One thing lacking in most writing workshops is a few minutes taken at the beginning to discuss workshop etiquette and basic expectations. A few months ago, I polled my fellow Sarah Lawrence MFA workshop compatriots, (Ann, Murph and Joann), and my cousin Gretchen, a writing teacher in Alaska, for their advice on writing workshopping.
More recently, Jane Friedman posted an interesting piece on the four dangers of writing groups. And although we did not discuss bad craft habits gained from and critiquing ineptitude found in writing workshops, we did talk a lot about basic etiquette:
- Come prepared. Read everyone's poems beforehand. It’s impolite and self-absorbed to coast through other people’s work.
- Be fully present. Speak up but share the floor. There’s an art to knowing how often to participate. Practice it. Take a few deep breaths before each workshop. You're not only learning the art of writing, you're learning the art of conversation.
- Joann said to listen bravely to suggestions without interrupting to defend your choices. Come to the table with a thick skin or at least some skin. Critiquing implies your poem is imperfect to begin with. Let it go. No suggestions are cut in stone.
- Don’t rewrite it! Be mindful of the project you are not doing. Be open to genres you don’t love, read or are unfamiliar with. Don’t insist the work conform to what you would like it to be. Murph put it well, “Try to discern what the writer is going for. Say what you think succeeds in the attempt. Then, if you see a specific approach or tactic that might help the writer achieve her goal, define it and suggest it as an additional approach to try.”
- All the same rules you learned in Kindergarten still apply. Be nice to others. Share. Take turns. Don’t have temper tantrums. Follow the group rules. Being a ground-breaking artist doesn’t mean you should attempt to be a rule-breaking participant in a writing workshop. Groups require cooperation. Solo work does not.
- Focus on the writing. Don't get derailed by the issues presented within the writing or personal issues outside of the writing. Respect everyone’s time and intention attending a writing group.
- Feel free to ask that specific issues or questions be addressed, anything you know for sure you need help with or feedback on.
- Spend time with architecture. Murph suggested creating outlines or arcs that can help define what is fuzzy or where something is missing.
- Listen to yourself. Murph says don’t ask questions that are criticisms in disguise.
- Don’t get addicted to writing workshops.
Ann sent along this Buzzfeed satire of Jane Austen receiving feedback in an MFA program.