Monday, October 27, 2014

Workshop Me and I'll Workshop You

I am quite embarrassed that I have not posted on this, my writers blog, in over three months. Well that nonsense stops here and now.

I started this blog to bring blog followers along for the road trip as I learned new things in the creative writing program at The University Of Illinois Champaign, but then I actually started classes at UIUC and my whole world got turned on its wide arse. Unaware of what a "workshop" entailed at the college level generally, at the creative writing level specifically, I enrolled in three of them, plus an American Novel class which required large amounts of get this...essay writing AND novel reading! Imagine my surprise. Class room time plus commuting time plus homework time plus full time farm business time almost did me in.

Now though in our 9th week of classes, I have a very slight handle on what is required of me time wise (compared to having no handle on any of it at all those first weeks) which brings me back here to ground zero, blogging about the process of writing.

For those of you new to the above topic as I was, workshoping is the process of writing text, be it poetry, short fiction or creative nonfiction and then distributing copies of your work to your peers, who then read it, analyze it, critique it, mark it, use it for hot pads (I only did that once) and make suggestions for improvement. They also, if you are as blessed as I have been, will give you positive feedback.

All of my current class peers are 3 or more decades younger than I am and I worried, really worried that I could write anything they might be able to relate to and I will admit, arrogant quinquagenarian that I am, that I wondered what they could write about that would interest me.

Turns out...plenty...from both sides.

Here is how it works for my Intro to Narrative Writing class. Our instructor spent weeks teaching us the basics and assigning great example stories to read. Then we were set loose. Our first short story was to be 15-20 pages. We turned them in, she copied them and we took them home. Three stories at a time to read and be ready to discuss in our next class. We must annotate or write on the story pages themselves and then write a one page summary letter. On the day the stories are  discussed, each student tells what worked well for them in the text and what did not while the story's author listens and takes notes. When everyone has spoken the author is allowed to ask questions or answer some of the reviewers questions and then everyone hands in their letters and the annotated story to the writer. Our instructor also gets a copy of the peer review letter.

Although it can be daunting to think about that many people judging your work all at one time, the process is extremely, let me say that again, extremely beneficial. For example, if 5 of them mention that your character development of the younger brother in your story is weak, then it probably was. If 7 of them say your imagery was fabulous then you might be on the right track with that technique.
The process is very civilized and a huge bang for your educational buck in my opinion. The best part though is that YOU, the author decides what advice to keep and what to toss. You maintain the control but generally a well run workshop where positives and negatives are balanced in intent and approach, will motivate you to revise your story and make it the best it can be.

This of course means more writing, which would explain why we call ourselves writers. Yup, my peers said the same thing. I have a real talent for stating the obvious.


  1. I think it sounds brilliant Donna, terrifying but brilliant plus if you have deadlines, it means you'll be producing lots of, yes, writing! It sounds wonderful - well done.

  2. The deadlines are the best Lorna. I am writing more than I ever dreamed. Some of it is even readable.

  3. Will you share a short story here on the blog? I'd love to read some.

  4. Very interesting post. I took a creative writing class in college (eons ago) and it was actually a workshop, which I didn't realize at the time (or didn't care). Our instructor took our names off before handing out the class writings, so we didn't know who we were discussing. I was glad of that sometimes, I admit.

    1. When I first heard our class was called a "workshop" I thought Sure, no problem. I've been to lots of workshops before; one on making felt soap. another on canning, one on how to catherterize a paralyzed individual. My past work lives made me think I knew what a writers workshop would entail. HA!

  5. Dear Donna,

    I am happy that I chose this blog on which to comment. Wow, what a fantastic class. In some ways I think that it is closely akin to the Cambria Writers' Workshop I attend (and have for 22 years). Everyone critiques, writes to you, but you are not allowed to answer anything or rebut anything. I always come home with LOADS of work to do for revisions etc. And yes, you're a grown-up, you sift through what feels right and what doesn't and YOU make the decisions, not the others.

    For me, I think that simply reading and digesting lots and lots of good literature is a sure way to know instinctively how to craft a good story. You are a storyteller naturally (I laughed when you wrote about falling on your "arse." Anyhow, enough rambling. This can be a life-changer for you.

    I am happy you like the Stillmeadow Cookbook. It sure took me long enough to send it, but I think we drew your name as we were walking out the door for our flight to Maine.

    Sending all best wishes for great good luck (and lots of hard work),


  6. P.S. My girflfriend Janet Brownell is a screenwriter for Hollywood. She told me that you can be a writer, but you're not an author until you put your work out there for people to read. Do it!!

    1. Hello Sharon,

      So thrilled you stopped by to comment. Like you, others had told me I was a good story teller so I of course just sat down and wrote a novel; a very bad novel. That is when I knew, like the drunk who dances with a potted plant at his own wedding, that I needed professional help. Enrolling at UIUC's creative writing program is doing a wonderful job of tearing down my badly crafted work and helping me rebuild it into something so much better without squashing my "voice." I am having the time of my life! I have starting submitting some short stories and poetry and that too is a humbling and exciting process. Now, I'm wondering if there is room in my schedule for a screenwriting class....hmmmmm.