Sunday, July 27, 2008

Workshop Benefits

The fact that graduate level workshops don’t give you the kind of encouragement that undergrad workshops do (and in my case, sometimes discourage me so much that I ask myself over and over again on the drive home whether or not I’m just wasting everybody’s time with my unattainable dreams of writing) is actually a good thing. It’s actually the very reason that graduate level workshops are so much more useful.

There are a few reasons why:

First, when you know that people aren’t going to be impressed at all with your sentence level skill, that is how poetic you can write, how beautifully crafted your sentences are, how much meaning you can pack into a tight space, when you know none of that will matter to anybody because they can all do that, too, you put out a whole new level of effort into actually making the stories, the plots, the significance of it all, the clarity and cleverness of what you’re doing, as good as possible.

For me, this was a completely new stage of writing. I used to just kind of think, well everything that I write is well written, therefore it’s all good. But in actuality, LOTS of people can write well, on the sentence level, but not everybody can write something worth reading and it’s something that you really have to work on and practice.

Consider, too, that while nobody is going to be impressed with your writing abilities, they will notice and dwell on all sorts of problems that you probably could have noticed on your own, if you had taken the time to look. So you push yourself to revise and revise and revise some more before you bring your stuff in to workshop. After all, you don’t want to waste your chance to have a bunch of people with different tastes and skill levels to look at your stuff and give you honest feedback. If you bring something in that has problems you, yourself, are fully aware of the entire class time will likely be spent discussing those problems and you will have gained nothing from the experience.

This is something that I know not everybody agrees on. Some people do prefer to bring in first drafts to workshop and I have to admit, I’ve done it, too (last semester almost everything I brought in was a first draft because I had been spending most of my time prior to that preparing for the Comps exam and revising my thesis). But generally, I like to work on my stories until I reach a point where I can’t see, anymore, what else needs to be done before I bring them in to workshop, and that’s definitely not something I worried about when I was an undergrad because I knew that no matter what I brought in I would rarely get any actual feedback, mostly just compliments.

The third and possibly most important reason why graduate level workshops are more useful is that they give you a chance to see just how good your competition is. Chances are, not all of your fellow students’ writing will be to your taste, you probably wouldn’t read all of their stuff for fun on a Sunday night, but you do have to admit that they are good at whatever it is that they do. This is a sharp contrast to what you probably experienced as an undergrad, where you may have been the only one in the class who actually wanted to be a writer. This is important (I would argue it’s perhaps THE MOST IMPORTANT stage you must go through to be able to reach any level of success as a writer) because if you don’t even get to that point where you realize that A) you are not some kind of literary genius, and B) the only way you can get your stuff picked over all these other peoples’ really good stuff is by really working at it, revising exhaustively, and really paying attention when somebody else reads what you wrote and points out problems with it.

I'll get into more detail in later posts about some of my specific workshop experiences but I would definitely say as much as we all like to have our egos stroked, this other way of doing workshop, the way where people take it as a given that you're good and instead try to help you make your stuff better, is better, in the end. It's the only way, really, that will help you move into those more advanced levels of writing skill.

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