I reckon most writers these days will encounter workshops at some point. Theoretically, it sounds like the ideal situation: a group of similarly minded individuals who have committed their time and energies to their craft meeting to discuss one another’s work, and help with drafting pieces to their final incarnations.
Of course it’s never quite so perfect as that. Personally, the majority of the workshops I’ve attended have been as a part of university course. As such, some of the individuals are maybe not committed to writer, and especially in US universities are just taking creative writing courses as their literature requirement. Generally (but not always) those attending these uni workshops will be fairly young, and finding their feet with writing, sometimes just breaking out of the terrible slush of adolescence scribbling. Even if you are in a workshop of writers who have all found their stride, let’s face it, some of them just won’t write your cup of tea, and some of them will be just plain bad. Yep, that’s mean but it’s true. I’m pretty sure a fair amount of people who’ve been in workshops with me haven’t like what I’ve put on the table.
So, how on earth are you meant to navigate these potential minefields of delicate writerly egos?
There’s a difference between a piece of ‘bad’ writing that can be improved or is simply just immature and will develop with time, and a something that just really isn’t to your taste. (Sometimes there is a third category that is just atrocious, but I suppose that’s just me being overly harsh about category number 2).
My strategy is ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’, so if something just isn’t my cup of tea (which happened the other day, when one member of the workshop presented a piece of utter PoMo gesturing, vacuous wank) I just keep schtum.
If a poem is just a bit patchy in quality, I always make sure to pick out at least two things I enjoyed or admired about the poem, as well as any criticism I may have. Most importantly, there’s no need to be rude. Even if you think something is really shit, and the person presenting it is horrid, remember that this person will be critiquing your work as well!
Terribly selfish, really, but that’s my strategy: behave in a way you wouldn’t be ashamed to tell your mum!
So, dear readers, what’s your strategy in a workshop? Are you bravely and brutally honest? Or more of a tactful, hedging-your-bets type of workshopper?