Workshop Series 3: How To Not Be A Dick (In A Writing Workshop, At Least)

This is the second installment in "How Not To Be A Dick (In A Workshop, At Least)" series. Check out the first installment here and the second installment here.


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Generally speaking, when you read a piece, you'll feel one of two Lucille Balls about it.

HOW TO NOT BE A DICK—WHEN BEING A CRITIC 

Whether providing a simple verbal comment or composing a written document for workshop, there is a method to delivering criticism effectively. Tried and true, I’ve outlined my method below: 

  • First, say something nice—not something superficially nice (what a nice font you got here, love the use of the word “and,” etc.), but something at the core of the piece. Each piece contains “a nugget of a great idea,” to quote the good people at Chapel Hill Writing Center. Find that nugget and praise it.   

  • Next, ease into the critique. Remember, critique the writing, not the writer—rather than using the accusatory you “you really need to work on x” say, “this piece is lacking here, here, here…” and so on. Just as we don’t want to give superficial compliments, try not to give superficial criticism, either.  

  • Finally, offer your suggestions for improvement. Here, I strongly believe your suggestions should be operating on a macro level. Which is to say, if a piece is brought in riddled with errors (which implies a rather early iteration of a work), do not waste your energy proofreading, but suggest the author proofread as they move to the next stage. Look at the structure, the characters, the plot—or, if operating in the realm of the poem, the structure, the rhythm, the turn. Endeavor to see the work as a whole, and treat it that way.  

Don’t play the thesaurus game, a close cousin of the semantics game, which is equally a waste of time. All too often, this form of workshop becomes a game of the critic changing words here and there to words they think would fit the piece better—in effect, the critic rewrites the piece in their own voice, and thus obliterates the voice of the writer; when this has happened to me in workshop, I instinctively feel the critic is in some ways insulting my intelligence (I too can look for synonyms!) and in others disrespecting me as a writer. A better approach to this problem is to underline the word in question, mark “WC” for “word choice,” and suggest to the writer that this feels somehow incorrect. If the writer then asks you, “what wording would you suggest?” feel free to chime in then.   

Be specific. While it’s suggested to offer critique on the macro level, this is in no way encouraging you to avoid citing specific examples to support your ideas. If there’s a specific place that’s tripping you up, point it out.  

Also, just as a follow up thought: when marking up a work, remember to mark the things you loved, too. It’s certain to brighten the author’s day, and will key them into the specific places their work is successful.   

HOW TO NOT BE A DICK—WHEN RECEIVING CRITICSM

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To quote Adyashanti, “If you want to know something, go elsewhere. If you want to un-know everything, then sit and listen.” To quote Black Dynamite, “shut the fuck up when grown folks is talking.” 

Young writers new to the workshop feel a desire to explain their work. They always rush to explain why they did this or that, or they try to preface their work before letting it slip out of their hands. This desire is the byproduct of anxiety, and believe me, we’ve all felt it; regardless, you must curb it. Your work must stand alone if it is ever to be in the world without you standing there with it. “This piece is going into the hands of someone whom I admire and respect; maybe if I say a little more they’ll like me better.” The point of a workshop is not to be liked, necessarily—it is to improve. If this person you admire and respect is willing to read your work and offer you criticism, is there any better gift?  

Similarly, resist your urge to defend yourself and your work at the end of the workshop session; criticism of your writing is not a criticism of you as a person. The fear of rejection and the instinctual need to be right, always, will close you off from valuable advice.  

On the other hand, be mindful that excessive praise does not go to your head. The swelling ego is just as harmful to the workshop setting as excessive anxiety and fear. To quote Noah Levine, “humility does not mean that conceit doesn’t arise in the mind; it means conceit is met with the wisdom of not taking the inflation personally. Conceit is both inflation and deflation of the sense of self.”  

Remember: you are in no way beholden to take every piece of advice you receive in a writing workshop. In fact, if you followed every bit of advice you received, you’d be left with a patchwork disaster. The instinct to give advice is almost always coming from a good place, but advice can only be as informed as the one who is giving it. No one is going to be as informed about your work as you are. Be open to all input, you are still the author; you know what your vision is, so only take the advice that allows you to achieve your vision the most effectively. Account for human error, and act accordingly. 

