Sunday, 2 September 2012

Writing Workshops

Scott Fitzgerald Gray has been around for a while, doing good work in a very difficult field. Writing is hard, and he is one of those people who makes it look easy, which is irritating. Scott feels that writing can be taught, and we were half planning to argue about that, but neither of us seem much inclined to argument. My own thoughts on the subject are that if you need to be taught then no amount of teaching will help; and if you don't, then some teaching will actually hold you back and can even lead you astray.

I read some of Scott's thoughts on the subject, here (http://insaneangel.com/insaneangel/Fiction/LanguageOfStory.html) and I am quite happy to say that if you don't need to be taught then Scott Fitzgerald Gray is probably the right person to teach you. I hope that makes as much sense as I think it does.  - Chris

• • •

Chris and I recently exchanged a few emails on the subject of the teaching of writing, so that seemed like a good topic to ramble on about. Writing workshops and programs are among the most contentious of issues whenever writers gather round to share stories of our dark art. A lot of people have had great experiences in well-run workshops and love the experience. A lot of people have suffered through workshops that collapse under the weight of ego or a lack of focus. Some people decry the idea that writing can be taught at all, pointing out that many of the best writers the world has ever produced stayed as far away from formal academic writerly training as humanly possible.
I, myself, try to agree with everyone’s opinion on the issue, both because I get into fewer arguments that way, and because I believe that writing can be taught — even as I admit freely that it’s too often taught very poorly. I’m a big fan of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who blogged back in July about the relatively heinous state of academic creative writing programs. [http://kriswrites.com/2012/07/04/the-business-rusch-careers-critics-and-professors/] Her thoughts (which boil down to: academic writing programs are geared toward turning out critics and other academics, not to turning out working writers) are well worth reading, and they echo my views on the subject to a T. In the end, though, that level of high-end formal masters’-program-centric academic creative writing isn’t specifically what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about more generally is why workshopping is, in my opinion, a good thing — and why the reason many writers disagree with that sentiment is that a lot of writers (and, sadly, a lot of workshop instructors) don’t understand what workshops are really for.

Those who take a hardline anti-workshop view typically adhere to a philosophy that writing is always a self-learned art. We write, we read, we write some more, we read some more, and eventually, with time and practice and a devotion to the art based on a love of writing, we get better. And I have no argument with that philosophy, because I think it’s absolutely true. Writers have to write. We make mistakes, we learn, we get better. In the end, this is the only way that great writing ever happens.

An analogy I was prone to use when I led screenwriting workshops was that attempting to become a professional-level writer is akin to a very long personal journey across a very harsh and inhospitable desert — and that within that analogy, a good writing workshop is like a good pair of shoes. The shoes can’t possibly make the journey for you. To be a writer, you’ll always need to put in the hours, to write and rewrite, to read constantly, to challenge yourself by reading outside your favorite genres, and on and on. But a good pair of shoes can make the journey a whole lot more comfortable in the end.

Writing, like all arts, has mechanical aspects to it. Writing has act structure and rising action and dramatic irony and all that kind of stuff. And a writer definitely needs to understand those things in a formal sense, just like a visual artist needs to come to terms with perspective and shading techniques and color balance. And you can certainly learn the formal elements of storytelling style in a workshop, and a good workshop will hopefully be led by someone with formal knowledge that can be shared. But that’s not what a workshop is really for.

Writing workshops aren’t for figuring out how things work. Workshops are about figuring out how things don’t work. Because the hardest part of being a writer is recognizing our own mistakes.
When a visual artist looks at a picture that he or she has drawn, it’s usually pretty easy to tell if the perspective or the shading isn’t working. But when we as writers look at our stories, our sense of dramatic perspective too often gets sidetracked. Because we don’t see the story as it’s written; we see that story on the page overlaid with the story as we feel it in our hearts and heads. The things that are wrong, the areas where the writing falls short, are really good at hiding from us.

But here’s the thing — we have no trouble spotting problems in other people’s work.

It’s relatively rare for any of us to finish a book or walk out of a film and say, “I have absolutely no idea whether I liked that or not.” All of us, on a very primal level, understand story. Even if we don’t adhere to a formal language of dramatic structure, we’ve all been consumers of story our entire lives. Almost from the day we’re born, whether in the form of books, movies, or television, we live and breathe story. And as such, when we consume story, we know instinctively and immediately whether it works for us, how well it works for us, and — much more importantly — where it fails.

We see those things in other people’s work easily. We can love the opening of a story but feel like it slows down too much into interior monologue at the halfway point. We can recognize how having too much of the plot telegraphed in the early chapters of a book or the first twenty minutes of a film made the climax of the story lose its punch. We can see all these things and more with absolute ease — when we look for them in other people’s work.

But in our own work, they hide from us. They stymie us. They drag us into endless cycles of frustration and rewriting, trying to fix something even as we can’t quite put our finger on where the fix needs to be made.
The point of a workshop isn’t the feedback you receive from other people. The point of a workshop is the feedback you give. Your own sense of how other people’s stories hold together and where they fall apart. Your sense of wanting to love a character but feeling like one particular choice made that character too hard to like. Your sense of a plot point that seemed arbitrary, a reversal that came out of nowhere, errors in continuity, misplaced description, a passage that needs to be fleshed out with more description, another passage were too much description is getting in the way of the action.

Hearing other people talk about your work is important. Being able to absorb feedback and constructive criticism is a big part of being a creative professional. But where most writers go wrong in workshops is to focus too much on what other people are saying about their work — and particularly in deciding that they have to endlessly rewrite the work in an attempt to address every single concern raised about it. Because that’s not the point of a workshop.

The point of a workshop is to hone the muscles of the mind that let us recognize where someone else’s story breaks down, because that’s how we learn to use those muscles to see where our own stories are coming up short. The point of a workshop is to learn how to read objectively by practicing on other people’s work. And with that practice, we learn to read objectively in our own work, so that as we continue our progression on the solitary journey of learning to write, we gain the all-important ability to make our writing better.

• • •

Scott Fitzgerald Gray has been flogging his imagination professionally since deciding he wanted to be a writer and abandoning any hope of a real career in about the fourth grade. That was the year that speculative fiction and fantasy kindled his voracious appetite for literary escapism and a love of roleplaying gaming that still drives his questionable creativity. In addition to his fantasy and speculative fiction writing, Scott has dabbled in feature film and television, was a finalist for the Jim Burt Screenwriting Prize from the Writers’ Guild of Canada, and currently consults and story edits on projects ranging from overly obscure indie-Canadian fare to Neill Blomkamp’s somewhat less-obscure “District 9” and the upcoming “Elysium”.

Scott’s latest works are the high-school coming-of-age techno-thriller “We Can Be Heroes” [http://insaneangel.com/insaneangel/Fiction/Books/WeCanBeHeroes.html], and the anthology “A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales” [http://insaneangel.com/insaneangel/Fiction/Books/PrayerForDeadKings.html].

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