When you’re an English major with emphasis in Creative Writing, you’re bound to take at least one workshop. I, loving an excuse to write stories and call it homework, have taken four during my college career and have reached what is most likely the end of my workshop life. As such, I feel at least somewhat qualified to share what I have learned about writing, writers, and writing professors.
The first writing workshop I took was an introductory course to fiction and poetry—but the professor wanted to focus just on short stories so none of that meter stuff. It was a recommended course to get into the higher level workshops, because it showed that you had some experience with workshopping, writing stories, and reading and critiquing others’ work. This was a much smaller workshop than I would later get used to, with groups reading at most five people’s stories during the semester. It was mostly reading, but I felt that the text was well chosen since it was the previous year’s Best American Short Stories anthology. I wrote one story that I’m very pretty proud of and used for my application to the higher levels, but otherwise I’m not sure that I needed it.
The higher level courses that I’ve taken have all been taught by the same professor—the esteemed Susan Palwick. I’m ashamed to say that she read one of my earliest novels, a terrible mess, but she did say that it was evident just from my application piece how much I’ve improved so… Her workshops are more work involved than the introductory level. Not only are there at least two stories to write per semester, but there are also responses to all of the other classmate’s stories, reading responses, and writing exercises. That said it doesn’t get overwhelming since other than the stories the work isn’t too strenuous.
I learned that even writers with lots of experience have much to learn. I picked up a lot of techniques and things to try through reading other’s works and from the challenging exercises from Brian Kiteley’s books. What was great about these workshops was constantly challenging myself to try things I didn’t write or wasn’t great at. For my first workshop it was writing stories without horror or supernatural bits, and I ended up writing a really cute romantic comedy type story. The following semester I challenged myself to write serious stories about things I could relate to, which created my story “Eyesore” about a girl with an eating disorder and “A Glint of Light on Broken Glass” about a writer dealing with stress. They are what I consider some of my best work. This semester has been a bit difficult due to my anxiety and depression, but I created some decent works. I refreshed an old story from my first workshop and then wrote another about two Russian ballerinas and the Devil. The stories I’ve written in this class, with some love and a bit more work, could turn into pieces I’ll get published in magazines.
I’ve learned that everyone has to start from somewhere. I’ve seen writers begin with stories filled with technical errors and horrible metaphors and end the semester strong because they’ve been learning from the lectures, exercises, and other students. It gives you so many different viewpoints on your own story, and that helps you find minor and major problems to possibly work with in revision. It gives you new ideas on where your story can go.
Workshops can also be a lot of fun, because these are people who want to be there, want to read and write, and want to learn more about the craft. They are people with great senses of humor, who will be honest with you about your writing, but who will also praise you for work well done. Before I was in college workshops I thought that I was a great writer who was going places in the world with a little hard work. Now I know that I’m a pretty good writer who will go places if I work hard. I learned that I am great at dialogue and work plot pretty well, but I could always use more practice at characterization and setting.
You learn a lot about yourself in a workshop, but I promise, if it’s a good one, then you will improve as a writer. You’ll see what ideas work and which don’t. You’ll see what kind of writing the minds around you can create, and what you can do together.
I’m honestly going to miss being able to workshop stories, but I am thankful for being able to do so in the first place. I’m thankful for an environment that celebrates writing and creative people for what they do and gives them a place to do it. That’s why I came to college, and that’s why I want to study writing.
Plus, you know, it forces people to read your writing whether they want to or not. So there’s that.