The Dysfunctional Workshop

For the purposes of this post I’m going to break the universe of fiction workshops into three categories. First, there are helpful workshops that teach you something useful. Second, there are boring workshops where you learn little or nothing, but nothing bad happens. Third, there are dysfunctional workshops where you risk damage to your writing soul.

Careful readers will have deduced that this post is about the third category. What it’s not about, however, is legitimizing the self-centered writer — a malady considerably more prevalent in the writing universe than the dysfunctional workshop. There is a ton to learn about writing fiction, and some of the lessons you learn will be hell on you. There will be times when you will be so sure you’re right you’ll bet your life and still be flat-out wrong.

Nothing that follows excuses authorial narcissism. Fiction writing requires an author to constantly debate their own weaknesses and biases, even if only for reasons of self-preservation. Because if you can’t police your own nonsense, others will be happy to do it for you.  

The Dysfunction Tell
In general a fiction workshop is a communal organization. The weight of responsibility is borne equally by all involved. Still, in most settings there is a leader or teacher or moderator who assumes the responsibility of facilitating the workshop process.

As another general rule, workshops exist to help you become the writer you want to be. Some workshops have prohibitions about different kinds of fiction — no sci-fi, say, or no fan fiction, or no fantasy — but such requirements are generally stated up front. If you want to write literary fiction set in a particular region, that’s your business. If you want to write genre fiction set in a particular era, that’s also your business. The only relevant question in a healthy workshop, always, is whether you are hitting what you’re aiming at.

It stands to reason, then, that anyone who uses a workshop to dictate their own views about fiction writing probably has an agenda other than helping you become the writer you want to be. Dogmatic beliefs about anything from form to subject matter are not simply inappropriate, they are demonstrably wrong. Plasticity in the language of fiction is an inherent part of the craft of fiction, and anyone who says otherwise has lashed themselves to a great white whale.

Another aspect of this tell is that most people who lead healthy (or boring) workshops don’t care if you pay attention or not. They’re there for the people who are eager and willing to listen and learn. They’re not looking for a fight, and they have more important things to do than get you to pay attention or to care about your own work. As in any social dynamic, people who assert or demand leadership are quite often more interested in acquiring followers than in teaching others how to be self-reliant. As a writer you need to be as self-reliant as possible, because you’re going to be doing the vast bulk of the work all by your lonesome.

Types of Dysfunction
You would think in this day and age that the teaching of a workshop would be pretty straightforward. It’s been done to death, and done at a high level for decades at various institutions, so it’s not like there’s a lot of mystery in the process.

The problem, of course, is that human beings are involved. And if there’s one thing we know about human beings it’s that ego never seems to be in short supply, and particularly so in people who aspire to leadership. Since the leader of a workshop has considerable influence in determining the character, spirit and utility of a workshop, it stands to reason that you want to avoid people who are in it for themselves — or out to lunch. To wit, here are five types of workshop leaders to watch out for:

  • The Dictator
    This workshop leader believes there are rules that must never, ever be broken. Since it’s already established beyond any doubt* that this is not true, you might wonder how someone like this can end up leading a workshop. The usual answer is that they’re an academic first and a writer second. Nobody who is a writer first would ever knowingly give up the right to do whatever they need to do in the service of their craft. But because an academic’s job is to stake out positions on criticism and literature (meaning the work of other writers), they may also project those career-sustaining views onto you and your work.

     

    For example, I recently learned of a workshop leader insisting that g’s are “no longer dropped in literary fiction” as a means of representing regional dialogue. It’s true that endless truncations and contractions can make reading impossible, but that’s an argument about maintaining suspension of disbelief and keeping the reader in the story. To solve that problem the trend is to drop g’s or otherwise alter language sparingly, so as to impart the flavor of the dialect without requiring the reader to learn a new language. Flatly stating that g’s are “never dropped in contemporary literature” is pomposity masquerading as knowledge. If you’re writing a story about people who live in a region that doesn’t speak Ivy-League English, that needs to come through in your story. If dropping a few g’s does that, then you do that.

  • The Boss
    This workshop leader wants you to do what you’re told. Usually found in workshops where a grade is on the line, the Boss often appears during revisions, making it clear that if you don’t acquiesce to their personal notes you’re going to suffer consequences. Forget the fact that workshops should be pass/fail, or that the criteria for failing or getting a letter grade should be output and effort. Bosses are only interested in compliance. If you’re a good little monkey, you get an A.

     

    The problem with a workshop leader telling you how to fix your story is that that’s not their job. There’s no ward full of sick children who will be cured by the fiction you’re writing; no rocket waiting for your prose to fuel a mission to Mars. A workshop leader’s goal is not to manage your output for the welfare of others, but to help you become the best writer you can be. Writing your stories for you doesn’t accomplish that, and it may impede your development.

  • The Purist
    Purists believe there’s one valid way to write fiction and everything else is crap. Some purists are traditionalists, favoring familiar forms and dismissing experimentation. Others are prophets, determined to lead the flock to the promised land of a new experimental style. The common bond between them is that they’re not interested in helping you become the writer you want to be, they’re interested in turning you into the kind of writer they revere.

