The 7 People You Meet in Workshop Hell

Hell is other people with red pens.

Workshops: They’re like that dream where you walk into a classroom, only to discover you’re naked. In an ideal world, everyone in your writing group would be “naked” as well—open to the exchange of criticism and ideas, while remaining aware of how vulnerable the process makes us all.

In the real world, it often happens that there is at least one person who threatens the harmony and efficacy of the group by cloaking themselves in rude, thoughtless or downright anti-social behaviour—Douchey Couture, if you will.

Workshop Hell: Here’s how to spot the devil you know, and how to deal.

1. The Simon Cowell*

The Cowell’s usually a good writer. He may be an experienced scribe or an up-and-comer with a lot of talent. His true gift, however, is making people squirm, either by double-edged compliments (“I thought this piece was well written…for you.”), condescension (“I usually don’t bother with genre writing, but in any case…”) or just out-and-out attacks (“Oh, that love scene was serious? Because I was laughing the whole time.”)

What’s worse, the Cowell can provoke such an environment of fear that others are afraid to confront, lest their work be next.  Luckily, the Cowell is usually a coward, taunting the new or less confident writer. I say luckily, for he’s easily dealt with, as is much of his ilk, but we’ll get to that in the last section. First, on to the Cowell’s evil twin.

The modern-day workshop is a strange concept, a bit like locking a group of id-ridden two-year olds in a room with a box of hammers and saying, ‘Play nice.’

2. The Mean Girl

...is not really mean as such. It’s just that in the workshop, she only bothers with her “posse”. And you’re not one of them. For those down with the MG and her clique, verbal critiques are filled with thoughtful comments, questions, and a lot of mutually effusive backslapping. Uninterested silence reigns from her corner when it’s the turn of one of the outsiders. These same people will find that when their work is handed back, the Mean Girl will have barely glanced at theirs, perhaps writing a few desultory comments next to the easiest sentences possible (ie: “The dog barked loudly.”— Really Good).

Elie Wiesel said, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." With a Mean Girl in your group, you're not feeling attacked, but you're definitely not feeling the love.

3. The Networker

“In wksp rite now. 2 boring! I am only 1 who is not a total LOOSER!” Lots of people keep their laptops/reading devices open during workshops, offering verbal criticism and tracked changes (emailed to writer) in lieu of printing the work out. But let’s face it, some people are tweeting, blogging, and commenting on their friends' Facebook posts. That is, until it’s their work that’s up for critique, then they’re all ears. Especially if you “like” their story.

4. The ButButButHead

...is practically a superhero! In my experience, he participates fully and constructively within the group, unfazed by the workshop kryptonite that fells so many: subjects they don’t like, writing styles they don’t initially “get”, stories that offer physical description by having the protagonist stand poignantly in front of the mirror for three pages—the ButButButHead can take anything!

Except criticism.

The whole point of a workshop is to get your piece…well, workshopped. But instead of staying silent in the proverbial box while others have their say, The B-head never gives anyone a chance:

“I thought the protagonist and her sister read too much like the same character…”

“…butbutbut, they’re siblings!”

“Yeahhh… however, one of them’s a pediatrician and the other one’s a serial killer…”

“…butbutbut…they’re twins! I just didn’t write that part yet…”

“And even geniuses aren’t allowed to skip medical school and open their own practice.”

“Butbutbut…this takes place in New Jersey!”

5. Tolstoy's Love Child

We all have busy lives: work, family, Candy Crush. And, of course, our own writing. There’s a reason most workshops set page limits. These apply to everyone except the long and winding road that is TLC. If the limit per submission is 15 pages, he’ll submit twice that, arguing, “It’s just that it only starts getting good on page 16.” He also can’t seem to grasp the fact that this statement is not a selling point.

6. Jo Blogs. And cries.

A caveat: not dissing bloggers here; they write for the moment, in the moment, and I personally know talented ones who edit the crap out of their work. However, in most forms, writing from experience, or based on experience, is usually richer when a certain amount of time has passed. One doesn’t have to wait decades. In some cases, a week would be an improvement. The problem with Jo Blogs is that she doesn’t get the math: Writing down your feelings while they are fresh = good. Expecting yesterday’s journal entry to offer something of lasting value to the reader = bad. What's worse, because the feelings expressed in her writing are often quite raw, the Blogster is also prone to getting upset at all but the most delicate criticism. Telling someone they used too many exclamation points in their break-up story and watching them burst into tears = AWKWARD!!!!!!!

7. The Person Who Just Sucks

This person can take many forms. They’re the ones who write down everyone’s verbal comments on their own copy of your story, which they clearly haven’t read. (I had a professor who did this.) They sign up to read first in an indie workshop, get their critique, and leave without listening to anyone else. Maybe they love your writing…until you make one little comment they don’t like. Suddenly, they get all Kill Bill on you. There’s the person who infects every session with their personal agenda (“I think this story would have had a more satisfying ending if everyone had just voted for the Green Party.” “Dude, you know this takes place during the French Revolution, right?”). Either way, this person sucks. The life. Out of the workshop. They’re like vampires. No, worse. They’re like a copy of Twilight glued to your hand so you can’t hurl it across the room.

