The Case for Literary Workshops

Workshop reviewers’ notes on my novel in progress

Writing is a solitary act. Everybody says it.

The white sheet of paper or the blank computer screen. The writer, in verse or prose, with his thoughts in a universe that only he understands. Or doesn’t. The struggle to produce a line that sounds true, or a typewritten page, or a thousand words, one time only or day after day, whether based on a script or the momentary impulse of the heart and the brain. The writer’s block. The search for le mot juste. The trap of your own writing when control disappears and you are rushing in a direction you might like but not recognize; or recognize but not like. The love of your own product, the rewriting process, the uncertainty that follows, the surge of success, the depression and fear of failure, the understanding (true or false) of your genius or your limitations, and finally, the commitment for the long haul. It doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or an experienced writer, young or old, male or female, American or born and bred anywhere else in the world.

The professionals — journalists, ghostwriters, and Hollywood screenplay writers — have a support system behind them. They have assignments and deadlines, and they get paid. Other professionals who work with them provide encouragement, criticism, or point the way. And while I don’t know this first hand, I imagine that they also go through some of the challenges I described above, when they try writing a poem, a short story or a novel on their own time and on a subject matter of their choosing. A professor of creative writing at college level, consumed by the fire of authoring an original piece of literature, would see the rules that he teaches his students go up in smoke. I imagine it might be easier to write a ‘how to’ book, or a book on a specific scientific subject, but when it comes to poetry or fiction, we’re back to the lonely square one.

In my experience, I relied heavily on the help of my wife, and sometimes my talented, creative daughter, and some of my very close friends. Most writers do that, and we all know this approach has limitations. My voluntary critics are never as committed to my work as I am. The value of my product is subjective, and if I start defending it, my friends will say, “It’s your book, so you have the last word.” Can I ask them to read my work once, then read my rewrite, and then again one more time? I can’t. It’s asking for too much.

In the early nineties, I joined a writers’ association in Baltimore, and through them, several workshops. I went from one to another depending on location, purpose, and membership. I knew that such a forum would be helpful. As a concept, literary workshops were not new to me. I had attended several as a very young writer, in Bucharest, Romania, but there the workshops were institutionalized, sponsored (and controlled) by the Students Union, the Writers Union, or the Ministry of Education. They took place in public locales where people showed up, read their work, and were subjected to cold criticism, often by well-known personalities in the field of literature. Here, the workshops I started attending were smaller and by far more personal. Most members were beginners, unpublished authors, often working full time in various professions that had little to do with fiction writing, and meeting in people’s homes.

In 2005 I joined a group of six people that focused on novel writing. Over time, we met each other’s families. We understood where our interests lie, and we have become friends. The make up of the group has varied over the years, but there has always been a core membership that continues to this day.

We follow a few simple rules. We meet every two weeks at 7:30 in the evening. Two people submit no more that 20 double-spaced pages that we read beforehand, and discuss during our meeting. We rotate locations and contributors. There are always snacks, drinks and coffee. The writer who is being critiqued doesn’t speak until the end, unless he or she is being asked a direct question. We go from left to right, and we begin with the person who was the first to turn in the writing sample. We have a website, and all submissions are posted for all of us to review, going back to day one. And there is one additional rule, the most important of all: we never destroy each other. We are honest and supportive. We are diverse and inclusive. We share in the craft and understand that what we present to each other reflects the toil of our tormented souls. Arrogance, disdain, or one-upmanship, have no place in our workshop.

I find that the workshop provides rhythm to my writing. Every several weeks I have to be ready to submit. This has been more important to me in the past, when I still had a day job, than it is now, when I am retired and write every day, but it is still a motivator.

Like most authors, I enjoy the thrill of putting myself out there and being read. I also enjoy the anticipation of receiving the group’s feedback, whether minute, like pointing out a typo or questioning a word choice, or more global, structural in nature, concerning the entire story. Whatever that feedback is, at the end of the process I feel I have accomplished something, I am appreciated, and I know where to go next.

I enjoy the diversity of the group, and by that I mean the writing styles and the various genres my workshop friends prefer. I write literary fiction. They do not. This forces me to discover and understand new elements of the craft. Whether I enjoy it or not, I have to review, in a professional and responsible manner, topics such as life in Afghanistan, the tragedy of a young woman who was sexually abused as a child, the world of a dog named Zippy, from the dog’s point of view, the story of a medical journal reporter and her dead father-in-law who continues to be a character in the book, the adventures of the daughter of James Bond, the philosophy of the process of creation, the complex trail of a Lithuanian gangster, and the magic of a seven dimensional universe.

One of us, who has since left the group, has succeeded in the wide world. He has sold two novels to a major publisher, received great critical acclaim and now works on creating his own TV series. Others have self-published a few novels, and won nominations and awards. When we are together we don’t doubt ourselves. The beauty is we don’t feel solitary any longer.

We belong.

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