Last week, Northwestern hosted a creative writing conference with three visiting authors: a fiction writer, a poet, and a non-fiction writer. In the culminating panel discussion, the writers were asked at what part of their process do they share their work looking for feedback. The surprising answer from both the poet and the non-fiction writer was that they haven’t been in a workshop since their MFA programs twenty or thirty years ago.
In a way, this isn’t surprising. Not all MFA programs are structured around workshops; some are writer-mentor relationships instead. Workshops can be problematic in that so many people give feedback that you get too much feedback, or in that some people’s feedback is just plain bad. Also, once you’ve left that writing-centric community and moved somewhere remote, like the non-fiction writer who lives in Maine, it’s probably a little more difficult to find a workshopping group.
Still, I find it hard to believe any writer could summarily dismiss workshopping as a mode of getting feedback. To understand what your work is saying to a reader, you need to have someone read it and tell you what they’re getting from it.
I was puzzling over this question last weekend in the dressing room of Urban Outfitters, and it occurred to me that workshopping is like shopping. You can try on a top, look at it in the mirror, and say “yay” or “nay” for yourself. You can even tug at the hems, adjust the shoulders, and suck in your stomach to analyze just what the shirt is doing for your torso. But one of the reasons women love to go shopping together (besides the camaraderie and all that jazz) is that we need each other’s opinions. I might think I look dazzling in a certain dress, but my friend can tell me that it actually makes me look like a lumpy potato. More likely, I’ll think I look like a lumpy potato and she’ll be able to tell me why I don’t. Friends are necessary to see the things the mirror doesn’t and to help us find what clothes really work for us. And, like workshop buddies, hopefully they’ll know how to phrase things without hurting our feelings.
Of course, not all friends have helpful things to say (they tell you that everything looks great, or they are too busy looking in their own reflection to tell you anything at all) just as not all workshop members will give helpful critiques. That’s why every woman secretly wants to be on What Not To Wear where professionals Stacy and Clinton will tell us what works and why. And that’s why (I hope) writers want editors: so that they can get feedback that is more concrete that 15 workshoppers each giving a different opinion.
The truth is that when it comes to revising and editing your work, there is no right answer. Your writing will never be “perfect” and nor will everyone in the world like it. But instead of being overwhelmed at the prospect of a multitude of opinions from workshop, as I suspect the visiting writers were, I hope that writers can embrace it as an opportunity to canvass their readers to see what really works and what really doesn’t.