So You Want to Join a Writing Group Part I: Not So Much with the Talking
When I was in my MFA program, there were only two non-negotiable rules of the workshop. The first was that we should always begin a critique by saying something positive about the work under discussion. This was nothing new to me, and it made good sense. After all, it’s just as easy to find weakness in the works of others as it is difficult to detect it in my own, so taking that extra analytical step forces me out of my comfort zone.
Coming up with something positive about someone else’s work—a comment more substantial than, say, “Hey, I loved your font choice” or “Buddy, sweet paragraph breaks”—makes me work my brain, too. And that’s always a good thing, right?
The second rule of workshop was the one I found troubling, though, and it wasn’t just me who felt that way. No one actually came out and said anything about it, mind you, but the feeling of dread was there. All the new people exchanged nervous glances across the workshop table, especially those of us who’d been in other workshops before. We knew what was coming.
This was the second rule: The person whose work was being discussed was to remain quiet during the entire session. For around forty-five minutes, while the other workshop participants were tearing your beloved story fifty ways from Sunday, all you could do was sit there like the Buddha and let it happen, taking notes like your heart wasn’t breaking into a million bits.
How could we be expected to keep quiet during a critique? It was all so unfair. We knew all the intricacies of our stories, and these people didn’t have a clue. Things needed to be explained—plot points, character quirks, dialogue oddities, continuity notes. Sorry, nope. No talking, defending, explaining, rationalizing, apologizing, protesting, complaining, cursing, or rolling of the eyes. Well, nothing was explicitly stated about the eye rolling, but I’m sure it was unofficially discouraged.
As you may have already guessed, this story has a happy ending. Skip ahead about one week into residency, and I began to get an inkling of what I’d soon come to know for a fact. Of all the things I took away from my MFA, the workshop “gag order” was one of the most illuminating and liberating concepts I learned.
Here’s the rationale: If you’re talking, or if you’re preparing to talk, chances are good that you’re not listening, and if you’re not listening, you’re missing out on the entire reason you came in the first place. At some point, your work has to stand or fall on its own.
Yes, keeping your mouth shut is difficult, and at times, it’s downright agonizing. It goes against every instinct we possess, both as writers and as humans. We feel the need to validate ourselves and justify the hours we’ve invested in our creations. Keeping quiet while being critiqued is one of the most uncomfortable things we can do, but it’s worth it.
Plus, once you get over the initial weirdness of not talking, not to mention the feeling that you’re about to go supernova, you’ll start to notice that you’re internalizing the comments people are making. You’ll also realize it doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with the criticisms. That’s beside the point, in fact. The point is that you’re in a workshop to gain a new perspective on your work, not to defend your writing choices. Your writing either speaks for itself or it doesn’t.
The writing workshop gag order isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t the only way to run a workshop, but it’s worth a try. One caveat, though. If you decide to implement this practice in a writing group, it works best if everyone agrees to play by the rule. Finding those willing participants is just one part of tracking down the right group of people who want to talk seriously about writing.
And don’t worry. If you absolutely can’t resist explaining your work, you can wait until after the workshop and let it fly. You’ll have plenty of time then.
* * *
One of the most important and beneficial things an artist can do is join a community with others who are doing similar things. Writing groups aren’t right for all writers, and finding the perfect fit can be a difficult process, but the potential rewards are well worth the effort. This piece is one of a five-part series on the ins and outs of navigating writing groups.