Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ten Ways to Tick Me Off in a Writing Workshop

(This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of our free monthly newsletter, The Practicing Writer.)


By Erika Dreifus

As most of you know, I've recently returned from a writing workshop. Within our group of six, I established what promise to be two lasting friendships. And I am quite positive that I made one lifelong enemy.

In my history attending conference and MFA workshops, I've usually managed to complete each session having connected with at least one other writer I can still call a friend (and a reader) even years later. But truth be told, I'm pretty sure I've also earned the eternal dislike of at least one classmate each go-round as well.

"You're a tough critic, Erika!" my most recent instructor observed last month. And it's true. I am a tough critic. I'm especially "tough" when the workshop I'm participating in is billed as an MFA workshop, or a Master Class. Then, my expectations, both for the level of critique and the quality of the manuscripts, are ratcheted up. (I'm a demanding teacher, too, but I won't get into that here, except to paraphrase semi-disgruntled remarks on student evaluations, such as: "Sometimes it seemed as though Erika actually wanted us to live up to the same high standards she has for herself." Guilty as charged.)

Anyway, my most recent experience led me to think back to previous workshops I've enrolled in. It sparked reflections on the aspects of workshops I've most loathed in the 15 years or so I've taken part in them. And so this month, I share with you "Ten Ways to Tick Me Off in a Writing Workshop."

1) Submit a piece that exceeds the page limits the instructor has delineated. Especially if you're distributing your piece on site, at the conference or the residency, and I have to squeeze in my reading between all the other scheduled activities. Chances are I wouldn't even want to read "extra" Flaubert in that situation! NB: Managing to avoid submitting a piece that exceeds the page limits only by "adjusting" the line spacing and margins isn't going to make me happy, either.

2) Accompany the manuscript with a full-page, single-spaced autobiography, revealing that every instance of mistreatment your fictional protagonist has suffered is, in fact, grounded in the truth of your own harsh childhood. On a personal level, I'll be very sorry for your suffering. But this is a writing workshop. It isn't group therapy.

3) Riddle the manuscript you submit for group review with errors of spelling, punctuation, and syntax. If you want to give me reasons to become frustrated as I read through your text, and to be completely distracted from whatever story you are trying to tell, go right ahead. But you probably won't appreciate my commenting on your problems with standard English in the critique.

4) Repeat, every single time you open your mouth, that what you're about to say around the workshop table "is just my opinion." Of course it's your opinion! Who else might you be speaking for? And isn't everything we offer in a workshop "opinion"? It's true that some of us have more informed and insightful opinions than others. But every time you preface your remarks with this kind of "disclaimer," you help ensure that I won't count yours among them.

5) Scrawl illegible comments all over the manuscript. Believe me, I know what it is to have terrible handwriting. Which is why I type up comments for each manuscript I critique.

6) Tell me what YOU "want" or "would like to see" in my manuscript (or, for that matter, in anyone else's manuscript). It's astonishing but true: Writing workshops are supposed to be about MANUSCRIPTS. About what each writer is trying to accomplish in her manuscript, and how it succeeds in meeting that intent. It's NOT an exercise in getting someone else to write a story YOU "would like" to see written. Here's a hint: Some of the most successful critiques I've received rarely used the word "I." They were not about what the reader "wanted," but rather focused on what she found in the manuscript, what seemed confusing or inconsistent. I've come to try to reduce the first person pronoun in my own critiques, too.

7) Tell me that since you are a mother, you know how my mother characters should be portrayed a lot better than I do. (For a detailed discussion of this particular peeve, click here).

8) Tell me that I should dumb down my manuscript simply because you don't have any familiarity with the subject or setting it treats (and likely wouldn't choose to read a book that dealt with it anyway). This has happened to me many times, particularly in pieces of historical fiction connected with World War II and the Holocaust, and in writing on Jewish themes more generally. I will never forget my disbelief (and, to be frank, outrage) when it became clear that one of my classmates thought I'd invented not only the "character" of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, but also the entire massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and thought I should add "explanations" throughout my story accordingly (that story, minus any "explanations," later won the David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest for writing on Jewish themes).

