Staying Alive: The Hazards of Writing Workshops

by Bruce Holland Rogers

(Posted by permission of the author; copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, Bruce Holland Rogers)

Writing workshops are great. They give writers a chance to learn from one another, to find solace for some of their shared difficulties, to cheer each other on, and to share market news and survival tips.

And writing workshops are awful. They give writers a chance to vent their hostilities at each other, to shoot the wounded, to sabotage one another’s efforts.

Both of these perspectives are true enough that even though I’m a fan of workshops, I understand why Sharyn McCrumb once said, “I wouldn’t show a novel to anyone who couldn’t write me a check.” But the problem for a writer who relies entirely on editors is that editors miss things, especially in the current marketplace where many editors are just purchasing agents. Even if you get an editor who is more involved and capable, she can make suggestions that are just plain wrong for the work, but knowing when the editor is off-base is harder when you’re relying entirely on your own judgment. It helps to have vetted your work with your peers.

Workshops are more likely to help, less likely to damage, if you have a sense of the dangers going in. Here is my map of Workshop Hazards, followed by some possible ways around them.

Hazard One: Ego Damage From a Righteous Critique.
This is the most basic hazard of a critique session. We come to a workshop with something that has taken us long hours over days or months or years to create. Even if it’s a very strong story, there are going to be flaws. So much can go wrong in a narrative, and success is so subjective that getting it right for all readers is impossible.

In the space of an hour, then, we subject ourselves to hearing a dozen or so opinions about where we went wrong. That’s hard enough, but in most workshops there are one or two critics who are famous for unloading without much tact even when their critical observations are acute and useful.

This might not be so bad, except that many of us come to workshops with a secret little fantasy. We think, “This time, with this story, I’m going to blow everyone away.” That’s the fantasy that I’ve harbored in twenty years of workshops, anyway. I have always wanted to hear everyone say, “I love it. It’s brilliant. Don’t you dare change a word.” But no one ever says it, except in jest. (The fact that this joke always works is, I think, an indication of how widespread this fantasy is.)

So we come hoping against all experience that we’ll be praised. Instead, we get a detailed assessment of imperfections and shortcomings. That’s hard to take. Sometimes it’s so hard that people will quit a workshop or even quit writing.

Hazard Two: Ego Damage From Hostility, Insensitivity or Grouchiness.
I’ve met quite a few workshop participants who used critiques as a way to tear down other writers in order to make themselves feel bigger or more “real.” Writers who see themselves as avant garde are especially prone to this. Since their own work will appeal to only a small audience, they tell themselves that their audience is the only one worth reaching…and they belittle writers who try to reach anyone else. (Actually, such hostility can come from commercial writers, too, who also belittle any audience but their own.)

In a workshop, this hostility is expressed as a rejection not of the work itself, but of the whole desire to produce such work. This is harder on the ego, because now it’s not your particular efforts that are found wanting, but your basic objectives, your aesthetic judgment, your self.

There’s accidental damage, too. Many years ago in a senior-level poetry workshop, a freshman woman read aloud her Tragic Suicide Poem, and when she got to the end, I laughed with one great explosive, “HA!” I am sure that she felt I was laughing at her poem. But what had amused me about her ten-line melodrama was that I had written one just like it when I was a freshman, and so had many of my friends. I laughed because I recognized suddenly that there was a developmental progression to writing. I had been where she was now.

Nowadays if I didn’t control such an outburst, I would at least have the decency to explain why I had laughed. But I said nothing to soothe the wound I had insensitively (though unintentionally) made.

Finally, you’ll sometimes get leveled when the person who is critiquing your work is simply in a bad mood.

Hazard Three: Critiques May Lead You Astray.
Here I don’t just mean that the readers in your group may be wrong about whether you need a different title. I mean that a workshop or one person in that workshop can become your main audience, and you’ll end up tailoring your work to please them.

At a recent workshop, Damon Knight said of my story, “This isn’t up to the standard I’ve come to expect from you. It’s not your kind of story. I don’t know why you wrote it. I wish you hadn’t.”


Fortunately, I’m at a stage in my career where I already know that I write lots of different kinds of stories. So while I respect Damon and think he’s a wonderful teacher, he’s never going to convince me that I should abandon the sub-genre of slight and silly SF. It’s one of the things I sometimes do. But if I were younger and newer at this writing business, I might have taken those words to heart and resolved to only write the kind of story that Damon expected from me.

This is an even bigger problem if the workshop is full of writers who do work that’s very different from yours. If they don’t recognize and honor your objectives (which is hard for them to do if you don’t recognize and articulate your objectives), they may persuade you to do work that fulfills their dreams more than it fulfills yours.

More generally, a bad critique can make writers feel socially desperate, like they need to prove their value to the group. This can warp not only the writing, but the writer’s interactions with group members. I’ve seen folks get either shrill or obsequious in workshops. In fact, I’ve been pretty shrill or obsequious myself. If anything, this raises the emotional stakes and will make the next critique that much more devastating.

How to Protect Your Ego From Righteous Criticism.
The first step in keeping a good workshop from wounding you is to have a clear sense of why you’re attending.

Are you trolling for compliments? That’s not a bad thing if it helps motivate you to finish work and bring it to the workshop. But it is important to separate the fantasy from the reality-most of the time, your stories will not make all the other writers go slack-jawed with amazement.

