MONTPELIER, VERMONT — One thing I’ve learned in writing nonfiction is that when you write about others, there is no way of knowing what might cause offense. So if this post describing different types of workshop participants pisses off my current workshop mates, I will live with the result.
I should note I am not writing about any particular individuals here; the characterizations below of the types of students you find in a workshop are conflations of my experiences here at the Vermont College of Fine Arts from four different MFA in Writing workshops:
- THE APOLOGIST: This individual prefaces each observation with a variant of “You know, I don’t really know what I’m talking about, so you can probably ignore it.” Sometimes, from a craft perspective, that statement might actually be true. But she is in fact a reader, just like the rest of us, and if the one being workshopped understands that all reader feedback is of value, then her disclaimers can be ignored.
- THE DOMINATOR: This individual is reluctant to cede the floor once gained, and is quick to jump in when there is a millisecond gap in conversation. He is sometimes a CRAFT EXPERT or an IT’S-ALL-ABOUT-ME (see below), but rarely if ever an APOLOGIST. This would seem a bad thing, but given that there are others who may be less inclined to participate, his actions could at times keep the conversation going when it otherwise might lag.
- THE IT’S-ALL-ABOUT-ME: This individual brings everything she critiques back to her own life experience and her own writing. The personal pronoun “I” flows. But as a rule, her critique focuses on what she thinks isn’t working in another’s prose, and she says she knows this because it is something she struggles with herself. Then she volunteers some of the lessons she’s learned with that struggle.
- THE CRAFT EXPERT: This individual is steeped in the lingo of creative writing. He is quick to categorize what he is reading as a fill-in-the-blank-with-a-big-word, then explains why it succeeds under the rules of craft in that form and why it doesn’t. The truly sophisticated of these, however, will note that good writing can transcend such “rules.” It can be difficult to follow this individual if you are not as well grounded in terminology, but you can learn from him.
- THE SILENT TYPE: This is a person who will say something when mandatory (generally at the start, when everyone is expected to take turns providing an open comment), but rarely engages in the back-and-forth after those initial comments. The written comments provided on the manuscript by THE SILENT TYPE may be amazingly insightful, however, leading the one workshopped to wish she had spoken up more.
- THE FACILITATOR: Often an instructor but sometimes a student, this person will sometimes change the topic when it seems we’ve said enough on another topic. THE DOMINATOR can play this role at times, or THE CRAFT EXPERT.
As with all stereotypes, I could keep going with this list, and I’m sure you can add some more below in the comments. I write this in part because I’ve been examining what type of workshop participant I am, in an effort to maximize my value to the writer.
In my first workshop here in the summer of 2011, I was an APOLOGIST. It was overwhelming to me how advanced some of the student writing was, and it seemed compared to me every student was a CRAFT EXPERT. I fear in the second residency I was a DOMINATOR without being a CRAFT EXPERT, not a good combination. My confidence level was higher, and in my professional life I’m usually the one running the meeting; I hope I wasn’t too domineering. In my third residency, I believe I actually demonstrated some SILENT TYPE behavior, not out of insecurity, but because I realized I was learning so much from the workshop leaders and students. You learn best when listening, not talking.
And this residency? I guess I’m trying to be a combination of CRAFT EXPERT and FACILITATOR with an occasional SILENT TYPE, particularly when we are critiquing fiction pieces. I tend to burrow in on one or two areas where I see that the writer could benefit from a craft technique I’ve learned in the program, but I don’t incorporate IT’S-ALL-ABOUT-ME tendencies when discussing it. I sometimes play FACILITATOR when it seems we’ve beaten one topic to death; it’s possible, however, that others don’t welcome that if they’re not done with the topic.
We have twelve students and two instructors in each of our VCFA residency workshops. It seems that when you combine all of the elements above, the end result can be of real value. It is a cliche to say that the sum is greater than the parts; instead, I like to compare the process to alchemy. These various ingredients are mixed together, and gold is produced, but you can’t truly identify the specific ingredients that produced that gold, so with each attempt you have to start from scratch. (Had actual alchemists at some point in history figured out a repeatable formula, gold would have about as much value today as a mud pie, something every toddler knows how to make.)
Have you participated in a writing workshop or in a writer’s group? Do the summaries (or stereotypes) I present–as well as the end result–ring true to you?