Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

Writing workshop postmortem

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I attended my first-ever writer’s workshop this past weekend, and I thought that some of you might be interested in what kind of experience it was. It was certainly enriching, though not without stress.

I first learned about this workshop when, back in January, I revealed to a new friend (who is the wife of one of Stelian’s coworkers) that I wanted to try my hand at creative writing while in Zurich. Great, she said — she was one of the co-organizers of a writing workshop that would be held in Zurich in May. I should sign up! When registration opened a month later, I did sign up, even though at that point I hadn’t written any fiction that I was comfortable showing to others.

In mid-March, I received one of the most terrifying e-mails of my life: the instructor of the fiction workshop, a published author whose book I was in the midst of reading, wrote to ask us to send “the first 10 pages of your novel” to her and the 13 other attendees in a month’s time. Uh, yeah, I thought. My novel. Right. I’d been writing shorter fiction, and while I had an idea for a longer piece brewing in my mind, it was not something that I would be comfortable calling a novel.

But I worked, shaping and giving substance to my idea, writing to 10 pages and beyond — with the changing shape of the “beyond” often forcing me to go back and alter the first pages. By the deadline, I had 10 pages that I was reasonably happy with, and off they went to the other writers.

While initially I thought that being asked to send my work out to so many people that I didn’t know was simply cruel, I came to see the value in it. During our weekend-long workshop, we looked at examples of published short stories and prose poems and talked about mechanics of writing, but the heart of the workshop was the critiquing of each writer’s work.

Our instructor led the discussion of each piece. The most interesting — and perhaps most valuable — aspect of these discussions was that the author was not allowed to speak. The rationale for this rule is that authors don’t get to defend or explain their work to readers: it simply has to stand on its own. It was like being a fly on the wall, watching a book club go at your work, and when you wanted to scream No! That’s not what I want you to think! you had to instead calmly make a note to clarify or rewrite. Sometimes incredibly difficult, but also incredibly useful.

Near the end of each discussion, our instructor skillfully exposed the seams of each writer’s work and tugged gently to show how they could be ripped, while also offering advice on how each story might be fortified or enriched. I think that each one of us felt somewhat deflated after taking our turn. I recorded this impression in my journal after the critiquing sessions were finished:

…it was depressing to see each of the 14 submissions so quickly reduced to their problem areas. It was sort of like watching as a line of average-looking women are paraded through a room before a heartless model scout who quickly scans them head to toe and pronounces: your thighs are too big; your eyes are too close together; you’re flat-chested; you’ll never get anywhere with that beak of a nose. Our creative efforts had yielded a litany of faults.

A day later, I can take a more tempered view of the sessions. In addition to some criticism (which is always most salient in the moment), we each received written feedback on our manuscripts from 13 other readers and the instructor. And most of it was positive: people liked my character, they liked my story idea. Their comments left me with very concrete ideas about how to take the piece forward.

There were a lot of other great things about the weekend, too: really enjoyable readings by both instructors (there was a  memoir workshop running at the same time as the fiction one); a fun literary tour of Zurich (the tour guide was a very enthusiastic middle-school teacher who, knowing that he had an audience of writers, told some outlandish and entertaining stories that he’d invented about various city landmarks); and a dinner for the attendees at a great local restaurant. It was also great to connect with other people who understand the joys and sorrows of trying to write fiction. Most of the attendees also live in Zurich, though some were from elsewhere in Switzerland.

In the end, I’m happy to have attended; once I recover from the whirlwind nature of the past few days, I’ll be writing on with a renewed sense of purpose.

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4 thoughts on “Writing workshop postmortem

  1. Congratulations Kristen on taking this big bold step – that is the step of taking your “heart and soul” public! My wish for you is that the next person “critiquing” your work is your editor.

  2. Ok then, I can see how “the first ten pages of your novel” would get your attention!

    I love the idea of the silent author as the discussions go round the table. Very powerful.

    Go for it!!

  3. I think you have been incredibly single minded and brave… I hope the story continues to go where you want it to!

  4. You have already created a mystery novel in my mind, but of a different sort! Courage, persistence and see what comes of the writing … such a great opportunity at this time in your life.

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