5 Lessons from a Writing Workshop Survivor

It’s been 3 years since my last writing workshop and my ass still hurts. In a few short semesters, I’d grown embittered, defensive, and drained of creative drive. Since then, I’ve spoken to other Workshop Survivors, heard their woeful tales, and slowly internalized hard lessons about the Writing Life. I’ve heard as many people say the workshop hurt their writing as helped.

Here’s a few lessons from a Survivor on how to get all you can from your workshop:

1.) Define the Objective.

Are you testing the ground? Developing your voice? Desiring feedback? Jonesing for verbal abuse? Why are you there?

People who appreciate writing gravitate towards writing workshops. So do wannabes desiring merely a baptism by verbal slapfight and a shiny badge with the word “Writer” on it. Hopefully you’re the former, because otherwise, hot damn’re you in for a shitty time. Just keep in mind, fellow workshoppers might dig writing, but they may not dig yours, even if you’re not a beginner. Camaraderie seekers might be better served by the local Writer’s Association or writing-based interest groups on the interwebs. Or a writing group. Or, hell, just about any place but a College Writing Workshop!

Now to be fair, my prose dramatically improved through Louisiana State’s courses. My characters and stories suffered. You know, the shit normal people notice? If you’re undeterred, lay on a nail-bed each night through summer break. It’ll toughen up that peskily thin (and in my case pasty) derma you got going on. Grin through their worst, that shit pisses Lit Trolls off. And while your lumps’re still shiny red, hammer on some literary journals. Rejection, so I’m told, is the Writer’s Life.

2.) Refuse advice from those you’d not emulate.

Period. Read your professor’s books. Is it good? Alright, prof checks out. Otherwise, he gets no say either (grades notwithstanding). You’ll read your classmates prose til your eyes bleed. Ask yourself: Are they my audience? I’ve gotten burned by Hemingway aspirants and Joyce apostles, and then, regrettably, I listened. Joyce and Hemingway are greats for a reason, but I aspire to be neither. My only aspiration is to be Gregory Blake, and Gregory Blake alone. I’ve written Suspense, Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror, and none of those please Creative Writing instructors or students.

You’ll get useful feedback too; in Writing the Novel, I listened to only a handful of peers. I think five. This didn’t include the Prof, who gave nothing useful. He might’ve, but he’d broken his arm three days before class’s first day. I think his painkillers gave most his feedback. The rest? Well, I had my thing, they had theirs. I read their critiques, then promptly discarded them before incorporating the useful into my next draft.

3.) Give your prose its due.

Writers shortcut all the time. Cram sessions on Due-Date Eve, taking all criticism (being a Bonsai Writers), taking no criticism (being an Artiste), refusing to do edits before showing your manuscript, leaving jiggly bits in, and mindlessly obeying the Professor. If you don’t disagree with at least some things a writing instructor tells you, you’re not thinking hard enough. You’ll also be the type to write what the Workshop wants, not what you want. Be honest, would you like to write a story about an impotent senior citizen with chronic incontinence of mind and body? If so, great! If not, maybe you should write something else. If people bitch that you wrote Fantasy, slap ’em across the face with the Lord of the Rings. Suspense? The Stand. Hell, splatter them with pig’s blood and then just Carrie on! (Yeah, I went there. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.)

Being the Stand-Out Writer takes guts. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Stay up, and show that hammer who’s boss. Later on, you’ll be facing a lot bigger hammers, I assure you.

4.) Read, read, read.

Not just what you’re assigned, either. If you stop reading your genre, or all genres, you disrespect your education. Stephen King reads 90 books a year. I do my level best to beat him. Try to keep up. Well-read writers avoid the cliche, and then there’s the passive learning you gain when text flies by your face. Volume can’t be made up by “a few greats”. Don’t be a Bonsai Reader either. Form your own opinions. Avoid leaning on others. That way lies a corpulent mind, and corpulent minds write rarely. Besides, if those “few greats” bore you, and they’re “the greats”, why read anything else? Best to avoid terrible questions of that sort.

Keep Reading.

5.) Keep Writing.

Before, during, after the workshop. Don’t write when it’s due. When class ends, no stern mentor will ride your ass. You’ll have to. Unless you’re a contortionist, this’ll take practice.

Before workshops, I wrote for fun. Afterwards, I wrote from obligation. If you can, write for fun. The writing suffers otherwise. But no matter what happens, no matter how good or bad you think the results are, keep writing. Your stories are worth it.

Keep Writing.

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