When you’re just starting to share your work as a creative writer, you hear people say they’ve been “workshopped.” When, you might ask, did the word workshop become a verb? It sounds painful, like you’ve been bent over a sawhorse and violated with a jigsaw. When done right a workshop is far more pleasant than that, but the process of having your writing critiqued by peers and instructors is an inexact science. Someone who has been “workshopped” could find themselves bursting with new ideas for their writing. Or they simply could feel happy that nice people said nice things to them about their writing without learning anything new. Or they could feel resentment and anger.
Conducting a writing workshop is delicate, because the human ego is delicate. Last month I was blessed to participate in an amazing week-long workshop at my first MFA residency in Montpelier, Vermont. The Vermont College of Fine Arts all but invented the low-residency format back in 1981, and has had 30 years to fine-tune a workshop experience designed to maximize the time students spend on campus, a mere 20 days per year.
Below I’m going to list the 6 key characteristics of the VCFA residency I experienced. Please note that these basic strategies could apply in any setting in which writers are offering other writers feedback on their work, whether it’s in an academic setting or among friends at a coffee shop or living room. I’ve been in various formal (but mostly informal) workshop experiences over the last 20 years, and I never experienced anything as magical or powerful as the VCFA workshop. My local writer’s group has since adopted these basic principles and we’re loving every minute of it. Here goes:
- Submit something a bit rough. We all want to look our best, but if your work is perfect, what are you hoping to learn? The writers who seemed to get the most out of their workshop were those who submitted something that wasn’t final but was clean of typos and grammatical challenges; solidly structured; with some passages of true beauty. Knowing it wasn’t a final draft left them open to valuable feedback for improvement.
- Give your time and energy in advance. Several weeks before the workshop all of us received the workshop packet, 220 pages of submissions (11 participants, 20 pages apiece). We were expected to read each submission several times before arriving on campus, and encouraged to mark up the manuscripts with notes, questions, etc., with the idea that they would be given to the writer after the workshop. It took a lot of time to analyze that packet, but what a great gift to the writer to be critiqued by 10 well-prepared peers.
- Honor the clock. We gave each writer one full hour, always starting precisely on time. The writer would begin by reading a paragraph or two of his/her choosing, then 55 minutes of discussion would commence, with the last 5 minutes left for the writer to respond.
- Impose a gag rule. In other words, once the critique begins the writer doesn’t say a word. This can be very difficult indeed, especially when as the writer it’s tempting to explain, elaborate, correct, dispute. The key reason for writer silence is to encourage candid discussion; if there’s no defensiveness that can come from the writer, commentators will be less likely to be intimidated. What if you’re biting your tongue and they go off on some ridiculous tangent? Do you let them? Yes. This is their honest response as readers, so there are no tangents.
Encourage free flow of conversation. When the critique session begins, each participant takes a brief moment to mention key points and then passes it on to the next person. This leaves the bulk of the time free for a back-and-forth discussion. Just as in a panel discussion, the real nuggets often occur when someone says something surprising, another responds, and a debate ensues. Long monologues, one after the other, are not the goal here.
- At the end the writer has the floor. Just as the writer must remain quiet during the critique, when the critique is done the writer can do with their five minutes what they like. They can ask questions. They can say what they agreed with and point out where they differed. Or they could do what several writers did at VCFA, which was to simply say “Oh. My. God. Um, thank you, that was overwhelming and wonderful and now my brain is dead.”
I mentioned that my writing group has adopted this model, by and large. What I mean by that is that we recognize we have our own realities in terms of how often we meet, the amount of time we have to be together when we do meet, how often people can produce work they can submit, the length of works we have time to read, etc. We’ve done two meetings now with our own hybridization of these guidelines, with some tweaking the second time, and I’m sure we’ll continue to tweak. But we’re all loving it, especially the gag rule.
VCFA’s guidelines are designed to encourage workshop participants to take their responsibilities seriously, to offer criticism in a constructive manner, and to receive criticism in a respectful manner. Any workshop system that embraces those three principles will be a success.
What has worked for you as a workshop participant?