Day 22: Anti-Workshops & Icebergs

During my first workshop, I cried.  I mean, literally, cried.

Luckily, I was wearing a baseball cap, and I was able to tuck my chin against my chest as I diligently scribbled notes.  We were workshopping a creative nonfiction piece I had written about my father who had passed away not long before.  I remember the word “Sentimental” and the disgusted way they pointed to a passage and discussed, “Nostalgia,” (though I had no idea why either were wrong).  I remember little else.  From that day forward, I thought crying and workshops were inextricably intertwined.

UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall. My first workshop occurred somewhere in there...

In many ways, I’m jealous of UNM’s creative writing major for undergraduates.  Our students are eased into workshops.  The 200-level course is workshop free.  The 300-course is is half and half (designed to teach them how to workshop).  By the time students move to the advanced 400-level course, they know the drill.   They can hang with the best of them, critiquing like hosts of any BRAVO reality television show.  In the textbook I assigned this semester, Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story, there’s even a chapter dedicated to the workshop experience (though it masks itself as a chapter on “Revision.”)  Other than Billy Collins’ poem, “Workshop,” this was the first time I’ve ever read anything about what workshops could and should be (and should not be).  Needless to say, my students were not as excited about this chapter as I was.

I was most intrigued by what La Plante calls the “Anti-workshop” or “Exercise-based approach to deep revision.”  As La Plante writes,

In it, rather than directly telling a student writer what to do to a piece, I suggest exercises to be done “in the margins.”  What this means is that the exercises may result in text that never becomes part of the story directly, but somehow informs the writer’s understanding of the work.

She goes on to give the following example:  say a piece revolves around a mother and a daughter but the relationship is underdeveloped.  While the workshop’s job is to explore the problem and recommend ways to fix it, La Plante advocates for the “Anti-workshop,” where students give exercise recommendations instead of narrow specifications to the writer.  These exercises should work to “EXPLODE open” the work, pushing for an deeper exploration of character.    Instead of saying, “I don’t believe that the mother and the daughter hate each other,” the workshop might offer a suggestion to “write five vignettes of the last five times the mother and daughter disagreed.  Or, conversely, the last five times the mother and daughter agreed on something.”  These “margin exercises” may never make it into the final draft, but they will work to deepen the story.

Ernest Hemingway, in his famous iceberg theory, would probably agree with this approach.  As Hemingway says,

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

Translation:  The writer’s work is to know 100% about his/her characters and 100% about his/her story.  Even if only 1/8th of the story appears on the page, if the writer has done his/her work, the reader will be able to fully engage with the entire story.  It also means that if a writer does not know 100% of the story, the story will appear flat and unrealized.

Today, writers, in our workshop-free (and tear-free!) environment, why not try writing in the margins?  You don’t need a workshop to tell you places that you can explore, and most of us know all too well the places we find “problematic.”  Rather than worrying, try writing some marginal vignettes through La Plante’s suggestion (5 times when characters agree; 5 times when characters disagree) or perhaps explore other exercises of your own devising (feel free to share them here!) Whatever you do: don’t worry about being “interesting” or “advancing plot” or “fixing problems.”  Give yourself a break.  Remember that writing used to be fun.  Write and enjoy the explosion.

11 thoughts on “Day 22: Anti-Workshops & Icebergs

  1. Sam, I need to expose the little-known fact that you wrote this post at my house last night and looked up from it from time to time to engage in a most rewarding conversation about our workshop habits and memories. I’d like to add that, in the much more detailed tale you shared with me, you had reason to cry — beyond having your work called “sentimental” and “nostalgic.” There’s no excuse for the sort of workshop environment you described!

    Part two is if you want to read more about workshopping, I can show you some chapters from various textbooks. Carol Bly has a fantastic book called Beyond the Creative Writing Workshop. (It may be called Beyond the Creative Nonfiction Workshop — its focus is CNF.) Not all of it has been practical in terms of the workshops I’m familiar with, but all of it is useful in shaping my thinking about workshop possibilities.

    I like the LaPlante exercises too. Her suggestion — and yours — seems especially handy for times we writers may not have the benefit of a workshop or writing group and need to push our work further and deeper.

    Great job!

      • The book’s correct title is Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction. I learned from it, I argued with it, I returned to it time and again. It has info about “empathic questioning,” “junk culture,” the detriments of being self-deprecating, the detriments of bullying in the workshop, lots of info about how to deepen writing, and a great chapter on “literary fixes.”

        And thank you, too, Sam!

  2. This is awesome! I too cried at my first workshop– with Greg Martin of all people! but it was because he said something I didn’t want to / or wasn’t ready to hear, that the narrator ( I ) would never get what she ( I ) was looking for.

    Another exercise I’ve suggested is to write from the OTHER point of view. So in your mother / daughter example above, if the POV is daughter, re-write the scene from the mother’s POV. I think this helps the writer understand both characters more fully.

  3. Girl, I think I was there. If I wasn’t, I was there for other similarly rough experiences in Wheeler Hall. I don’t know where I got this from, but I heard once that the worst kind of feedback is vague and emotional. I find this is true in all arenas, not just miserable writing workshops.

    On a more positive note, I am currently in a novel writing group where we only provide positive feedback to one another, even in workshops. The thinking is that our novels are far too new and fragile at this point and need to be protected. The teacher in me knows how my own students get the most from being told what they are doing right and using the lightest touch when offering criticism of their work.

    • Maria, you WERE there! That was part of the conversation Marisa and I were having last night, particularly the day when we (you and what was her name? She wrote about her mother) stopped class because it was being so harsh on someone (this girl wrote with music lyrics. I can see her really clearly in my head and think about her so often it is ridiculous, mostly because I hope she didn’t stop writing).

      Also, thanks for your comment about positive feedback. I think that advice is sooooo right for a novel workshop. It’s hard enough to trudge on through without feedback. Does this change when you all hit the ends of your novels?

  4. i enjoyed the post and the comments….

    thanks Sam……

    David in Maine USA

    i sit alone on a lonely knoll out by the edge of the sea, the wind, the waves, they speak to me of stories from far away…

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