THE HEART of the fiction workshop is the discussion of individual stories. The tone of that discussion and the atmosphere in which it is conducted are almost as important as what is said. The workshop atmosphere can be prone to extremes. At one end of the spectrum are sadists and masochists who believe it must be a ritual of pain. They tend to subscribe to metallurgic metaphors-only in the white hot blast furnace of scorn and contempt can fiction be purged of its manifold impurities and emerge with the hard (and hard-won) gleam of the true metal, the right stuff.
I disagree strongly with that approach. It inflicts gratuitous damage. Some students’ gains are offset by the pain and wrecked confidence of others. Furthermore, it tends to promote the false notion that having survived the trial somehow equates to immanent skill and imminent success as a writer.
At the other end of the spectrum is a workshop decorated with the lace doilies of the mutual admiration society, in deference to each other’s feelings, teacher and students dissemble their true opinions into non-offensive platitudes of praise. This approach can be greatly encouraging, but the writer who wants to make substantive improvements on a manuscript can be left with little to go on. These workshops are like those death-by-chocolate concoctions at fancy dessert places, delicious at first, but after a few bites you’re gagging on the sweetness, and you leave the joint feeling fat and undernourished.
Let us say, then, that the ideal workshop operates in a comfortable if slightly tense space somewhere between the two extremes outlined above. Workshops should be frank but never brutal, encouraging but not falsely congratulatory. Workshopping a story should be a fascinating, complex, interpersonal play of voices that leaves the writer with an enlarged sense of what is happening in her story-its problems, its possibilities, its particular glint of genius.
The workshop is a game of tag: the players take turns being “it.” And just as in the game, the rules apply to you differently when you are “it,” that is, when your work is being discussed, than when you are not “it.” In the following three sections, I address first the role of the reader/responder. Secondly, I discuss how the writer can get the most benefits from having her story workshopped. Finally, I offer some procedural tips to make the thing run more smoothly.
The Ten Commandments of Workshop Criticism
I. Thou art in the workshop neither to praise Caesar nor to bury him. but to help him along to the next draft.
The very presence of the story in the workshop means that it is not finished, and should not be treated as a finished work. Although some stories will be more evolved that others, it is important to discuss every story as a work-in-progress. If you start treating them as finished products, your workshop quickly falls into something that approximates a Siskel-and-Ebert approach to the movies: thumbs up or thumbs down, and then defend the direction of your thumb with catchy praise or insightful criticism. Such a workshop may be entertaining, but it is not nearly as helpful to the writer.
II. The good in a story shall take precedence over the bad. Remember that in its literary definition, “criticism” does not equal “fault finding,” but rather it refers to close analysis of the text from a wide variety of perspectives. This latter is the sense in which a work- shop should offer “criticism” of someone’s story. A writer needs to know how it made you feel and what it made you think; she needs to know what associative chords she has managed to touch in your life. It is at least as important for a writer to know what is working well and why as it is for a writer to hear what may need fixing. And it is always possible to find something good, and something potentially good, in every story. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless story. Yes, I
have seen poorly written stories, poorly conceived stories, but I have never seen a story that didn’t hold some line, some sentence, some idea, where glimmered the spark of real life.’ It can be hard work to find the honestly positive aspect of the story upon which the author can build, but as a good critic, that’s your job.
III. The workshop shall be a conversation, not between writer and readers, but among readers, with the writer listening in. That means that a reader must always listen to what the other readers are saying, and be prepared to agree, disagree, clarify, or offer alternative readings. If one reader plainly misreads a passage, it is incumbent upon other readers to offer corrections, or, alternatives, especially since, as I will soon argue, the writer should not jump in to explain, justify, or rebut.
IV. Thou shalt only partially remember The Golden Rule. Some workshoppers feel that because they themselves welcome harsh, exacting criticism of their works, they therefore have the right to do unto others the same way. That reasoning is spurious. A workshop will have different individuals with different levels of sensitivity. Through personal interaction, a reader must attempt to discern the comfort level of her various partners in the workshop. A reader has neither the right nor the duty to push beyond that writer’s comfort level.
V. Thou shalt not commit the Authorial Fallacy.
The great thing about fiction is that it allows a person to deal with the most intimate matters of the heart, the most confessional subjects, the wildest thoughts, and yet remain outside of the matter. As a reader, the extent to which a fictive event is drawn from real life is not relevant, and none of your business. It is never appropriate to ask the writer, “Did that really happen?” or “Is that really you?” or “Do you really believe that?”
