Lately I’ve become more sensitive to the anxiety of beginning writers before their first workshop experience.  Such sensitivity has forced me to define for myself, once again, the purpose of the workshop: The purpose of a writing workshop is to help the individual writer separate from her words on the page.

The group constitutes a variety of readers for the writer’s words. The more variety,  the better. During the workshop critique, when the group discusses the writer’s written words, the writer sits in silence. This is not easy, because the writer wants to explain why her character is named Rob, not Charlie, and to defend Rob’s jumping off the AzrieliTower(It really happened!), the threats, the letter, etc. etc.  Rather than explain and defend, the writer must sit with metaphoric masking tape over her mouth, while the group dissects her writing. Hopefully she will take notes. She’s learning to listen.

First, the workshop leader encourages the readers to point out the strong points of the writing, i.e. vivid images, convincing ending, tone. Many workshop leaders stop there, believing that the writer will naturally grow to write towards her strengths if left to her own devices. Most leaders, however, proceed from praising the strong points to dissecting the weak and problematic elements in the piece.

From the point of view of the writer, this may feel cruel. Indeed, for beginners, anxiety is high before the first workshop session. This may be the first time the writer has shared her written words with readers other than her family or friends. The writer feels that she has not only placed her words on the page, but also her heart.  Any negative comments about her writing, therefore, are perceived as arrows piercing that heart. At this stage of the writer’s life, there is little separation between the writer, who may be a grown woman with a rich life (two jobs, three children, one husband) and Rob’s story on the page.

Surgical separation is the workshop’s goal. The reader surgeons say to the writer: Your words on the page are not you. Yes, you produced them, but they are black marks on a white page. You are flesh and blood.

Once the writer can separate from her words and look at them with some degree of objectivity, like the members of the group, she will be able to ask questions of her text: Is there enough specificity, conflict, tension?  How’s the word choice, pace, plot? Eventually, the writer will be free to craft each sentence like a noodle of clay.

After the painful ordeal is over, the writer then takes the role of reader of someone else’s work in the group.  This role changing helps the writer accept the comments of her classmates on her own writing. 

At all times, the leader of the workshop is encouraging the participants to find the story beneath the first draft, the kernel of energy, the emotional cork.

This paradoxical process of separating from one’s written words in order to write closer to the heart takes many years. It needn’t be done in a workshop, but ever since the Iowa Writers Workshop opened its gates in 1936, believing that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged, the writing workshop has become the setting of choice.

It is important that the workshop leader be kind but honest, sensitive, but strict. Only in such a setting can the writer find shelter to learn her craft. Only in such a setting can the group be entrusted with containing the writer’s vulnerable heart, drops of which occasionally, like grace, touch the page, causing the hearts of her readers to break.