Taking a manuscript into a critique workshop is an expedient and sometimes necessary step to understand how readers view and respond to any given piece you’ve written. At their best, a workshop is a coming together of equally skilled and similarly committed writers under the guidance of a master of the trade, both as writer and pedagogue.
I’ve never been in one of these.
My experience has been in workshops where there was a broad sampling of participants, in both writing ability and commitment to the process. Some felt more like a beauty pageant, or worse, poker game, than a learning experience. It’s almost unavoidable, the collective, nuanced accounting of who’s the most skilled, the most inventive and the most likely to be published, tainted with the underlying fear that you may be the runt of the bunch. Oh sure, there will be the “what I love about your work” comments, and a few helpful suggestions, but unspoken is the competitive racking and stacking that goes on inside everyone’s head. Is his novel more likely to be published before mine? Did the group respond better to her story or mine?
Add in instructor bias and group dynamics being what they are, a workshop can very quickly devolve into an exercise in group- think based on the instructor’s preferences and prejudices. If minimalism is the favored style, then luxuriously layered descriptions, or a steady stream of consciousness loaded with emotional nuance are going to get less than enthusiastic reviews. Reading the instructor’s work beforehand can help to identify those biases. But, the knowledge can be a double-edged sword. If you don’t particularly enjoy their style or genre, that can prevent you from fully appreciating their comments and suggestions, and thus undermining what might well be good advice.
If you venture into the arena of a workshop, measure your sense of accomplishment not by how popular your manuscript was, but how much you learned about it. And, be sure to remind yourself that Kafka’s work would have been skewed, roasted and trashed with great enthusiasm in the beauty pageant of most workshops.
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