As promised weeks ago, here is my post on creative writing workshops, or what I like to call, “Trash Your Peers’ (word used pejoratively) Stories (word also used pejoratively)”. Don’t get me wrong – workshopping as a writing practice has some very valid applications. For those who don’t know how it works, read on. For those in the know, skip ahead to the third paragraph.
Now then (I love the oxymoron created with those two words), most creative writing courses work something like this: you have an assignment of writing a story of a given length. At some predetermined point, your story must be presented to your classmates who are in turn to find out what works and what doesn’t work in it. The problem for me is always in finding something encouraging to say. Truth be told, there have been a few very rare stories about which nothing positive could be said. At any rate, in the “workshop,” when it’s time for your story to be reviewed, the idea for the author is to listen without commenting upon any of what is said. Just sort of take it all in. It takes a bit of getting used to. Bear in mind that the reviewers are never to suggest how to fix something … but just merely let the author know what doesn’t work and why. After all, if they suggested how to fix it, they might as well write it. I’m of the opinion that it is best never to mince one’s words. Show kindness or mercy to your classmates and it won’t be repaid, so spare no quarter. Therein lies the fun. Just remember, take nothing personal. Yes, it is your story, your precious brainchild, your magnum opus, but ideas can always be improved upon. Remember, the advice you receive from your classmates is only as good as they are, and given some of their writing, you’re probably better off ignoring them altogether.
In my very first college level creative writing 101 course, I was appalled at the number of students who likened their main characters to Holden Caulfield of the late (thankfully) Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Really? Holden Caulfield? Frat-lit with Holden Caulfield – now there’s an oxymoron. I just remember thinking after the fourth of fifth “just like Holden Caulfield” line from a story I was obliged to read and comment on that I would like to see Holden fight Willy Loman from Miller’s Death of a Salesman. I would put money on Willy any day, any time. He’s a much more dynamic, conflicted character. Not some naive shell of an antihero. He has everything to lose so he would risk everything. But I digress.
Where workshopping pays off is two-fold. First, as mentioned above, spare nothing in eviscerating your classmates’ works. Well, just don’t go ad hominem with it. It’s as much an insight into how to tear apart your own works as it is a form of catharsis. You may laugh, but mark me on this: when your work is scrutinized you’ll be wishing you had a chance at revenge. Get your shots in early and often (kind of like voting, I guess). Secondly, in every tale you tear apart, every story you strew across the carpet, make note of the things that do work. Don’t copy them, ever. No. But do steal them by making them your own. Improve upon what you like and employ it in your own writing. Liken your character to Willy Loman.
Next time: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EVIL.