You must respect the fictive veil, even in the way you talk about stories. If a story is written in the first person, readers should always talk about “the narrator” or “The protagonist” and never refer to the character, while speaking to the writer, as “you.” It’s all right to ad- dress the writer as writer in the second person, as in, “It’s good drama that you chose to have your narrator enter the apartment at the exact moment the statistician was swallowing the goldfish.” But it’s not okay to say; “You came in right when that guy was eating your goldfish. That must have been so weird for you!”
VI. Thou shalt grant the author her givens.
As a reader you are, to some extent, obligated to accept the world the author presents to you, and not take issue with its basic premises or impose your own morality or sensibility on the author’s fictive world or her characters. For example, it’s not a valid criticism to say, about a character, “Mary shouldn’t drink when she’s pregnant-that’s so bad for the baby!” However, it may well be helpful to question whether it’s worth it for the author to sacrifice so much audience sympathy for Mary by having her drink when she’s pregnant.
This is a tricky commandment. It is, on one hand, part of a reader’s duty to speak up about implausibility in a story, as in, (‘It seems improbable to me that an intruder would eat someone’s pet goldfish.” But having pointed that out, the reader should offer suggestions as to how the writer can account for the odd circumstance, rather than telling the writer not to have that feature in the story.
VII. Thou shalt speak thy mind with great humility and tact. Remember that the writer has the right to write anything she wants into a story. A reader cannot tell her what to change; a reader can only make suggestions. Don’t say, “You’ve got to change the Colonel. The Colonel is totally unbelievable.” Instead, say, “If this were my story, I might do something else with the Colonel,” and then go on to make specific suggestions. Criticisms should be addressed to parts rather than to the whole. Instead of labeling a story as “boring,” a reader should find the passages where the pace is slow or the action tepid, and make concrete suggestions for how to liven them up.
VIII. Thou shalt not waste time belaboring editing or manuscript flaws.
Workshop time is too valuable to spend pointing out misspelled words or correcting punctuation. Make a note of it, do the writer the courtesy of bringing it to her attention, but don’t waste time agreeing all around the table that “misogynist” has a “y” in it.
IX. Thou shalt be sensitive to the tenor of the discussion.
A reader should gauge the overall mood and content of the discussion of every story. If much praise has been heaped, find something to offer a suggestion about. If the story’s been taking it on the chops, find something to admire. If a significant part or aspect of the story has not been touched upon, bring it up.
X. Thou shalt, not pull rank. If thou art the teacher, thou mayest have writing expertise that ex- ceedeth that of thy students, but thou art beholden to remember that the authenticity of their experience is just as genuine as that of thine. If you are a reader who happens to be an attorney, you may be able to offer some technical or procedural nuggets to help make an attorney~ character sound authentic. If you’ve been divorced, had skin cancer, witnessed the death of a loved one, you may be able to offer valuable suggestions to a writer working with these emotional situations. But don’t preface your comments or suggestions with a special claim to authority based on your experience.
Three Tips for When Your Story is Being Discussed
Much of this advice for the writer being workshopped is implicit in the Ten Commandments For Readers. But I want to make a few points explicit:
1. Get out of your defensive crouch.
It is natural for you to think your story is the best you can write it, for you to want others to like it, and for you to be sensitive to criticism. But no matter how finished it seems, you must try to think of your story as a work-in-progress. Try this metaphor on for size: You are the sculptor of the story. As sculptor, your first order of business is a trip, to the quarry. There, in a rough wall of marble, you see a rude vision of your finished work. You direct the stonecutters to the proper location. You hire the fork life and truck. You get the piece back to your studio and up onto your worktable. At this point, you have already done a heck of a lot of work. And you haven’t even picked up your hammer and chisel yet. Lurking inside that hunk of stone are the lines and forms of your vision-you’re thinking now it’s a Madonna and child. But you still have to set about the delicate and arduous work of freeing them from the rock.