     

    Not surprisingly, Purists, like Bosses, tend to show up in academic settings. If the Purist has enough pull an entire MFA program can become populated with selected or self-selecting writers who follow the Purist’s lead. While it might be legitimate to see such programs as a ‘school’ of fiction, in the sense that everyone is exploring similar craft ideas, the responsibility of a workshop leader is always to help writers discover themselves. The likelihood that a workshop full of writers would follow the same path if a Purist had not been leading the way is small. (I can think of one MFA program that has been driven so far into the experimental wilds that it seems to have lost touch with reality.)

  • The Vessel
    This type of workshop leader borders on the occult. Convinced that writing comes from a muse, and that it can only be accessed by supernatural or spiritual means, the Vessel spends a great deal of time talking about process, and very little time talking about craft. To the extent that learning how one writes is half the battle this approach might seem to have some utility, but it doesn’t precisely because it promotes dependency on the part of the writer.

     

    In college my first playwriting workshop began with ten minutes spent listening to soothing music, followed by a period of unprompted freewriting. The idea was that we needed to loosen up creative muscles that — apparently — were badly cramped from disuse. As soon as the class was over I went to the teacher of another playwriting section and asked if I could change, and thankfully the answer was yes. (While I’m on the subject, I never had to deal with any of these dysfunctional types at Iowa. All of my workshop leaders were properly supportive and focused on craft.)

    The point here is not that soothing music doesn’t help, or that we don’t all need ways to access our creativity. Rather, it’s that those concerns are properly outside the realm of writing instruction, and more closely allied with writing as a religion. If that’s the way you want to approach the craft, I can’t argue with you. What I can tell you is that you’re going to be hard-pressed to solve your writing problems with faith. Writing techniques and craft knowledge are to fiction writing what hoses, axes and ladders are to putting out fires. And you don’t see firepersons standing around a fire waiting for a muse to show up.

  • The Absentee
    This workshop leader is phoning it in. Maybe they’ve given up, maybe they don’t care, maybe they’re just doing it for the money. In any case, Absentees create a power vacuum at the top, which will immediately be filled by the biggest loudmouth or know-it-all in the workshop. Needless to say, long-winded stories, theoretical explanations and arguments tend to increase, while craft knowledge and reader feedback decreases — in large part because everyone else also ends up sitting on their hands.

     

    And that’s really the tragedy of letting the inmates run the asylum. So many people in workshops are afraid, intimidated, or just plain lost that a steady hand is required. Abdication of the moderating function in a workshop turns most of the members into implicit competitors, who are in turn dominated by those few members eager to make the competition explicit.

There are other issues you might run into — sexual harassment, bullying, belittling or other such abuses of power — but those would probably be apparent to anyone. As a general rule, workshops should be safe, supportive environments. If yours isn’t, at a minimum you should consider withdrawing, and if so moved you should report the abuse.

Surviving Workshop Dysfunction
If you find yourself in a workshop that looks dysfunctional, you have a couple of choices. If you identify the problem in short order you can change to another section or drop the workshop and hope there is no penalty. (Just because you signed up it doesn’t mean you’re morally obligated to accept someone else’s literary religion, particularly if those views were not made clear up front.)

If the dysfunction only becomes apparent when the workshop is underway, the question is one of survival. Protecting yourself as a writer can at times be as important as revealing or risking yourself, and all the more so for writers who are just learning the craft — who are, unfortunately, the least likely to understand the danger. In situations where a power dynamic is unequal — whether you’re a lowly student or worker, or some poor bastard at the end of a gun — I generally think whatever you can do to survive is okay. If humoring a dysfunctional workshop leader gets you a good grade I’m fine with that, as long as the goal is protecting yourself and your work. Slacking or sucking up simply to get by is lame, but more than that it only hurts your own development.

If you run into a Dictator you can simply follow their ‘rules’ until you’re free of their tyranny. Bosses can easily be defeated by demonstrating compliance until the grade is recorded, after which you can burn the draft they insisted on. Purists are insufferable in the way that all snobs are insufferable, and just as easily manipulated. Vessels are usually benign, and overwhelmed with their own suffering. A deft mix of sympathy and commiseration will probably do the trick. As for Absentees, they present an opportunity to practice your group-dynamic skills, provided you can keep your own ego in check.

The goal in all of this is protecting yourself against people who are trying to take control of your writing. Nobody — nobody – who has your best interest at heart as a writer will ever tell you what to do, let alone make you do it.

* Yes, there are general and specific rules about fiction writing. But there aren’t any rules that can’t be broken if it’s critical to the effect you’re trying to achieve. So when people say ‘there are no rules’, what they really mean is ‘there are no inviolate rules that apply in all instances throughout the universe’.

If that’s too abstract, consider this. A red light is a rule. It means stop and wait for a green light. But if it’s two in the morning and you’re trying to get your child to the emergency room, and there’s no traffic, and you slow down and clear the intersection, are you really, really, really going to wait for the green? No. You’re going to put the welfare of your child ahead of that particular traffic law, because doing anything else would be a crime.

In writing you can break any rule. You just better have a damn good reason.

 

This is a reprint from Mark Barrett‘s Ditchwalk.

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