Why I Gave Up On Writing Workshops
The truth about writing workshops by Jeff Cottrill...
When I was younger, I dreamed of becoming a novelist. I started out writing short stories and comic monologues, while reading all the literature I could get my hands on for inspiration. I disciplined myself to write every day, even when short of ideas, if only to stay in the habit. And I had an encouraging creative-writing teacher in high school who had a good sense of humour and liked my work. As a student at York University (in north Toronto) in the mid-'90s, I enrolled in the writing program, naively hoping to learn what I needed to be as good as I wanted to be.
I once thought that the purpose of a writing workshop was to provide wanna-be writers with constructive criticism and exercises that would help them refine their style, find their voice, and gain the courage to experiment and take risks. York's program would prove me wrong. My course instructors seemed to stop at nothing to prevent students from achieving these goals, in fact.
I fit in poorly enough in the introductory course, in which helpful feedback was rare and the instructor discouraged writing humour or satire. (Mark Twain and George Orwell would have received bad grades in her class.) But the fiction-writing workshop in the following year wasn't a learning environment: it was a celebration of bitterness and negativity.
The instructor, an award-winning novelist and also a Hemingway nut, was a minimalist who didn't seem to understand that minimalism doesn't suit everybody's style. He probably meant well, but his bias towards those who condensed their fiction down to the bare, skeletal essentials was clear from the start. He was more interested in molding students into a style that suited him than in letting them be their natural selves. He also gleefully trashed a lot of writers that I admire (Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, Woody Allen, etc.) and wouldn't take other perspectives seriously. And a few students in the class whom he liked (i.e. the minimalists) formed a sort of clique that sucked up to him and offered nothing but literal-minded, non-constructive criticism to the others. Their goal was not to help others improve their work but to bully them into feeling stupid and worthless. And the instructor let them do it. He encouraged them by not discouraging them.
One of these minimalists (who, curiously, is now an internationally acclaimed film director) took great pleasure in insulting the writers she didn't like. She not only told people to their faces that their work was bad (never adding any specific insight as to how to make it good), she even wrote mean-spirited letters to others (with returned copies of their stories) detailing why they didn't belong in the workshop and should quit writing. What amazed me was that her attacks always seemed so personal: if she hated your writing, she hated you.
As you've guessed, I was on the receiving end of many vicious barbs and rants. They went out of their way to convince me I wasn't cut out to be a writer and never would be. And I guess I was young and stupid enough to believe them. So I dropped out of the program -- and after a failed attempt to write a novel, I quit writing for several years. And I'm sure I wasn't the only one. Writing (and even reading) wasn't enjoyable to me anymore.
Even now, when I try to write anything longer than a five-minute open-mic piece, I usually get blocked. Instead of letting my imagination and love of language go crazy, I feel as if I have to get everything perfect the first time, or else I have no business calling myself a writer.
I understand that it's considered childish and cowardly to blame other people for your failures in life. Nonetheless, I can't help feeling that if it weren't for York's gang of minimalist bullies, I could have been a published novelist by now. Maybe a lousy one, and likely an unsuccessful one, but that's not the point. I might have produced something a few people would have enjoyed, and gained some genuine literary credibility. Now I'm in my mid-30s, my life is caught up in other projects and it sometimes feels too late.
I can imagine your response: "Oh, you're just whining because you're a bad writer and can't take criticism! You're just jealous! Grow up and accept that it didn't work out!" But this has nothing to do with whether I am a good or bad writer. Everybody has the right to try something creative, and with a good writing class, even a "bad" writer should come out with a positive attitude, trying harder to be better.
So, if you love writing and want to improve at it, how can you avoid becoming a loser like me?
Don't waste your money on formal workshops or classes. I'd recommend instead that you get together once a month, or once a week, with a group of writer friends/acquaintances who think the same way you do as far as writing theory goes. They must be people who'll understand what you're trying to achieve, yet are honest enough to give you specific feedback on work that isn't quite "there".
That's what I did when I joined a (now defunct) writers' group in Toronto called Parallel Chaos, and I gained some confidence back. Even when the others were harshly critical, it was in a spirit of helpfulness. It made me want to do better.
And what if you have to give somebody feedback on weak writing? I know it's tempting, but don't say it "sucks". Don't tell him he's a bad writer, even if he is. That's not constructive criticism. If you just want to trash people's art, get a job as a critic. It's lots of fun, and when artists reach a professional level, they ought to be ready to handle nasty reviews anyway.
But in a workshop context, you must approach the writing saying not "This is bad because..." but rather "This might work better if you did this..." Imagine that you've written it. If you had, how would you revise it? Give practical suggestions that you feel will work, without being patronizing. And ask the writer what he's trying to do. It never hurts to look at it from the writer's point of view and understand where he wants to go. I know, it's harder than spouting "you suck", but you might be surprised where it leads.
Let's be honest: young artists are sensitive and insecure. They may become less so as they grow and their work matures, but the latter won't happen if you make them feel ashamed of daring to create. The world could use more encouragement, especially in a field as tough and subjective as creative writing.
You can find out what Jeff's up to or listen to some of his spoken word pieces on his myspace.