Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Value of Joining a Workshop

In general, I consider myself a novelist. I write all kinds of fiction and although it is fairly difficult to write, the form I’m most comfortable with is the novel. It is only within the last few years that I have started to write more short fiction.

Sometime in college between homework assignments and daydreaming in class, I realized that I didn’t have the right amount of time to write novels but I couldn’t completely forego my creative writing. I saw the solution as writing shorter pieces and as it turned out, I started to really enjoy it. 

That’s not to say that I’d never written a short story before that, but I had never put much thought into it beyond getting words down on a page. I believe it was my sophomore year in college when I realized that I could use all the various techniques I had cultivated in my novel writing to create meaningful short stories. 

In the year since I’ve graduated, I’ve been unable to find work and so I have been writing like mad. I’ve been working on a novel and collecting ideas for the next one. I’ve written several short stories, too. The problem is that I don’t have a lot of other writers in my life, so I’ve had no one to discuss them with. After several months of this I realized that I needed a writing community if I was going to get any better at this. 

So, I signed up for a six-week workshop at Grub Street Inc. in Boston, called Crafting Fiction from Personal Experience. I don’t think I could have made a better investment in my career.

Where I’m located, it takes me an hour of driving to get to the T stop plus a half hour on the T to get to the class. That’s $7 to park in the garage and $4 round trip on the subway each week. Some would argue (and believe me I wrestled with it too) that this is not worth the money but I believe it is and here’s why:
  1. I’ve become part of an incredible community of writers
  2. I’m learning the craft of writing a short story.
Last summer, I participated in a small, student run workshop group at my college and generally disliked the experience. The other people in the group were decent human beings, but they tended not to follow their own rules. People would show up to the workshop not having read the pieces we’d be discussing each week, or worse, the person who was supposed to be in charge would often not show up without any warning ahead of time. It was frustrating to no end, so I was a little weary of the workshop process when I signed up for the class. 

The difference at Grub Street is that people are paying to be there and they are serious about what they are doing. Unlike in an MFA program or other university setting, you have people there from all walks of life and at all skill levels who genuinely want to become better writers.

Still, I was incredibly nervous submitting my first piece but now that it has been through the workshop process I realize I had nothing to worry about. People in the workshop are kind and supportive and honestly have great, intelligent things to say about each other’s work. That’s not to say that everyone sits around saying useless things like, “I really liked your story,” but that people have specific suggestions for how to improve the story and don’t tear it down simply because it’s not perfect. 

This is part of the value of joining a good workshop – finding a supportive community of writers who will help each other improve.

Already I feel that I am becoming a better writer. I went to college for three and a half years, and though I took classes with different professors, they all took similar approaches to the texts we read, meaning that I got really good at reading texts in a certain way. I learned how to examine how an author treats identity within a text, with regards to feminism, race, or social class. 

Taking this class has led me to understand how authors craft the story. I’m learning to find the meaning of the text – the central focus of a story that all other components of that story lead back to. While these are things that were approached during my education, the central focus of my classes was theory rather than craft.

It is absolutely true that you need to be a good reader in order to be a good writer. Maybe the point is that in college I learned to be a good reader. Now I am ready to begin the next stage of my education: how to be a good writer. I have practiced creative writing since I learned what it was, but now I am ready to begin the most serious stage of the learning process. Now I am taking a class and putting my stories through the workshop process in order to become an expert – someone who is ready to be published. 

The value of a workshop for writers comes from belonging to a supportive community and learning the craft in order to become a better writer.

So, while I realize that this workshop will NOT guarantee me any kind of publication at all, I see it as an essential step in the process.  I have learned to be a serious reader, now it is time to learn to be a serious writer. I think $11 a week on top of the price of the class is a small price to pay. Expect great things.

Have you had the same experiences in workshops?

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