  In a line: be open, be kind, be humble, always.  

In a line: be open, be kind, be humble, always.  

 

RIGHT MIND 

At the core of everything we do, the resounding hum of the golden rule rings: treat others as you want to be treated. In Tibetan Buddhism, we have a compassion practice that encourages us to treat everyone you meet as if they were once your mother; as if they have nourished your very body into being, be kind to those in your workshop group—and look out for them in all the ways you can. After all, they are doing you the kindness of dedicating their time to your work—and as we get older, there is nothing more valuable than time and attention.  

Be mindful, though: blubbering praise, especially borne from a place of discomfort with giving and receiving criticism, is no kindness at all. Remember your mother, comforting you after you scraped your knee after running recklessly down the sidewalk; remember your mother, who let you run despite this small risk to your body rather than wrapping you in the bubble wrap of an overprotective hand. Better the mother who lets you get hurt, just a little, than the mother who never lets go of your hand. It is better to scrape one’s knees in the safety of the workshop than to lose one’s legs at the knees out in the shark pool of the real world.   


How do you handle criticism in workshop? Contribute to the conversation in the comments below.

Workshop Series Part 2: Coming Correct

This is the second installment in "How Not To Be A Dick (In A Workshop, At Least)" series. Check out the first installment here.


PROOFREAD, OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES

Before you submit your work for workshop, you should take the time to give it a thorough once-over for grammatical and spelling errors. Which is to say, the work that comes to workshop should not be a first draft—it should be at the very least a second, if not a third or fourth.

  Real life footage of me when you come into my workshop a mess. 

Real life footage of me when you come into my workshop a mess. 

This is a somewhat controversial statement, as workshop environments are often seen as these mythic pits of primordial ooze where all great magnum opera are made—and I’m not denying that this is possible, just pointing out that it’s unlikely to happen if your workshop group is spending your allotted time discussing typos or using all their energy on punctuating your dialog correctly.   

While you should be submitting work that has benefited from your attention more than the brief moments it took to scribble it out on a cocktail napkin, there is a balance to be struck; if after those four or more drafts, your work is complete—and I think we all have a sense of when something is “complete” once we finally get there, or at least as close as we can get (“art is never finished, only abandoned” writes Da Vinci)—don’t submit that piece to workshop. Get an editor to proofread for you, then submit that piece for publication or get performing.  

However, after all those preliminary drafts, you have a sense you’re on to something good, but there’s just this bit that is giving you trouble—that’s the piece for workshop. In fact, direct your workshop group to what you perceive to be the problem: “guys, gals, nonbinary friends, please, while you’re reading my work, please focus on the scene on page eight—I’m not sure if my ending here is successful and would like your input.”   

 

Submit your work with a sense of non-attachment

To employ an over-cited quote of Faulkner, “kill your darlings.” Which is to say, hold nothing too dear at the workshop stage; everything is still in embryonic flux, still likely to evolve into something else. When in the workshop, one must be open to the myriad doors that will swing open when seeing from another’s perspective. 

To quote Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, “being attached is what prevents us from seeing; it is what clouds… miraculous awareness.” If you enter the workshop too attached to your work, you’ll be wasting your time and everyone else’s; there is nothing to gain. Be open to this “miraculous awareness”—for this openness is how anything solid is made out of the gooey ooze we bring to workshop.   

  The chips will fall where they may.

The chips will fall where they may.

 

A Note of Length

The workshop space is a place of experimentation and discovery, yes, but it is also a place where our time together is too brief.  Please try to bring shorter work or stand-alone experts of larger work.  

This is no way meant to discourage the workshopping of long work—it’s often more necessary to put a novel through the grinder.  I do suggest, however, that you develop a specific workshop group exclusively catering to this purpose. In college, my personal workshop helped me through my mess of a novel—and another girl’s novel, and several poems and short stories by the other people. Assume your workshop partners are quite busy, because they are, and thus be mindful of the time it will take to read your work.  