Success, more than anything else, can take the sting out of criticism. The more stories you’ve sold, the better you’ll be able to hear criticisms without thinking that you’re no writer at all. But it’s not just sales that will do this for you. There are other forms of “publication,” after all.

Public readings are a good way to have an audience for your work. Reading aloud, hearing and seeing your audience react, can do a great deal to bolster your confidence. You might also try forming a “reader’s workshop” of other writers where you read aloud to one another from works in progress but do not critique!

How you receive critiques will also affect how you feel about them. It helps to take copious notes as your critics speak. This keeps you occupied (so you won’t be mentally defending your story), gives you a record to consider later when you’re not in the hot seat, and encourages your critics. (It’s hard to criticize. It’s made easier if you think the person you’re speaking to is really paying attention.)

If you do find yourself wanting to defend your story, this is usually a sign that your motives are skewed, that you’re placing your ego ahead of the story. After all, you won’t be able to stand next to every reader and explain things once your story is published. Workshop readers are giving you information about what they didn’t understand, or what blocked them from enjoying the story. Just absorb it. Think of it not as a judgment, but as data that you must think about and interpret later.

If it’s practical in your group’s format, consider making the critiques anonymous. Submit stories without attribution. This not only takes off some of the ego pressure, but it challenges you to view your own work critically-you’ll have to participate in the critique, too, to preserve your anonymity.

Remind yourself that social acceptance doesn’t depend on opinions about your stories. (Or if it does, find another group.) One of my friends abandoned a workshop after it shredded one of her stories. Months later, she ran into the workshop leader in a grocery store. He said that he missed her and wondered why she’d stopped coming. When she told him it was because of that story’s poor reception, he couldn’t recall what story she was talking about. Chances are, you are always going to be more memorable than your best work.

Again, it’s success that will do the most to protect your ego. So keep in mind, as your precious words are dragged over the coals of righteous criticism, that it’s better to suffer now for the sake of your eventual success, rather than mailing out a story with flaws you just couldn’t see.

How to Protect Your Ego From Un-Righteous Criticism.
The first thing to know is that some hostile workshops can’t be fixed. The whole point of some avant garde groups is to create a social environment where marginalized artists support one another, and hostility to anyone who isn’t part of the in group is one form that the support takes. So choose your workshops carefully.

Also, it’s a good idea to get the feel of a workshop before you bring in your most “sensitive” material. As one of my friends puts it, you shouldn’t expose yourself fully “until you know what the level of savagery is.” So start with what you know are lesser works, or with a few trunk stories dusted off and revised for the occasion.

Then know and follow the workshop’s rules. Some hostility or grouchiness is caused by writers bringing it on themselves. One time I brought a dozen short-short stories to a workshop. A dozen. In aggregate, they weren’t any longer than the stories we usually critiqued, but the participants felt they couldn’t say more than a sentence or two about each piece. It made them mad, and some of them gave very grumpy critiques. I’ve seen the same thing happen to a writer who regularly brings 50-page stories to a workshop that reads the stories on-site before critiquing them. The norm is 15 pages, with an unspoken ceiling of about 25. So this writer’s stories are usually read last, in haste, by readers in a bad mood.

But even when someone else behaves in a way that puts you in a bad mood, a great way to protect yourself from unrighteous criticism is to refuse to engage in it yourself. Make an effort to be wise, compassionate, and complete when it’s your turn to criticize. If someone has submitted something that has made you grouchy, admit it up front, ask them not to do it again, and then deliver thoughtful criticism anyway.

How Not to Be Led Astray.
Some things that I’ve already mentioned are helpful here. Success helps. Separating story criticism from social censure (or story praise for social success) helps. So does a non-criticizing reading circle. Or a public reading of your work. And of course, you should avoid workshops where the whole point of the gathering is to diss the kind of writing you love.

But what about an otherwise good workshop that threatens to lead you astray? You can leave, but in practical terms most workshops will lead you astray, at least some of the time. Even careful critics will tend to lure you toward writing the way they write. If you created a cult-ish workshop devoted to writing just what you write, you’d have a hard time growing out of that kind of writing as your interests evolved.

The most practical remedy to being led astray is to see to your roots. In addition to getting feedback from the workshop, read work that’s similar to what you’re trying to produce. Talk to readers who like what you like. You don’t need to get critiques from these readers. What you want instead is to continually reconnect with the work that inspires and excites you.

A Sense of Humor.
This, finally, is the remedy for most workshop ills.

Not everyone can get away with this, but Damon Knight makes curmudgeonly pronouncements in his workshops. A famous one: “The universe would have been a better place had this story not been written.” That may bruise your ego, but you have to laugh about it eventually.

You can also make light of the unspoken cravings of the ego. In our monthly Eugene workshop, Leslie What designates the “winner” each time. To the author of the story that got trashed the least, showed the most promise, and received the mildest revision suggestions, Leslie will say, “You won.”

Of course, it’s a silly thing to do. The first time that Leslie turned to me and said, “Bruce, you won,” I told her just how silly it was. Writers aren’t in competition with one another.

Then I went home and my wife asked me how the workshop had been. I pumped the air like the winning pitcher in game seven of the World Series and exulted, “I won!”

That made it easier, in the following workshop, to lose by a wide margin.

If everyone in your workshop laughs a lot, then you’re probably doing more good than harm.