I feel like I invented a new term the other day in an email–“workshop-itis.”

Defined as: what happens to a budding writer when one is continually in workshop-focused writing classes and one does not react, um, well to such settings.

Let me see if I can explain what a writing workshop is like for those who don’t know. Basically, you sit around a table. You’ve all been given copies of a short story, for example. You’ve (hopefully) read it. Someone begins the discussion. You point out things you thought were good and things you thought needed work. Sometimes you can make suggestions. Often, arguments and contradictory ideas are bandied about. You then hand your read copy with comments written on it back to the writer, who then takes the pile home, peruses, maybe has a drink, and then paces and bitches to their roommate (which is what I did in college). In college, that was how all of my writing classes went–you were supposed to learn writing things by osmosis. It was supposed to foster a sense of community and critique and whatever.

My first workshop was in the summer before my junior year of high school. I was in the Columbia University Writing Program for High School Students. Up until then, I’d written for class assignments and for myself. I don’t remember if I’d begun my epic fanfiction (affectionately known as the Neverending Orlando Bloom fic by my friends) then, but if I did, then I shared that with friends. Truth was, at the time, I hadn’t actually written all that much–at least, not all that much that was sustained, finished, and polished at all.

But at Columbia, it was a whole different writing universe. I had to submit samples to get in. I don’t remember what those samples were.

In the four weeks of the program, we covered poetry, prose poems, short stories, and wrote a scene for a play. We’d talk about and read examples of these different types of writing, free write, do assignments, hand them in, give them out, read, and critique them.

This was where workshopping was slightly painful for me. Yes, I am “talkative” via blog, right? Obviously. Look at the backlog of posts. But in person? Not so much. I was always the kid in the class who knew all the answers but never raised my hand. (Neither was I always paying attention–sometimes I was doodling or writing notes to my friends or scribbling down a story idea…)

Honestly? It felt awkward. Talk about major anxiety issues. We all needed work on how to critique pieces, how harsh to be, how nice to be. I came away super confused. When a workshop feels…weird…it can get combative and divisive and a bit “writing by peer pressure,” i.e., you end up turning in things that aren’t really the things you like to write, but you wrote them because you thought it fit the vibe of the workshop. You write things for shock value because you’re a teenager and you can’t stick to your writing guns yet.

Then someone calls your piece “saccharine” and “pretentious” and you want to choke them out, but you can’t.

Plus, I wasn’t necessarily familiar with dissecting different kinds of literature. I read a lot, but I wasn’t terribly analytical about it. So I’d read someone’s short story and not really know what to say, especially if it was a genre I didn’t read.

Then I went to college, majored in writing, and ended up in a shit ton of workshops. My college roomie can tell you that I spent an awful lot of college muttering over comments I received on pieces in workshop, usually along the lines of “they don’t get it!”

I didn’t have a writing voice at the time. I didn’t have a chosen genre or even a genre I liked above others (I definitely leaned toward historical romances, but I didn’t necessarily want to write them). I was getting better at analyzing literature in my own way, but I lacked the verbal expressive skills. I wasn’t always sure what questions to ask in workshop for my own stuff. I don’t know if I just wasn’t ready for that level of workshopping at the time or if the other students were on a more advanced writing plane than I was or I simply lacked self-confidence or the stick-to-it, blinders-on mentality one has to have to in order to write novels.

I graduated college with a major case of Workshop-itis. Never again, I vowed. At the time, I thought I would go into publishing and maybe write only as a hobby. Then came the recession and no pub jobs to be had, so I decided to write a short story, then expand that into a book that had a freaking ending.

Hence, this blog began.

Even now, the thought of going to a workshop freaks me out. A roomful of strangers? Reading my babies? Yikes! And yet, writers need other writers. I was reading an author’s website and she mentioned being part of AbsoluteWrite just at the time that I was looking for some kind of online community for writers.

I’ve learned so much about writing from the AbsoluteWrite boards and reading fellow bloggers. I still have touches of Workshop-itis, but when I realized that I was going to have to get beta readers other than my gorgeous but non-writing friends, I emailed my WIP to a beta reader I’d “met” through AW and the experience was so much better than college workshops omg.

And just when I was thinking, “Hmm. I love AW, but a more intimate writing group would be really awesome right about now,” I get an email from a blogging buddy that she was putting together a casual, online writing chat group. We had our first session the other night and chatted about our different story ideas and where we were with those projects and such like. It was a fun chat! There’s something about explaining your story idea to a stranger than makes certain aspects come into focus in a way that they don’t when it’s just you, the writer, at the computer, typing.

I can’t discount all that workshop experience, not completely. Not every writer gets that much workshop experience that early on. I’m sure now that if I ever find myself in a critique group or whatever, I’d acquit myself far better now than I did then. Those classes gave me a chance to at least learn how to go about critiquing someone else’s pieces. I learned a few tricks on how to craft a piece of fiction. It gave me an idea of what it’s like to show your stuff to new people. It helped me start to figure out how to analyze stories while still enjoying them as a reader, too.

I should really see if I can find anything I wrote back in the Columbia days. That could either be good or hilariously bad now.

6 thoughts on “Workshop-itis

  1. It was hard for me to critique in genres I wasn't familiar with, too. But yeah, I have to say, all those writing classes really did help with my writing. I can't say I ever want to be part of a group like that again, but I'm glad I had the experience.And I so agree. Talking about my work with another writer really brings things into focus for me. Even just talking it out with a non-writing friend helps. They don't understand, but it still helps my brain organize itself. ^_^


  2. The only writing groups I've been in before were ones at school. I too felt like they didn't understand my genius :p and when they would criticize I would get a little butt hurt. But I think it definitely helped me grow some thick skin – not as much as did, but it was a good start.


  3. It's awesome that you found though–I hadn't heard about it until you mentioned it. I tried, which I heard about through NaNoWriMo, but it didn't really work for me. Glad I'm on AW, though. I've learned so much!


  4. I can definitely relate to this post! When I was in college I went through four workshop classes and it was always so nerveracking, but I have to say my writing improved immensely. Though one girl serisously had it out for me, she was always negative about my work and later was dropped from the class by the proffessor for lack of professionalism. (Thank goodness!)Currently I'm in a writing group at a community literature center and was partnered up with someone older and wiser and her feedback really opened my eyes to my WIP.Fresh eyes, (the right kind anyway) really does help! But it is hard to find a group that's into nurturing your work so that you can grow rather than tearing it down (like some competitive college classes).


  5. I think I had five workshop classes, in different genres. I don't think anyone knows what they're doing in college lol. That's great you had a good critique partner at your writing group.


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