writing workshops: how do they work?
May 18, 2015 1:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to travel out of town to attend a two-day writing workshop hosted by one of my favorite authors/idols, but I have no idea what writing workshops are like or what anyone actually does at them. Writers of MeFi, can you help me figure out what to expect?

Here's the event description:
Workshops focus on genres like the memoir, the short story, and essays, and you do not have to be an experienced writer to join since Pamela offers beginner and advanced level workshops. Not only do these classes give you the chance to learn and practice your writing skills, they also give you a fantastic opportunity to hang out with some of the coolest women ever you will ever meet!

Please bring to class:
* Pen and paper or your laptop
* A piece of writing by you or someone you admire to read in class (couple of paragraphs only, please)
* Snacks, wine or whatever delicious item you’d like to share … we’re having a writing party!
Sounds lovely, right? I am terrified.

The 2-3 issues that are particularly terrifying:
1. I would like to bring a sample of my own writing but I hate everything I've ever written and honestly can't imagine sharing it with another human being, let alone an entire group of them. Every time I start to look through all my dumb notebooks and think, "Maybe this...?" my entire psyche rises up to shriek, "NO, NOT THAT, IT IS TERRIBLE. YOU ARE TERRIBLE." So how do I get over it and just pick something and/or write something new? To be honest, I really only signed up because I am completely dying to trade stories with the divine Miss Pamela and get tipsy with a bunch of creative women, but I feel duty-bound to put something together and give it my genuine best shot regardless, because...

2a. A lot of my friends (some of whom write for a living) and even my freaking therapist have been after me to write a book for pretty much my whole life, and I want to be able to be nice to them again when I say no. I used to be able to be perfectly polite with my declining and subject-changing, since I was sought out to write for publication for a few years and could honestly shrug and say I didn't enjoy it very much, but I shut that all down a long while back and have since become so anxious and self-conscious about writing ANYTHING that I can't even turn down pitches nicely anymore. So now, whenever anyone is like, "Yo dbr, how 'bout putting together a book/article/essay/whatever?" I just emit a low grumbling sound and then stare at them menacingly in silence as my brows knit together in terror and frustration. I feel like I owe these friends some effort in this department, for being so kind and championing toward me for so damn long, and this event seems like a good opportunity to start back in on that.
2b. As such, I would like to get a little bit back into the swing of things, because I do love writing more than anything in the world except hanging out with dogs, but I'm just... not there yet. I don't know if I ever will be, though, and this thing is happening a week from tomorrow. I'm sure all of the folks in attendance will be very kind, and the fact that it's a woman-only workshop is very comforting, but I'm just not sure what to expect when it comes to sharing and critiquing writing by myself and others, especially in person. How do I get over the overwhelming amounts of fear I start to feel whenever I think about sacking up and actually doing this? (Unfortunately, I do not have access to benzos. Fortunately, there will be booze.)

tl;dr - Have you ever been to a writing workshop? What did you do? Were you terrified? How did you get over it?

Thanks, AskMe! ♡
posted by divined by radio to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Workshops are really, really supportive. Yes, you probably will have to read some of your work aloud or otherwise share it with the class, and they will comment on it, which may sound like the scariest thing in the world right now - but most teachers are really, really good at policing things so the other students don't say "well, I thought it sucked" and instead they say things more like "I really liked this one bit right here where you talk about the pigeon, and I kinda wanted to hear a little more about it" or "I was a tiny bit confused about that conversation you had on page 3".

You may also have exercises right there in class, where everyone writes something right from scratch. That way everyone will be in the same equal "I didn't know what I was doing and this is something I just pulled out of my ass" footing.

Also, yeah, people will be kind, but I can also promise that when you start getting good feedback about your stuff - and you will, from at least someone - that will help a LOT.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:11 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I will let someone else address writing workshops, because I have only been to writing critique groups. But I can address part of the how to get over the fear, which it sounds like you are overwhelmed with at the moment.

These might sound silly, but it is a way of putting yourself in other people's heads to give it a go.

First, find an online writing group (one that springs to mind is critters, but it doesn't have to be that one). Just find one that has stories posted online and that requests people to give feedback. Found one? Okay, start opening the stories that people submit. You will be surprised by what you find, but you will NOT find fully polished manuscripts. But it can help you realize that you write is not as bad as you think it is. You might recognize that although you struggle with A, B, C, and D - you know how to do 1 and 2 and 3 (after you view ten stories that can't do those things). But it helps ground you in reality. Every one is a beginner and they are just trying to learn. Those people shared their work with the world and their heads did not explode.

Second, look for writing meetups in your area, one that has a critique group or workshops. It doesn't even matter if it is your genre or not, just pick one that meets this week. Now go. Read through what people submit and they usually give live feedback. To be honest, it will be just like number one .... you can see the flaws, etc. But you start to see faces and how earnest people are, and they really are trying. You feel compassion for the writers and respect for them for trying. Watch how pple give critiques (usually it is list a few good things/list a few things that can be improved). But you want to help the writer and respect their effort for trying.