9) Return my manuscript without any mark-up whatsoever. Without any written critique. Especially when I've devoted my time and energy to yours.

10) Return my manuscript (with or without mark-up and comments) late. Or fail to return my manuscript at all.

Yes, I've managed to alienate a certain segment of nearly every workshop I've participated in. But I've remained true to my standards and myself, and I've somehow managed to collect a cluster of creative writing soulmates in the process. You can't please all the people all the time, as an author. Or in a workshop. But it is possible to please me!


Zoe said...

I read this piece when it was published in your newsletter, but I was happy to read it a second time. Though I've had a taste of certain peeves in my limited workshop experience, this is a really interesting insight!

At lower level workshops, it seems the problem is often that people aren't willing to be critical enough. "I really liked this piece" is a pretty vague comment...

Erika D. said...

Thanks for the comment, Zoe. And you're quite right--lack of specificity is another problem I could have written about here! It's not just a problem with praise ("I really liked this piece") but also with criticism ("This piece doesn't work for me"). How about some quotations? How about some page numbers? How about some specific elements of plot, setting, character, etc.?

deonne kahler said...

Erika, I'd like to see a bit less anger in your blog posts. But that just is my opineion.

(Sorry I could only hit three of the ten! You're spot on with these pet peeves.)

Erika D. said...

You had me going there for a minute, Deonne!

Baakanit said...

I agree with Deonne this post seems to express a lot of anger and frustration.

It just a matter of understanding the differences. This is the first time I read your blog and the first impression i get is that you seem to care very little about those differences, about your peers. You are too tough on them, you expect more than necessary.

Maybe you see yourself, in some levels, as being above them. Before attending to a workshop we need to understand that not everybody is at the same level, nobody is as experience as you are.

You criticize the autobiographies attached to those submitted papers and how you despise them, but at the same time you do the same thing when in the profile of this blog. Should I repect you more because you have published all those books and done so much?

So my question is why would you put yourself through this dynamics, attending to workshops that seems that you don't need? Are you looking for some kind of approval or praise?

As you, I was tough in my workshops, and now, years removed from those times, I see that it was unnecesary to be tough, that you should be honest, only with those writer in the workshop whom you seem to admire, and whom you want to see grow.

I'm being tough with you now. Leaving you a tough comment without even saying hi, introducing myself or without even trying to read some of the post you've written before to get a sense of who you are. I don't think you are a bad person either, because I agree with the points you ventilate, I just think that, it's good to keep them to ourself and to reconsider if in fact we are being tough. Sometimes we are not able to see that toughness, so is in others to point it out.

Thanks for sharing this article with us Erika.

Erika D. said...

I'm not sure I've understand your post, Baakanit, or that you've understood mine (or Deonne's comment, for that matter), but welcome to the blog in any case.

Baakanit said...

"Erika, I'd like to see a bit less anger in your blog posts."

I noticed that anger. And in short I said, that it may be caused by not understanding that not all the people at a workshop are at your level(I said this because you were giving an overview of your workshop's experiences." But like you said, in an MFA you expect the bar to be higher. I understand you.

Sorry if I got you dizzy with all this talking.

Have a good night,

Thanks for the welcome.

Kristin said...

Workshops are open to people of varying levels which can be so frustrating. For myself, I am still not good at critiquing others work. I can look at a piece and know I like it and give a few reasons why but when I don't like something, I often find it hard to clarify why I don't like it. this is probably why I don't submit most of my own writing - because I have a hard time sifting out the parts I don't like and working on them. instead, I'll simply toss the whole thing out the window because there's "something" in it I don't like. I'm learning from other, more experienced critiquers on what to look for and find it just as helpful as the comments on my work. But I have to admit, it is a pet peeve of mine as well when people just say, "cool, I liked it."

Erika D. said...

Thanks for chiming in, Kristin.

Mathilde said...

I've been through my share of workshops as of late, but I recently left the MOST FABULOUS ONE OF ALL TIME with James Longenbach a couple of weeks ago.

Verboten was the 'opinion'. The workshop was focused on craft and the execution thereof. There's no time for 'what you'd like to see' when you're so busy describing the elements that went into a piece and how they succeeded or failed in varying degrees based on thematic consideration.

