Writing Workshops Are Like Relationships
Words By Vikram Ramakrishnan, Art By 愚木混株 Cdd20
Finding a writing group is a little like finding someone to fall in love with. Maybe you ask around, maybe you spend days or weeks researching online, or maybe you’re adventurous and—like agreeing to a blind date—you sign up on a whim, jump right in.
And like at the end of a string of vapid or uninspiring relationships, you might feel frustrated. That growing frustration turns into resentment: No one understands you or your writing, so you shut your laptop in despair (or slam your notebook shut, if you’re a bit more old-fashioned), and storm off, swearing to never attend another writing workshop.
“Never. Again.” you say, bursting through a revolving door in anger.
Then some time passes. You write here and there, sometimes in bursts of enthusiasm enveloped in joy, and other times, you struggle to get words on the page. After some of this tug-of-war, you finish a piece. You look back at it and ask, “How do I know if this is any good?” And then, when you’re least expecting it, you say, “You know what? I think I’m going to give a workshop another chance.”
There’s a common refrain that a person won’t find love until they’re ready for it. I don’t really know where this saying comes from, but it’s the kind of thing you hear enough that it’s hard to argue with.
I think it’s the same with writing workshops. You’ll suffer through The Bad Kind and The Okay Kind until you’ve found The Good Kind. And like bad, okay, and good relationships, they each have their own peculiarities.
The Bad Workshop (a.k.a The Abusive One)
The Bad Kind looks good at first glance. It’s got a group of writers ready to go, ready to give you criticism, ready to tear your writing apart and make it better. Because feedback builds character, makes you better, and so on. That’s what you asked for, right?
In these workshops, the other writers pull no punches. After tossing invectives about how flat your characters are, they’ll also tell you how your plot is total trash because it’s just a South Asian version of Star Wars. They might even foam at the mouth to point out your supposed continuity errors: “India doesn’t even have lightsabers, right?” (I mean, for those who aren’t aware, lightsabers aren’t real. They’re not in India, America, or anywhere else, they’re simply part of our collective imagination. And for the record, they weren’t lightsabers, they were bamboo sticks that had energy blades, okay? But I digress.)
They will tell you that your favorite sentence that you spent hours honing and tightening is drivel and that you should really look into Hemingway (he is very efficient with words). They’ll tell you that while they appreciate your diverse background, you’ll need to tone down the cultural aspects of your writing or Western readers won’t get it.
They may even ask you to rename a character that has too many syllables in their name.
At the end of this barrage, the literary pugilist in you will feel shell-shocked, like a nascent fighter who went into their first sparring session and didn’t expect it to be full contact. You’ll shrug it off and say to yourself, “Well, I guess I have a lot to work on.”
The next time you present your work, it will be more of the same.
In The Bad Workshop, you can’t get anything right. None of the words you’ve strung together on the page will be good enough.
You’re nothing. Worthless. Undeserved.
The Okay Workshop (a.k.a The One That Was Fine)
There’s nothing wrong with The Okay Kind. It lacks the antagonism, but also the energy of The Bad Workshop. You get along fine with everyone. In fact, they call your work good. They have few real complaints. There may be a few milquetoast responses like, “I just wanted to read more,” or the more infuriating, “I skimmed it and really liked it. Keep it up!”
After a session, you feel pretty good. You might say to yourself, “Wow, I wrote something that other people liked.” But some time passes and when you get home, you take a look at your comments and realize they offer little in the way of helping you get better.
It doesn’t feel right. You need guidance, criticism, to know how you can improve.
You need more.
The Good Workshop (a.k.a The One Where You Find True Love)
There’s a magic to The Good Kind. When you first sit down with the writers, there’s a bit of uncertainty that grouses at you, but you’re an optimist so you ignore it.
In a good workshop, everyone’s approach is empathetic. They understand that you’re ready to leave a little bit of yourself at the table, that your work is a reflection of you (especially those parts you don’t openly share with others).
Just like them.
They are craftspeople ready to write stories that others love, that they feel proud of. Feedback is essential for them as much as it is for you.
Members try to bring out the best in each other’s pieces. There’s no petty sniping of trivial errata, no name-calling, no cultural assumptions. They spend time with your work, think about it, read it again, and even maybe a third time. You do the same for them.
Their kind and thoughtful words help you excavate the gems that litter your prose, giving you ideas on how to polish them, allow them to gleam. They love one of your characters, how she comes to life on the page. You learn why that character works so well and they give you ideas about how to use that technique for other characters.
They might not pull punches—in fact, they rarely do—but their words are meant to guide you to a better place.
They want you to bring out the best in your writing.
And—like in any good relationship—they try to bring out the best in you.