Imagine a group of mechanics, faces grimed with sweat and dirt, hands grazed by friction burns, overalls grubby with grease. Imagine them standing around the carcass of a motor car, stripped down to its component parts, sucking their teeth about why it won’t run.
“It needs more oomph.” Says one. “Oomph?” Says another. “Yeah, oomph. You know. More go. More VROOOM!”
“To be effective the members of a writing workshop must all meet two essential criteria.”
“Naaaw. It’s the seats. I can’t stand faux leather seating. I’d never put those seats in any car of mine.”
“I’ll tell you the problem,” Says the garage’s hotshot young mechanic. “It hasn’t got four wheel drive, that’s the problem.” “But…it’s a tiny little commuter car, what’s it need four wheel drive for?” “Every car needs four wheel drive!” Bellows the hotshot.
“Actually I think you’ll find the problem is ideological. This car was built as an expression of the principles of consumer capitalism, that’s the problem.” The boss sent this guy to college for a semester, and now everyone regrets it.
The old gaffer steps forward, he’s figured his way to the root of the malfunction. “What we’ve got here is the wrong driver. This car works just fine, the driver just doesn’t understand it.”
Everyone nods, because when the gaffer speaks, you nod. Even when he speaks nonsense.
Now. Would you trust these guys to fix your car? I certainly hope the answer is NO, for your car’s sake.
But these are exactly the kind of comments you will encounter in most writing workshops. I teach creative writing and have led literally hundreds of workshop sessions. I’ve been a member of numerous writing groups since my teens. I’ve heard all these comments and many more equally useless and unhelpful ones. “It needs more pace.” “I don’t like the characters.” “There’s no plot / there’s too much plot.” “I don’t get what it means.”
The basic problem in most writing workshops is that the members do not know how to write. They’re like a gang of amateur, untrained mechanics. So in place of actual expertise these writers employ opinion and, most corrosive of all, emotion. The sad truth is that the majority of the criticism dished out in workshops is actually the critic puffing up their own ego or pre-empting criticism of their own work. This is why workshops can, at their worst, become festering feud pits.
To be effective the members of a writing workshop must all meet two essential criteria. First, every member must be at least competent in their technical knowledge of writing. Second, all the members must have a shared language to express their technical knowledge. If you can’t recognise and name a carburettor you have no place in a garage. If you can’t recognise and name a three act structure you have no place in a writing workshop.
A good writing workshop can be invaluable. The Clarion writers workshop I joined in the summer of 2008 helped my writing immensely. It wasn’t perfect. But all 18 workshop members had sufficient knowledge of writing to effectively critique and help each other. That also helped stop the workshop collapsing in to personal feuding, even when very negative and contentious critiques were delivered. Is a workshop essential for good writing? No. But critical reflection on your own creative work is, and unless you have a supreme level of ego control, you won’t be able to achieve that without help from other people.