Does It Work?

One of the questions that frequently arises in a writing workshop is “Does it work?”

When applied to writing, the question (“Does it work?”) is a general one; and the writer is often left wondering: does the story stop working because of a point of view shift on the third page or because of a point of view shift and a botched ending and a lack of clarity concerning what the story was about?  And if it doesn’t work for all the reasons discussed by the group, what then? How can the writing be improved?

It takes quite a mechanic to analyze all the ways a story (or poem) can go wrong. Besides who is to say for sure that the piece has gone wrong in all those ways? The stories and novels of William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would never have made it out of our workshops. Faulkner’s sentences would have been trimmed, and Woolf’s point-of-view shifts corrected.

Would their writing have been better for such suggestions? Andre Dubus, in his collection of essays Meditations from a Movable Chair, includes a letter he wrote to his own workshop group. In “Letter to a Writer’s Workshop,” he says, “ ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ would not have survived us without a stubborn author.” He goes on to say that what is important is “that Hemingway wrote it and we can read it, and if he made mistakes, if he left things unclear, well, that’s better than scurrying home to revise and revise and revise and make it clear to everyone.”

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes a workshop where things got completely out of hand. An inexperienced writer had offered his piece to a group, led by Lamott, at a large, prestigious conference. His story was experimental, used bad dialect, and wasn’t very good. The other students mentioned things they liked, things they thought worked. Lamott offered a few suggestions for changing certain passages. The author raised some questions. It was all very polite.

Then one woman who had remained silent all along raised her hand: “Am I crazy? Am I losing my mind? Am I the only person who doesn’t think it worked at all? Did anyone actually think there was one believable character, one meaningful image. . . .” And she continued. Everyone’s nightmare workshop. Lamott goes on to explain that what the woman had said was true on a certain level—the story wasn’t very good—yet the commentator was a better, more experienced writer than the author of the story being discussed. Of course the critic was being honest, and what she said had taken a certain amount of courage, but had she really helped the writer?

Some teachers, students, or group members will always feel that they must be honest. The story stinks and, by golly, the writer needs to know this. Some writers seem to want this brand of honesty—or at least they say they do, and they say they’re better for it. Don’t writers need to know when their writing doesn’t work? Isn’t that what we’re asking for? Yes and no.

Yes, we do want honest feedback; no, we don’t want mild sadism. Workshops, writing classes, and writing groups are often composed of writers at many different levels, with many different goals, as well as different styles and voices. We aren’t all trying to be published in The New Yorker.

So why not ask the writer what she or he wants from you, the reader, the person giving feedback. Maybe the writer isn’t ready for the heavy hand. Maybe this is an early draft, and the writer wants to give the piece some air. He or she could pose a couple of questions—like “I’m not happy with the ending. What do you think?” or “Any ideas for a better way to start the piece?” Maybe the writer is near the end of the revision process and wants close editing of a certain part. The main thing is to ask what the writer wants or needs and then direct feedback to addressing that question. Then move on.

The workshop or group could encourage the writer to continue writing more stories or poems or whatever rather than trying to mold one piece into greatness. I’ll never forget a welder, a Vietnam vet, who took a writing class at the community college where I taught. He showed up in our college writing group one afternoon. Would we take a look at a poem he had written? He took out his billfold and drew out a piece of paper that had been folded and refolded hundreds of times. The edges were frayed; the paper had been creased so many times that it almost floated into the room in fourths. Then he read us a poem full of clichés and generalities. It was the only poem he had ever written. He looked up. “What do you think? Is it good enough for the college magazine? Be honest.”

It was the poem of his life, a poem that said everything about lost love that had ever been said or ever would be said. We could have told him that the poem was hopeless. It was full of abstractions without a single clear image. Instead we said, “Write more. In one, tell us exactly how she looked; in another, about the day you met; in another, about the way her mouth felt on yours.” Better to have written twenty poems about a lost love than one.

Instead of spending all of the group time workshopping each other’s writing, the group could focus on a certain element of craft. Spend time talking about point of view in several stories, then throw in one or two from Chekhov or Alice Munro. Then do some exercises on point of view. Or spend time rewriting a section of a story from a different point of view. In other words, don’t just talk about writing all the time. Write when you’re together. Rather than talking about the last stanza of a poem for twenty minutes, stop and have everyone write the last stanza of their own poem and then read it to each other. The same with the last paragraph of a story. This would give the writer some psychic support as he or she struggles with the ending.

Be careful about writing comments on the piece of writing. Teachers of writing spend years learning how to give comments–what’s too much, what’s just right, what will be helpful. Many writers in workshops repeat the red-pencil punishment of their own experiences with English teachers. These writers will make harsh red-ink comments on the story; they will slash through entire pages of writing. Maybe their comments have value, but it is the exceptional writer who can see many of these red marks and still have faith in the core value of the story, poem, or essay. Many of the marks might be simple editing suggestions, so be sure that the writer wants the fine-tuning that comes at the end of the revision process. There is nothing wrong with editing. Yet while attention to the word-level of a piece of writing can improve it, often this is still surface work and doesn’t get to deeper levels of structure, voice, theme, or characterization.