That piece of stone is your early draft. You have gone to the quarry of your experience, used the tools of your imagination to prize loose a hunk, and you’ve put it on the table. Now, before you have at it with a hammer, it’s good for you to listen to the opinions of others. Perhaps it’s not a Madonna and child, but a bust of your grandfather Ignatius. When your story is on the table, take deep breaths, open your mind and heart and imagination, and try to assimilate as much of what
people say as you can. Your business is not to defend, explain, justify, or rebut. It is to listen. In my workshops, the writer may ask for clarifications, but I do not allow the writer to defend, explain, justify, or rebut!
2. Expect conflicting interpretations and advice. If one reader thinks your story’s too short, another probably thinks it’s too long. If one thinks the story would be better without goldfish swallowing, another reader will suggest lots more goldfish, and maybe salamanders and snakes for good measure. One does not cancel out the other. It’s up to the writer to take it all in, try it all on for size, attempt to see it through each reader’s eyes, and then come to decisions about how to attack the rewrite.
3. Try not to maintain an over-zealous loyalty to your original vision of what the story is about.
We often reveal our true themes unintentionally, peripherally, and accidentally. It’s a good critic that can pick up on what’s really at the heart of the story when it isn’t apparent, and an even better writer who can recognize Truth in such a thing. The writer certainly should not retain undue loyalty to “what really happened.” If you’ve used your sister’s first husband, Sid, as the model for a character, Ed, in your story, your primary concern must be Ed’s action and function in this fictive world of art, and not how much or how little Ed ends up truly resembling Sid.
What is the proper response of the writer to readers who have pointed out superfluities and essentials, who have misread and correctly read, who have got right to the heart of the matter and have gone off on endless empty tangents, who have offered suggestions that make no sense and suggestions of dazzling insight? The proper response to all the above is “Thank you.”
Suggested Protocols for Effective Workshopping
These bits of advice are directed to the teacher or moderator of the workshop.
1. Circulate manuscripts in advance.
The alternatives are to waste valuable workshop time reading them privately or out loud. Although there is some advantage to hearing how a story sounds out loud, particularly in authenticity of dialogue, the advantages are outweighed by the negatives. This is a writing workshop, after all. A reader needs to see the work on paper, and should read it several times, in order to give his most cogent response.
2. Equal time for each story.
A writer is bound to feel cheated when the story before hers gets forty minutes of scrutiny, and there’s only ten minutes left in the workshop. For the sake of democracy and good feelings, the time of the work- shop should be apportioned equally to all stories, and the teacher or
moderator should stick rigorously to the schedule. This will often mean cutting short a vibrant and fruitful discussion. But so be it. The readers can engage the writer privately, later, to finish making their points. In the workshop, each story gets equal time.
Although I have previously inveighed against allowing the writer to defend, explain, justify, or rebut, I sometimes let the writer address a couple of questions to the readers, usually at a point five or ten minutes before the person’s time is up.
3. Require written responses from everyone for every story. No matter how brilliant, spoken responses vanish into the air, with only the writer’s memory to preserve them. And with the deluge of information the writer has to handle, it’s impossible for her to retain it all. Therefore, it’s great for her to have written responses to refer to after the talking has died away and she’s at home in front o(her computer trying to rewrite.
Written responses are valuable for readers too, in that they force an articulation of what might otherwise remain vague feelings, and result in stammering nonsensical commentary. A reader shouldn’t read aloud her response to the story, but having written it, she will be better prepared to speak extemporaneously about the work. It sometimes happens that a reader will learn more about the story through the discussion, so much so that the insights she brought to the room on paper no longer seem valid to her. In that case, I think it’s a good idea for the reader to append a note to that effect to the writer, saying what changed her mind and why.
A response form can be useful to a workshop class. It imposes an expectation of length and, by having separate sections, can impose an analytical response. In my workshops, I provide a standard response form for every student for every story, sectioned according to the logic of the Parts Warehouse (Chapter 5). After a story is workshopped, the forms are handed in to me as teacher. I look them over, bundle them together with my response, and give the whole pile to the writer at the next meeting. Since part of a student’s grade is based on quality response forms, students have an added incentive to do them well. A sample of the form appears at the end of this chapter.
A good workshop is its own reward. It is a place where trust, intimacy, and shared purpose come together to create a special kind of family, a special kind of community. Even if the writer never gets around to taking that hunk of rock to its next Updikian level of short story sophistication, the experience of talking about that thing which is so much a part of her and yet so much its own entity can be a most enlightening and satisfying episode in the ongoing story of her life.