about: joys and terrors, passions and wounds.

The proliferation of workshops is not going to kill American literature, because the majority of workshops are not represented in elitist dullness like the Best New Voices books (actually, I remember reading some pretty good stories in the volume Charles Baxter edited), and many workshops serve a perfectly useful purpose of increasing people's knowledge of how hard it is to write well. I'd bet more people leave workshops -- even bad workshops -- with a better appreciation for what they read than leave workshops determined to be professional writers. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of good writers out there, and what we need now more than anything are good readers.


  1. I have been following the recent spat of postings this past week on the pros and (mostly) cons of workshops and seminars, and tend to pretty much agree that you have a good viewpoint here. The input, as with any workshopping or critique is invaluable--even if it's dead wrong--because it gives a writer the chance to see how others perceive what he has presented. I had a woman in a poem heading her car toward a tree just to get a sense of "what if" and a reader took it as a lovely Sunday drive. I attended the Wesleyan Writers Conference this past summer and all in all, would say that I learned quite a bit. susan @ Spinning

  2. I'm in a workshop.

    My purpose has never been to improve my writing. What I've found is that in my line of work it's difficult to meet people who are as interested in reading and writing as I am. I figured going to a workshop would at least mean the other members have more than a passing interest in fiction.

    Sadly, I was mistaken. Only three (out of a class of sixteen) are what I would describe as avid readers. The others just think they're going to magically produce flawless prose without reading.

    Where do fiction geeks hang out? 'Cos it sure ain't the creative writing workshops...

  3. Reminds me of what Vonnegut once said:
    "Writing workshops are for old ladies, who like to sit around and pretend to be writers"

    Or something like that. It was awhile ago when last I read it. I *somewhat* agree with him. But I think it's funny that the parent article mentions a teacher who thought the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Hemmingway was like a workshop. Obv he had never read "Sylvia Beach andThe Lost Generation", those romantic notions would quickly evaporate from his head.

    I think the one thing that would be more beneficial than a workshop to starting writers would be a healthy scene of avid writers and readers who enjoy the same "style" of writing. I think that would be more challenging, and more apt to produce better writers.

  4. Write the worst possible thing you can.

    How about a story with no character, no plot, no ideas – impossible! – no setting, no fun, no words – impossible!- no love, no life, nothing.


    How about a story really boring – about a chicken, say. Chickens bore people, right? But I like chickens, so maybe that won’t work.

    Okay, no chickens.

    Already we have a problem, this story is kind of interesting. To me.

    But maybe not to you! One can only hope. That is how we would know we have the worst possible story. No one digs it.

    But maybe they just don’t get it, and the story is actually great.

    This story is great!

    Well actually not. Hopefully not. I do want to complete the assignment.

    This assignment is difficult. I don’t think I can do it – I’m too interesting.

    Inflated ego.

    Oh well.

    The end.

  5. About ten years ago, when online writing workshops were just starting, I took one called WriteWay. It was free, and it was designed to teach you the basic techniques of writing: point-of-view, word quality, structure, how to build tension, how to move from one scene to another, etc.

    There were a limited number of people in the workshop and each person had to critique a certain number of entries for each "homework".

    Therein the basic flaw. Most people in the workshop were really bad writers, and even worst critiquers. "Awesome story" didn't do it for me.

    I did learn, however, the techniques of writing, which have served me well and given me a foundation on which to apply my imagination and yes, my life experience, and did gain two critiquers who do, to this day, go through my manuscripts and shred them to their heart's content.

    The workshop didn't make me a literary writer but then, that's not what I aspired to become. What I received from it is what I put in, as well as a confirmation that writing is what I wanted to do with my life.

    I agree that a workshop does not a writer make. I am also an avid and eclectic reader, and reading is, to me, one of the best ways to improve my own writing. Nevertheless, my experience with WriteWay was invaluable.


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