Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.
TEN TIPS FOR GETTING THE MOST
OUT OF YOUR WRITING WORKSHOP
WHAT I WISH I HAD LEARNED SOONER ,
AND WHAT I WISH MY STUDENTS WOULD DO
Updated February 2018
don't know about you! Maybe you would be a better creative writer
if you were to fling crumpled PostIts at the other students,
set small fires in the parking lot or, say, stay home and do
some inverted yoga poses. More seriously, much can be said for
reading on craft (and I offer a frequently updated list of recommended
titles here.) But I can
say that in my own case, participating in writing workshops was
foundational for my development as a creative writer; moreover,
to the best of my knowledge this has been case for every one
of my contemporaries whose work I admire and would recommend.
1. Read your teacher's work.
(Analogy: would you let a carpenter whose work you've never seen
remodel your kitchen?)
2. Ask him or her to autograph it. (An autographed first edition hardcover can be surprisingly valuable! And: flattery never hurts! Don't be shy about asking for an autograph; authors love this, they really do.)
3. Expect to learn. (Analogy: do carpenters learn their craft wholly on their own? Maybe what you'll learn is that this is a writing teacher to avoid. Certainly, this is much cheaper experience than having a bad carpenter mess with your kitchen.)
4. Realize that most people who come to a writing workshop have naive notions about the writing world (think money, celebrity, booze-crazed Bohemia), no clue from Adam how hard it is to write anything worth reading, how tough it is get published, and how consternating an experience it can be to be published (criminey, all these people taking your workshops who never even read your book!!). Realize, you are way ahead of the game by following steps 1-3, and that, therefore, though you might learn a lot about the craft, you do not need validation from this workshop, its leader and/or its participants, which is what you were secretly hoping for, no?
5. Expect to give thoughtful critiques to others who (though their manuscripts are surprisingly bad, not to mention boring and often tasteless), are, strangely, resistant and argumentative. Expect also to receive rude and deeply stupid comments on your manuscript and know that this, actually, is a good thing because learning to take criticism with open-minded equanimity is part of learning to be a well-published and productive writer unless, that is, you want to be a writer who cringes at every review, every blog mention, every amazon.com shark attack out of Nowheresville, and is, therefore, both miserable and miserable to be around. (You can win the Nobel Prize and someone, somewhere, will say something unkind about your writing. So, Buck up.)
6. Despite all of the above, take very seriously your critiquing of other participants's manuscripts, for good karma and all that, but also because the fastest way to learn to recognize problems in your own manuscripts is by identifying the same in others's manuscripts. I think it was Ann Lamott who said (more or less), "we point, but do not cut, with the sword of truth." Read the pages carefully, and offer honest, thoughtful, and detailed critiques in a spirit of kindness. (Wouldn't you want the same?)
7. Remember the bicycle analogy. Like riding a bicycle, to take criticism productively, a writer needs to be able to balance between meekness (listening to everyone) and arrogance (listening to no one). Too much of either, your writing falls flat. (Too much of either and your whole life falls flat, now that I think about it.)
8. Do the assigned reading.
To learn the craft, workshops are not enough (see again Tip #4).
If you do the assigned reading while in a workshop, rather than
later (or never) you have the inestimable advantage of being
able to ask questions and discuss it with the workshop leader
and other participants.
what goes around comes around. If you come to the workshop
with an attitude of respect and goodwill, you will attract the
same. (Any exceptions you will, one day, consider hilarious.
You can also put them in your novel, ha ha.)
10. Before, during, and after the workshop,
keep writing. In other words, don't let the workshop deadlines
become a crutch. Don't give your power as an artist to anyone
else; find your own motivation, develop your own habits. Play
God. God riding a bicycle.