Catherine Stine's IDEA CITY

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Friday, April 20, 2012

R is for Nancy Rawlinson, on Writing Workshops

Today, Nancy Rawlinson, one of my favorite writing workshop teachers will talk about what she's learned about teaching workshops over the years. Take it away, Nancy!

I think of writing workshops as being one of the crucibles of the writing life: they are a place where work is shared, critiqued, and forged anew. I've been in many workshops over the years, and teaching my own since 2006. At this point I have a good idea of what makes one work. I like to provide structure, because when everyone knows the rules and what’s expected of them, it provides the freedom and space for interesting work and talk to bloom. I also like to include a discussion of process in my groups, as often craft challenges are process challenges in disguise. I make sure that each work is honored and assessed according to its true nature – not what the readers in the group think it should be.

My workshops used to be exclusively for nonfiction writers, but then I ran a couple of fiction groups too. Now my workshops are cross genre, open to fiction and nonfiction writers alike. I love the cross pollination of ideas and approaches that occurs when writers with different genre perspectives talk about craft issues. The fiction writer asks: how can you bring in more omniscience to a memoir’s point of view? Is there such a thing as omniscience in memoir? The memoirist asks: what are the memories that this fictional scene is based on? How can they be further excavated? And we are off, into new and fertile territories.

And then, every now and again, a workshop experience can totally suck. I hope that none of the participants in my workshops ever feel that way, but I know I have been in some sucky groups. There was the one where a writer submitted thinly veiled caricatures of other people in the workshop. There was the one when every single submission was late, and two members of the group seemed as if they hadn’t even read the work. There was the one where a writer went off his meds and started barking like a seal and leaping up at random moments! Hopefully none of this will ever happen to you. If you're considering a workshop, here are my tips for how best to prepare yourself, and make sure that you are not the kind of member causing other people to grit their teeth.

* Decide before your first deadline, what work you will submit, and make sure it’s ready. You can change your mind last minute, but you’ll feel less stressed about submitting if you are prepared.

* Double space your work, use 12 point type, and ADD PAGE NUMBERS.

* Refrain from starting everything you say during a workshop discussion with the words: “If I were writing this piece…”

* No doodling on classmates' manuscripts – it doesn’t convey great consideration if the author finds a sketch of a deformed duck in the margins of that emotional scene in which the protagonist’s mother dies.

* Read your classmates’ work twice – once to capture your first impressions, and again, once the work has marinated in your mind, so that you can formulate deeper insights too.

* Never argue against feedback, even if you think that it is stupid, even if some of it wounds. Receive it with Zen equanimity, and say thank you. Anything that isn’t relevant, you will forget. Anything that sticks with you – even the negatives – is a spur to reinvention.

Thanks Nancy! Here's where she lives on the web. I'll leave you with a blurb from a happy client:

“Nancy did a thorough manuscript review of my novel. Her insights were highly astute, and her recommendations for revision revealed a deep insight not only into the book's technical weaknesses, but showed that she understood what I was trying to accomplish.  My subsequent revision is much, much better because of her help.”   -Helen W. Mallon (see Helen's short stories here)
A to Z link here.
What are your experiences in workshops? What do you feel is essential to make one work?


  1. I'm attending workshops all weekend. :) I think you have to be open to the presenters ideas and methods, even if they differ from your own. It's the only way to grow and possibly find something that will work well for you, too.

  2. Very true, Kelly. You need to trust that the leader has an effective way to dig into your creativity, even though it may seem an odd way to access it in the moment.

  3. I need to take a few workshops. I haven't done anythin in awhile.

  4. Workshops are too intense for me. I need a few bites at a time, a moment to chew, a chance to digest. Gorging overwhelms me.

  5. I agree that workshops can be great or a disaster. I went to a workshop once with so many crazy characters it was almost a complete waste. In the end, I did get some interesting character sketches based off the other participants.

  6. I haven't done any, but I do have to say this made me smile:

    No doodling on classmates' manuscripts – it doesn’t convey great consideration if the author finds a sketch of a deformed duck in the margins of that emotional scene in which the protagonist’s mother dies.

  7. I agree with Jaycee, no doodling made me laugh! I've done some workshops in my creative fiction class and you have to be willing to take constructive criticism because no everything you write will be good. Great advice!

  8. Great tips! I love the cross pollination that comes from non fiction and fiction working together - different ideas across the divide there can help both sides I can see. Also, good advice to tip workshop attendees off on etiquette.

  9. Lots of great advice offered here. I especially like and agree with the comments about how to accept a critique. I believe all critiques are helpful as the bad ones help me to solidify my thought processes. Theme: A World of Crime

  10. Hi Everyone - I'm very honored to be featured on the blog. Interesting comments so far. I'd love to know, from the commenters who haven't taken a workshop yet, why not? Is it about proximity? Or not being able to find a group you like? Or, as Dac said, because they are too intense?

  11. i have not taken part in a writers workshop--but may be doing so in the near future--your advice sounded very wise to me--thank you

  12. Everyone has such great comments. I am actually guilty of drawing on fellow writers' mss. But I draw cheery stuff like little trees. Dac, I like your analogy about taking small bites. It's funny how some people like to delve right in, and others get a small dose at a time.

  13. Thanks for the advice! I am just starting to attend workshops and this is so helpful in my preparation.

  14. Leif I were writing this piece...I wouldn't change a thing!

  15. I love workshops. I'm always surprised by how much I learn and how much I've forgotten. I also find a lot is thrown at me, that I miss. As for writing on a mss I'm a terrible artist, so I wouldn't even consider drawing. Besides they'd never figure out what I drew. Too embrassing. Great article.

  16. I found workshop to be informative as well as invigorating. Someone who I do not know will read my work and give me feedback, that's fantastic. But, remember to take all critique with a grain of salt and a little leavening. Augie

  17. I have a love hate relationship with workshops. It's been a while since my MFA in Creative Writing, but the entire program was workshop alligned and it was not for the faint of heart, that's for sure! There were so many characters in the program. I'm also competitive and want to be the best at what I do. I must have compassion, too, though b/c several of my classmates wrote me notes saying how much they'd appreciated my positive feedback on their writing projects.

    If I ever attend a workshop again or conduct one, I'm gonna steal some of your strategies. I tend to be a seat-of-the-pantser and we
    really do need some rules to keep everyone on track. You've got me
    hankering to attend a workshop!