Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Group Therapy

It's an age-old question: do writers' workshops help or hurt? A writers' workshop is a group of people who review each others' writing and discuss it. In a recent New Yorker article, Louis Menand described such gatherings as "a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart. There is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught."

In his book How to Write a Damn Good Novel (which, frankly, is just damn okay), James Frey argues that writers' workshops have their purpose, but only the kind he calls "destructive." In these groups, members ruthlessly criticize your work, and you come away with a bruised ego -- but also with a thicker skin and a list of specific things to fix in your piece. The worst kind of writers' groups, Frey says, are the "puff" ones, where everyone sits around and talks about your wonderful description of the sunset on page four, because they're afraid to tell you that your story is atrocious.

I've participated in several workshops over the past year, and I have found them helpful to a degree. If nothing else, they force you to write. If you have pages due, you're going to finish something. And since people will be reading and commenting in public, you'll be motivated to try and make the pages decent. As for criticism, I think it should fall somewhere between puff and destructive, depending on what point you are at in your writing career. In the beginning, it's nerve racking enough just to have someone read and respond to your work; no brand-new writer is ready for brutal criticism. But as you gain some confidence in your writing, then by all means bring out the red pen; otherwise, it's a waste of time.

Most importantly, writers' workshops give you a sense of community. For those of us who have busy day jobs, these groups carve out a space to hang out with other people who write. And, occasionally, someone who I think is talented calls me talented. And that's enough to keep me going.


  1. I had read this same article, which was increasingly discouraging, since I had recently signed up for a writing workshop. Thankfully at the end, he closed it on a positive note! It's also encouraging to hear that your own personal experience with writing classes has been a good one.
    (You didn't happen to try the writing exercises provided in the article, did you?)

  2. I didn't try those exercises, but I've tried similar ones... they're always good to get the juices flowing.