 

A Note on Gratitude

Let’s play the etymology game: “workshop” comes into usage in the 1580s, but doesn’t take on its meaning of “gathering for study” until the late 1930s. It’s a compound composed of two root words—"work" and "shop," both of which have Old English origins you’re welcome to click through and read about. At its very root, the workshop is a labor, and it is a labor without monetary compensation. I'm of the pro-labor persuasion that we proletariats should resist working for free, but in the artistic community, a successful tit-for-tat system has worked to the betterment and enrichment of our culture for basically forever.

I say this all to make two points:

  • Do the work. Other people are putting in the work for your pieces, so, buddy, you best work too. Don’t shortchange your friends, or your workshop mates, or you can expect you’ll not be invited back into the sandbox.
  • Show some gratitude. For all our passive aggressiveness and perpetual ope!-ing, we Midwesterners have at least got common courtesy down. Even if you don’t stick to “the Iowa Model” in your workshops, try to be Iowa Nice.  
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To quote the Buddha, "Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little."


What etiquette tips do you enforce in your workshops? Contribute to the conversation below. 

Workshop Series 1: A Brief Foray into Workshop Structure

This is the first installment of "How To Not Be A Dick (In A Workshop At Least)"a three part series adapted from a teaching document written originally for 15-19 year-olds enrolled in the Midwest Writing Center's Young Emerging Writers summer program. 


Want to establish your own workshop? Here's a quick guide to getting the engine running.

Getting Started

Adapt the structure outlined below to best suit your environment and situation; experiment, keep what works, discard the rest.  

  • Establish the time, date, and frequency of a workshop, as well as its participants. Rules of etiquette, length of pieces, how long the group will spend on each piece should all be ironed out before the workshop begins. 
  • Submitted work in advance. Email chains, hard copies—use whatever works best. While some workshops do work cold, it’s highly suggested that the participants have time (an hour, a day, a week) to really sit with the work before the workshopping starts. 
  • The workshop convenes. Each participant has read all the work in advance and provided comments and other markups on a hard copy of the work (tracking changes/comments in Microsoft Word can work too, if you're long distance). If part of your guidelines, each piece can be accompanied with a short letter identifying what works and what doesn't in the piece to be workshopped. 
  • While the author’s piece is being workshopped, the author says nothing. This is essential, and is not negotiable. The only exception I personally tolerate in my own workshops is the rare case of a typo in the work entirely derailing the conversation; in that case, the author should save everyone some time and clear it up. It’s healthy to ask questions of the author’s intent during the workshop process, but really this is a question of each other, not the author. 
  • Once the workshop is finished, the author may answer any pressing questions. The author should thank everyone for their attention, collect the letters/marked up copies of their work, and quickly move on to the next person. Stick to the time restraints so that everyone being workshopped will have equal attention. 
  • Rinse and repeat until workshop session is finished. 
  • Distribute next session’s work at end of session. If unavailable, send work to workshop companions as soon as possible. 
 

Best Practices

  • Share the load. Share the responsibilities of hosting and have your workshop attendees bring an assortment of snacks and wine (or beer, or a non-alcoholic beverage) to share. 
  • Put it in your calendar, and don't cancel at the last minute. We're all busy; unless your baby is on fire, don't be that guy. 
  • Carve in social time before workshopping. Haven't seen each other in a while? It might be good to have a social hour prior to getting down to business. 
  If all else fails, more wine.

If all else fails, more wine.


What do you do to make your workshop special? How does your group get down to business? Let me know in the comments. 

Book Review Series | Amber Tamblyn's "Any Man"

 
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The first in a series of many, many book reviews I will be posting to Instagram, we have Amber Tamblyn's debut novel, "Any Man." Check the comments on my post below.

Take a second to pop over and follow me on Instagram, where, besides pictures of adorable children, art, and flora, flora, flora, you will be gifted with book reviews of books I am currently reading.