Writing workshops – are they worth it?

Several women writers I know are off to a three-day writing workshop at a local retreat center, and I admit I’m jealous. Expense was a factor. Still, I could have gone, but I don’t write well in groups, and I’m resistive to the idea of following the directions of other writers, so I took a deliberate pass.

My voice flows entirely differently when I’m alone at my computer. Maybe it’s because of the way I taught myself touch typing in high school. I remember sitting at my mother’s old Smith Corona manual typewriter, fantasizing about the jazz musicians I had major crushes on – Miles Davis and Charles Mingus chief among them. The words flowed from my fingers, and by college, I was capable of turning out twenty-page papers with minimal typos in frantic all-nighters. Then while trying to make it as an artist in SoHo, before becoming an art therapist, I had numerous menial jobs that jacked up my words per minute even higher.

For me, writing in longhand just doesn’t cut it. When my hand can’t keep up with my ideas, my thoughts turn sludgy and slow. The proximity of others close by, scribbling away on their own papers, conjures up thoughts of final exams, wracking my brain for the right answers and scrawling them frantically in blue books. Remember those essay questions, the way you had to watch the clock and ration your time? Time’s usually at a premium in these workshops, too, and you’re expected to come up with something reasonably coherent and contained in the span of a few minutes. When the facilitator asks if you need more time, that probably means there isn’t any.

Then comes judgment time, when the workshop leader inevitably asks, “Who’d like to share?” I’m usually one of the first to volunteer, because I find it hard to focus on others when I’m waiting my turn. The work is almost invariably met with appreciative murmurs, oohs and ahs – I can’t remember a time when anyone’s actually critiqued me harshly. But the impact of the praise is diluted by the fact that everyone gets equally favorable reactions. I’m my own most severe critic, and there’s always someone whose work is insightful and profound enough to make me feel inferior.

Of course work produced in this high-pressure environment can serve as a springboard for more writing after the session is over, as most workshop leaders acknowledge. There’s always time to expand and explore, to mine the longhand scrawls for little gems that can be tweaked and polished at leisure. But I confess I’ve never gotten around to reworking the pages I produce at these events. Instead I stow them away unread until they resurface months or years later, whereupon I scan them and toss them in the recycling basket.

Would it make a difference if I brought a laptop to these affairs? Maybe, but I’d be terrified to find out. What if my random musings were just as mundane and sludgy even if I could type them? My facile fingers argument would be blown, and I’d be exposed as terminally mediocre.

So there’s my argument against writing workshops. Having written it, I’ve got to admit I could easily write a blog post of equal length detailing all the reasons these workshops can be wonderful. There’s the collegiality, the energy generated by being in a community of writers . . . but I’d better quit while I’m still feeling negative, or I’ll berate myself for not signing up for that workshop after all.

What about you? Do you enjoy going to writers’ workshops and retreats? Can you do your best work there, or do you think they’re just a waste of time and money?

7 thoughts on “Writing workshops – are they worth it?

  1. I am NOT a workshop person either! Was part of a critique group early in my writing career but quit because they were so busy handing out weekly assignments.

    And oddly enough, I write fastest in longhand. My typing sucks and it inhibits me. A quiet place with a notebook is all I need.

  2. Hi Betsy and Diane. Yes, I believe writing is best pursued in solitude with minimal distractions. Critique groups are another thing entirely, because you’re not writing in the presence of others. I’ve been in a couple of critique groups that were excellent – they served their purpose well when I was working on my two novels. Both died a gradual death – I miss them!

  3. The best kind of writing workshops are, most definitely, worth the time. Today I read a marvelous description of the best kind of writing workshop, based on deep caring, where “sympathy” is valued, but doesn’t deteriorate into mindless “being nice;” and where intelligence is valued, but doesn’t deteriorate into an “exercise in contempt.” To read more about this kind of workshop where love of poetry brings out the best in everyone, go to the May 31 entry on Diane Lockward’s blog:

  4. I don’t like the kind of writing workshops that force me to write from prompts under an instructor’s guidance. But I love the writers’ retreat sponsored by Northern Colorado Writers where we socialize at meals and have a couple of group activities while the rest of the time is quiet individual writing time where we work on our own projects. I write at least 25,000 words from Friday late afternoon to Sunday noon.

    • Patricia, that’s an incredible amount of writing – do you bring your laptop?

      I like the sound of that workshop, especially the fact that it’s a group of peers without one designated leader. Wish we had something comparable around here.

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