I think that step 2 in particular will help you, because the way you felt about listening and watching other people, you realize it was just to learn/you want to help, etc.

The last thing - per your description, they don't want a giant manuscript, just a few paragraphs max. Take something you wrote and take away even more (now it is just a paragraph). There is nothing to even judge or see or feel in a paragraph. Take your piece and read it and get feedback. Your real goal is to have this experience and see that your head doesn't explode, and it will be okay.

Also, the description of that event - it is meant to be very supportive and fun.

Good luck!
posted by Wolfster at 2:12 PM on May 18, 2015

I took a bunch of writing workshops for my BA, MA, and MFA, so when I had the chance to take a one-day workshop with a writer I really loved, I was pretty inured to the whole process. So I can understand why you might be worried about this if (by the sound of it) you're doing it for the first time.

There's a lot of variation in writing workshops, so it's hard to give specific advice without knowing exactly what you're in for. Traditionally, work by each writer is distributed ahead of time so that people can read and prepare comments; when everyone convenes, there's a lot of sharing reactions (good, bad, and tangential) with the instructor often facilitating the discussion and the author in the hot seat remaining silent. It can be tough the first time doing this, to resist being defensive about a piece. But as the author you listen for the feedback that strikes a chord with you and as a commenter try to give responses that'll help your fellow writers.

But it can vary. Like Empress says, you may well do writing in the class, in which case there's much less pressure to have something polished.

As for getting over the fear, I think it's just a matter of repetition. I hated public speaking--still do, truthfully--because I'd always build up the possibility of failure in my head before. But as I've done it more, I've gotten much more comfortable with it. When I ask my students to speak in front of the class (I always think of this Seinfeld bit), I remind them that, as far as I know, there are no recorded deaths caused by public speaking and they won't be the first.

I don't know if that helps. For me, I just ask, "What's the worst that could happen?" Memail me if you wanna chat more about this.
posted by xenization at 2:41 PM on May 18, 2015

I would like to bring a sample of my own writing but I hate everything I've ever written

1. This is called Being A Human In A Writing Workshop. I guarantee 90% of the people in that room could type the same sentence, but that is what you go to a writing workshop for. Feel the fear, then pull up your Comfy Writer's Pants and do it anyway, and your peers will be doing the same. Not doing it is unfair to the others who are doing it (I have been to workshop sessions where people chickened out - they end up regretting not fully participating, and they make everyone else feel weird).

As for 2a, don't do this because other people want you to. I don't understand why you'd even go to this event if you don't want to write, unless you're obliged by politics or you thought this would be a good way to spend time with your idols (but she's there to do the workshop, so it's not really a great place to go not participate in the event). Just shrug if people hassle you about doing something you're not ready to do or talk about (everyone thinks writing a book is like, sooooo easy, they'd totally do it if they just had all your free time).

2b you don't have to love something to do it for 2 days. Just let it be an interesting thing.

Really, what is the worst that could happen? Someone doesn't like your writing, or you're forced to suffer politely through someone else's dreck. It's scary but it's not dangerous.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:55 PM on May 18, 2015

You could watch this great video workshop with playwright Simon Stephens that was originally a live webcast a month or two ago.

Even if playwrighting's not your thang, you could watch it from behind your sofa cushions without having to speak to anyone or expose yourself at all, to give you an idea what it might be like. If nothing else, Stephens' total boyish enthusiasm about it all might allay your fears that it'll be terrifying.
posted by penguin pie at 4:22 PM on May 18, 2015

Oh, wow, that's so cool that she does workshops!

Having been to a lot of workshops on different levels, I feel as if one looks really non-threatening and like she's going to let you do whatever you want. That said, I think you should really print up some of your stuff and bring it with you. You don't have to show it to anyone if you decide not to. But you might wish you had some raw material with you. I once wound up driving home from a workshop in the middle of the night to get some more material.

Have fun!
posted by BibiRose at 5:13 PM on May 18, 2015

Another way to approach your fear might be to think about what you can bring to the other participants in the workshop.

I've been in better and worse workshops and the best ones were where people gave thoughtful responses to what they had read, even critique, but always warmly and on "the side of the text" so rather than "what you wrote here was confusing, why did you do that?" it would be more like "in this section, I felt like this paragraph was not helping me understand this strong plot point/description/etc." And it is gold when someone has read or listened to something really carefully.

I am not saying this to pressure you to be the perfect participant, just pointing out that it's not just about your own writing.

The other thing is to focus on it as an experience. "So, this is what a writing workshop is like," rather than "so, this is the workshop that will reconnect me to all writing and make me a one million times better writer." Sometimes there's magic and sometimes there's not in a particular workshop, but IMO they are almost always fascinating. I love observing the other writers and yeah, myself. The only downside of it being an all-women workshop is that so often there's The Guy who wants to tell women how to write woman...I always "appreciate" hearing his thoughts.

(I am sure he is not a MeFite. :))
posted by warriorqueen at 5:19 PM on May 18, 2015

There should be a couple episodes of the "Writing Excuses" podcast that deals with workshops and how to get the most out of them.

posted by kschang at 11:32 PM on May 18, 2015

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