If there were a suggestion, then we'd ask the question: how would this piece change without the use of punctuation, with more anglo-saxon diction, with less sentimentality?

I suppose that one should consider a different workshop if you feel as if your sense of craft is impugned by someone's lack of copyediting skill. Some workshops may not be for you.

And under no circumstances should you enter the workshop for praise. If you needed extra hugs, call your mother. No one, ever, will read your work as closely as your crew in a workshop. Consider yourself lucky to have your cohorts take time to read your work at all. It is a responsibility, then, to be honest (never in a mean-spirited way) about the project presented to the group.

Some people call it 'tough criticism'. I call it honesty. It's a gift, and we Americans seem to have a hard time dishing it or taking it in any meaningful way. I suspect it's a cultural thing.

PS. Pet Peeve 11: Don't give a long-winded opinion and then give the last word an interrogative lilt as if you're asking me a question. You're not. We know you're not. So, just say it. I mean, really, I'm not fooled.

Erika D. said...

Thanks for your comment, Mathilde. Where did this workshop take place?

Dusty said...

You need to give people a break. One of the most unhelpful figures in the writing workshop is the jaded, veteran workshopper. Regardless of whether its at an "MFA" or "master class" level, each workshop deserves to come to a set of guidelines that work for everyone involved.

Why should writers listen to this rant, exactly? Notice that your most recent workshop instructor didn't say, "You're a smart critic, Erika!"

Erika D. said...

It seems that I have struck a few nerves with this thread!

I do agree with Dusty that each workshop does need a set of guidelines, and if I were to add another peeve to this list it might well concern workshop leaders who are far too laissez-faire when it comes to critique guidance. It's no coincidence that the workshops I've found most useful have tended to be those in which the instructor was clearly invested in having us produce meaningful, substantive critiques, in addition to providing his/her own.

Dusty, I'm afraid that I simply have to maintain that especially in an MFA or master class workshop, when one has invested considerable resources (time, money, etc.) to participate, it's more than reasonable to expect top-quality critiques. (And you're quite right--my teacher used the word "tough." Some others in that workshop used other adjectives. Like "professional." I won't address my "smart"-ness here, because that seems out of place. Much as that piece of your comment does.

Dusty, you--as well as any other writer--are absolutely free to ignore my "rant" as well as the rest of the information on the blog. I hope that won't be the case, because I do work very hard to make this blog a useful resource, and most feedback has been positive. But--and this goes not just for you, but for others out there--this blog is my virtual home. Don't visit if you don't like it (or me), but if you do stop by, please respect my space.

Bernadette Geyer said...


I once had a workshop instructor tell me flat out that I should stop taking community workshops and just find a few poets that I feel "understand what I am doing" to share my poems with for feedback. My instructor told me that I would get very little out of workshops at this stage of my writing, and he meant it as a good thing, not because I demonstrated any adverse reactions to the workshop itself.

It sounds like you may be at the stage where it would be in your best interest to "move on" from these types of all-encompassing workshops (esp. if you have to pay for them!) and just find a few folks to trade poems with either in person or online.

I've found it much more useful to my writing to find a few friends who aren't afraid to give honest critique where needed, and who are equally able to speak to the "intent" of my poems to let me know what is working in service of the intent or counter to the intent.


Erika D. said...

Thanks, Bernadette. Actually, with my poems I have no doubt that I'm still at a stage where I can benefit from a workshop. But what you're saying may certainly apply to my fiction.

Anonymous said...

Reading this post has made me realise that I must have ticked off quite a few of my workshop-mates, back when I first enrolled in them. I think we do grow through these things. I had nothing to offer in the beginning and yet I received a lot from the more experienced writers in the group. Later, I had much to give and share, and maybe felt put off sometimes when it wasn't reciprocated or appreciated or even noticed! When you are giving more than than you are getting maybe is the time to stop or to move on to teaching. But I'm glad that no one ever called me out on the workshops where I didn't offer much--I would have been mortified. And I'm glad too that I didn't expect too much from younger/less experienced writers later on. There are usually one or two in the class who give really good feedback--and that is enough. Often I've wondered why the workshop LEADERS didn't step up more--but that's a another issue!