Michal Zechariah

Blocked? DON’T go to a writing workshop

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an aspiring writer in possession of talent and a laptop must be in want of a writing guru. Or is it?

With over 4,000 titles being published in Israel alone every year and approximately 280,000 in the US, it’s understandable why many writers have a hard time making a living as authors. They then resort to freelance writing for women online magazines (true story), translating, editing, heck, even typing (also a true story)! But those lucky enough to have published their work and had their names in the papers now and then find the ultimate “how to make money as a writer” job: run a writing workshop. But just because a famous author instructs a writing workshop doesn’t mean it’s going to help solve your writer’s block.

Don’t get me wrong. I think writing workshops can be great for spotting critical problems in your writing, meeting new writing buddies and even networking, especially in the tight crowd of Israeli authors. But I don’t think this is where genius sparks and inspiration starts running afresh through your veins.

Here are a few do’s and don’t’s of the writing workshop industry that I’ve gathered through, well, years of going to writing workshops.

Don’t listen to what they say. When you meet weekly with a group of fifteen other aspiring writers, they tend to become your audience. They have developed a sort of “group taste”, and hearing their criticism Wednesday after Wednesday (it’s always on a Wednesday), their opinions start growing on you and you begin to write for them. You want them to admire your work, and that’s only natural. They’re the only ones reading it! A friend of mine who’s majoring in creative writing  let me read a short story she’d written for her writing workshop. Her group mates said the story was unreadable and that she shouldn’t use contemporary terms like “facebook” in a literary piece.  That’s like telling Jane Austen, “listen sister, you really shouldn’t go on and on about that petticoat, in like 100 years no one is gonna know what a petticoat is!” My friend’s short story wasn’t flawless, but it was sensitive and original. Only the people in her writing workshop couldn’t tell. They’ve grown too accustomed to a certain view, and she has grown too used to listening to them and correcting her writing accordingly. So don’t listen to what they say.

Don’t listen to your instructor. I’ve had one writing workshop instructor that was really professional. She identified the writers’ different styles and helped us with the fine-tuning, making the best in our writing shine. But that was the exception. Most writing workshop instructors are authors who already have their own idea about what good writing should look like. When you listen to your instructor, you put too much power into one person’s hands. Don’t forget William Blake’s poetry was ignored and slandered repeatedly during his time, and even JK Rowling had her share of rejection letters. That just goes out to show you that one person may not always appreciate your work, and that doesn’t mean you have to change it. Just don’t listen to your instructor.

Don’t take the exercises too seriously. A lot of times, writing workshop instructors will let you practice using metaphors, inter-textualism and other kinds of tropes. While learning different ways to express yourself can be valuable, they are only teaching you what they know. Your writing should be about what they don’t know. What only YOU know. I can’t imagine e. e. cummings’ broken verse emerging in a writing workshop, no more than I can imagine Dickens’s foggy London emerging after a “define your setting” exercise. So don’t take the exercises too seriously.

Do choose an instructor you admire. If you’ve decided to go to a writing workshop after all, try reading some of the instructor’s work before you sign up. A friend of mine loves writing fantasy fiction, while her writing workshop instructor thinks fantasy is childish escapism and yawns the moment she mentions the word “arch mage”. What can she possibly gain from his criticism? Choosing an instructor according to genre, style and general fondness can be crucial to your workshop experience. So always choose an instructor your admire.

Do take a personal workshop. I have had good experience with one-on-one online workshops. If you’ve found the right instructor, personal correspondence can be better for your progress. You get to share your real problems writing or have an easier time spotting them when the workshop is custom made for you. So if there’s an author you like who gives personal workshops, take one.

Do make a note of repeating feedback. My group mates and instructor in a certain writing workshop kept telling me my writing lacked emotional depth. They said I was holding back. During the three months of the workshop I couldn’t tell why they’d say that. I honestly didn’t feel I was keeping any secrets while writing. After a while, when I was no longer writing exercises and expecting the same group – my audience – to respond to them, the criticism could sink in, and I understood there really was something stopping me from being deeply emotionally invested in my writing. Sometimes, the comments your group gives you can be good, even if you can’t make much of them during the workshop. So make a note of repeating feedback.

I could go on and on about writing workshops and why they are good or bad for you, but my bottom line should be this: if you feel you need feedback or a fresh perspective on your work, the first thing to do is turning to your friends. CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien didn’t need a workshop to talk about their writing, and so do contemporary writers sitting in kiosks in Tel Aviv and cafes in Jerusalem. True greatness in writing does not come from paying a monthly fee to a workshop, but from trusting in your own abilities and sharing them with like minded, original people.

About the Author
Michal is a PhD student in English at the University of Chicago