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?