A Workshop by Any Other Name

“Eat fast,” my bunkmate said. “We have to be at Shop soon.”

“If you need supplies, you have all day,” I informed her; trying hard to show I’d acclimated to the camp schedule. “The shop doesn’t close until just before dinner.”

“Not the shop where you buy stuff, Dummy! ‘Shop…where you do woodwork,” she said in disgust. “Don’t you know anything about camp?” Apparently I didn’t, because she looked at me with a mix of scorn and pathos.

“‘Shop is short for ‘Workshop’,” she informed me, with a little more patience.

“So is a ‘Workshop’ where you always do woodwork?” I used my most mature, serious tone to sound fully engaged, rather than still smarting over her intended slight, which I was.

“Woodwork and other crafts; at least here,” she added. I took it as a sign she’d struggled with anxiety over being a ‘new girl’ herself, once. “I suppose workshops might mean something different in other places.” She smiled, and I felt a rush of relief and gratitude. Little did I know then it would take me over fifty years to fully understand and appreciate how broad the range of workshops could be. Learning to answer the question ‘what is a workshop?’ is a skill I could never have mastered at camp, nor could I have predicted the importance and impact of it on my life.

Last week I attended my sixth consecutive summer writers’ conference. The heart of it is now and has always been ‘The Workshop’, even though there are many enticing electives and lectures open to all participants; to say nothing of the myriad social events spicing up each day and evening. Still, the workshop is king, no matter how many other subjects are on the menu. This year, for the first time, I felt let down by the process, even though the participants in my group were all delightful, and skilled writers. So what was the problem? The quality of the actual process was wanting; the “workshopping” itself. This time I had a reaction that my years of creating, building and participating in full-time workshops of dedicated participant/writers has produced without my awareness. We’ve raised the ordinary workshop to an art form as particular as the craft of writing itself. I also realized it takes a lot of time and a huge commitment on the participant’s part to respect the significance of the process. Neither one of these requisites is possible in a four day workshop of strangers, no matter how pleasant or gifted they might be.

Why does the structure matter so much? Surely any community of writers coming together voluntarily offers the same valuable experience. No, it doesn’t; for so many reasons I can name, and some I probably haven’t even discovered yet. What I’m sure of is that a workshop filled with experienced ‘workshoppers’ can do more to propel a writer’s craft to a new level than any other learning experience, including a famous teacher in a lauded MFA program. Strong words, I know; and controversial, I’m sure. But I’ve seen the proof in my own workshop and I know why it works. Beyond the desire to be part of a collaborative writing community, what does a participant need to offer the workshop and how can the ‘shop and its participants reciprocate?

  • Responsibility to the other writers and respect for their commitment demands a serious and complex critique of their work—neither a simple pat on the back nor a blow to their self-esteem will have a real and lasting effect.
  • Offering ways to accomplish the author’s intentions, not the other writer/participants’ preferences.
  • Always being there for one’s colleagues; literally (never missing a session), as well as intellectually (your mind doesn’t wander to your own work) .
  • Embrace a variety of styles in both writing and critiquing. Variety is as much the spice of workshops as it is of life.
  • Create and critique fully and on time. Always. No excuses.
  • Don’t use the workshop to enhance your social life. That’s not a workshop, it’s a cocktail party. Don’t confuse the two. The results will eventually be destructive, or at the very least, restrictive instead of motivating.

I’m sure there are more key elements for a great workshop. The list is alive and growing. A very important realization has been that every successful workshop is different and offers its writers what they need in particular. Every ‘shop has its own personality. The trick, of course, is to find the one that’s right for YOU! Some work better than others, and if it’s the ‘work’ in ‘workshop’ that really matters to you, then it’s important to be with writers who are like-minded.

The journey from the end of my first workshop at a writers’ conference, to the creation of my current year ‘round group, has been long and tortuous. Still the points that insinuated themselves at the beginning of this essay are firmly in place. Time and Commitment are on our side, and from the growth in all our writing, I see that developing the art form of ‘workshopping’ has been well worth the…work!

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