Coming together as a group can be a strong motivating force. We set a deadline; we bring in our work. We talk to others about the problems of writing. At times we love and cherish the company. We value the help of fellow writers who will ask questions and give us the courage to return to our writing and work on a piece until it sings with truth.

Yet we need also to free ourselves from a method of criticism that often can become harsh or tell us more than we can assimilate, one that frequently gives the leader’s word the greatest power, that may encourage a red-pencil, judgmental approach sending us back to some primal state from which we can never graduate.

Our goal is help each other become the best writer possible–to keep each other writing with the faith to revise and to value our own way of saying things. In his letter to his workshop, Dubus writes, “What is art if not a concentrated and impassioned effort to make something with the little we have, the little we see?”  And then to call what we have made beautiful with mysterious imperfections.

The Writing Workshop: Does It Work?

In this blog, I’d like to continue the conversation about how we give and receive feedback on our writing by discussing one of the most common methods out there: the workshop. Here’s how it often goes:

Each week one or two members of a writing group hand out copies of a story or poem to be workshopped (we even have a new verb) at the next meeting. During the week, members of the group read the writing, make comments and prepare to give suggestions for revision. At the following meeting, the writer remains silent, listening and jotting down notes on the group’s reactions. Usually the leader/teacher of the workshop (if the group is a class) adds comments, guides the discussion and tries to pull together the threads of the reactions so the writer has some clear direction for revision. Then the writer supposedly hurries home to revise the piece. At this point, the familiar scene breaks down because a successful revision, or even the desire to work on a revision, doesn’t always follow the workshop process. At least for me.

The workshop method is appealing because, according to its proponents, it allows for multiple responses to a piece. Yet workshop members often give their attention primarily to the comments of the teacher, who is usually the most experienced, or extensively published, writer among them. Or sometimes one member of the group takes the lead and dominates the conversation, while the others follow and add their comments to that one voice. Sometimes there is a disagreement over what should be done to make the piece better.

The little comedy sketch I posted by Mitchell and Webb condenses the workshop method into a two-person scene.  (See “Write This: Mitchell and Webb.” Posted on 10/30/12.) Webb, the critiquer, expresses multiple takes on a single piece of writing while the writer, Mitchell, sits silently (or almost, he tries to make a few comments but is over-whelmed by the power of Webb, the person behind the desk.)

So while her piece is being discussed, the writer is supposed to be silent, not say a word. Again proponents of the method say this is the way it is in the real world when the writer is not available to the reader to explain or respond.  Yet the readers of a piece in a workshop are not the same as the readers of a published piece. After a few cursory comments about the strengths of a writing, these workshop readers are usually given the task of finding what is wrong with the piece and are rarely as accepting as those who read a published story or poem. One time I took a short essay that had already been published to a workshop, by the time I left I wondered how it was ever published—there were too many things to be fixed! Also the whole method creates an adversarial framework, so that if the writer is allowed to speak she could become defensive trying to explain why she wrote the story the way she did.

We also tell ourselves that if we’re able to see the flaws in another piece of writing, we can better spot our own. But does it work this way? Am I becoming a better writer or simply better at critiquing someone else’s writing? Most of us (even those who lead the workshops) are not taught how to give helpful feedback to others. While we may have good intentions and spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the workshop, our comments are not always helpful to the writer.

In “Toward a More Democratic Workshop” (Poets and Writers, March/April 1998), Lex Williford tells how his story was shredded by a famous young writer leading a workshop. The young writer had opened the discussion by saying to the group: “This story’s awfully derivative, don’t you think?”  By the end of the workshop, Williford says, “My face burning, I looked down at my story, a thing I’d struggled on and off with for over a year, and turned it over on the seminar table. The famous young writer spent the rest of the workshop doing what he’d come there to do: to talk about himself and his stories and to sign copies of his book.”  In Williford’s copy, he wrote: “In honor of the beating we give and take. Thrive.”

In her essay,  “Mild Sadism in Writing Workshops,” Carol Bly tells of a time when one class member started the discussion of a fellow writer’s work by saying, “I may as well get this over with,” in a tone of pronounced disdain. Bly says, “The rest of the participants took this same tone when they spoke. No doubt they were experiencing what psychologists call moral drift, or the bystander effect: That is, you have various, slightly conflicting opinions on a subject, but when you hear others speaking in a single tone or with a single judgment, you let your thoughts slide over to that judgment the way iron filings nudge loose and then nearly fly to a magnet.”

Bly’s emphasis on judgment is a crucial one. I believe one of the main flaws of the workshop method is the rush to judge (this is good, this is bad) before a piece has fully evolved. We can’t seem to talk about art anymore without immediately judging it. We walk out of a movie and ask, “Well, what did you think? Did you like it?” The same comments are often asked of fellow readers before we read a book. Maybe we don’t want to waste our time on something that is not good.

There is danger in this rush to judge: it automatically stops conversation. People move into a defensive mode, an argumentative position. I remember Natalie Goldberg saying about a piece of writing, “Good. Good that you wrote that. Now continue. Write more.”  Certainly revision is necessary, but a specific judgment from someone else doesn’t necessarily lead us to a sound revision.

Okay. I’m going to pause here and continue my thoughts on the workshop method in my next blog. In the meantime, send us your thoughts, experiences, ideas. Onward!