How We Can Handle Workshop Hellions

The answer to that is in the word ‘we’. The reason the above are so destructive is that they threaten the very group they’ve chosen to become part of. Thus, it is the group at large who must bring attention to their concerns. Most groups have a “leader”, whether in academia or otherwise. In my experience, a carefully worded email to the leader is better than storming up to them en masse for a confrontation, so that the writers who are all on the same page (sorry) can organize their thoughts and have them read at the recipient’s leisure. And then…

The Rules: Review them. Writers spend a lot of time alone, and it’s easy to forget such niceties as listening, giving as much as you take and not making people want to self-immolate. A print-out could be given outlining the rules agreed upon previously, with perhaps a few experience-induced add-ons. Issues such as word count, constructive criticism, etc., can be read aloud by the moderator or in turn, with the rest of the group mightily resisting the urge to give the offending parties the side-eye.

Another option is a group conversation about goals. Why have you joined this group in the first place, besides the fact that you want to get an MFA or finish your book? Are you here for unconditional praise? To feel superior to others? To be popular? It’s possible to do all that in a local bar for far less time and money. An inclusive discussion on why everyone is here might serve to reinforce why everyone is not.

Endgame

The people have spoken and certain persons still don’t give a flying you-know-what. Or your professor/moderator/leader doesn’t want to rock the boat. The atmosphere in your group is as toxic as drinking Molsanto Juice with Ganges River ice cubes, so what now?

Detach: You could always decide, “This person(s) is never going to help me reach my goals, but there are many people in the group who will…I’ll focus my energy on them.” Develop thick skin while you have the chance, before the considerate, cuddly world of publishing makes you soft.

Splinter: I was in a group once with a Tolstoy, who insisted he could submit 40 pages to our 5-10 because it was his group and hosted in his house. So the rest of us decided to form our own. Including his girlfriend.

Bounce: Easier said than done if you are in an MFA program, or in an area where writers are far and few between. Ultimately, though, the question you have to ask yourself is whether the atmosphere is having a detrimental effect on your process. If so, then it’s just not worth it.

The modern-day workshop is a strange concept, a bit like locking a group of id-ridden two-year olds in a room with a box of hammers and saying, ‘Play nice.’  At their best, however, they bring us out of the isolation in which we work, give us a chance to learn from each other’s strengths and stumbles, and maybe even make some friends along the way.

And at the worst—well, at least you have some people to kill off in your next book.


*Note: All names refer to both genders.

Naturi Thomas-Millard

Column by Naturi Thomas-Millard

Naturi is the author of How to Die in Paris: A Memoir (2011, Seal Press/Perseus Books) She's published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in magazines such as Barrow St. and Children, Churches and Daddies. At Sherri Rosen Publicity Int'l, she works as an editor and book doctor. Originally from NYC, she now lives in a village in England which appears to have more sheep than people. This will make starting a book club slightly challenging.

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Comments

Graham Paul Donovan's picture
Graham Paul Donovan from London is reading Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre August 22, 2013 - 11:00am

Great column. I'm pretty sure I've met a few of these.

jcrizo's picture
jcrizo August 22, 2013 - 11:12am

The name dropper... who every time a story comes up has to talk about how it reminds them of a certain obscure writer, then tells you ... "you should really read insert 500 page novel," it would really help your 5 page short story... Likes to say things are Camusesque, Hemmingwayesque but also uses it from unknown people or maybe the staff to earn brownie points.

The grammar nazi. Almost their entire critique is on grammar, nothing about the story. Make an error in a comma placement and you are dead, discussion in the class usually is about these things as well. Sometimes wants to debate the teacher despite the teacher telling them the class isn't about grammar, but creative writing. 

 

Macgowan's picture
Macgowan from New Jersey is reading House of Leaves August 22, 2013 - 12:19pm

Ah, this dredges up memories. I had a guy who refused to provide feedback because the main character (a necrophiliac serial killer working at a crematorium) was "not a nice guy at all." Well, no shit, mate. That was the point.

College workshops also expose you to the Terribly Untalented But Unaccountably Arrogant subtype. One of my favorite lines of all time: "he shook his head, in a back and forth type motion." Another writer included MLA-style citations in the middle of the story, but, lacking better source, cited "known knowledge."

alexchap's picture
alexchap from Buford, GA is reading Tales of the Black Clock August 22, 2013 - 1:11pm

The person who harps about the haiku they sell on their website.

The person who continuously drops reference to the story they have in an anthology that is absent from even the long reach of the internet.

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago August 22, 2013 - 1:31pm

My favorite of the Workshop Hellians are the people that never miss a meeting, never hesitate to tell you they just don't get your writing, always talk about their characters and plots and settings, but never submit a single sentence of  writing.  For chrissake, they're called writer's workshops for a reason. Not a critics training ground.

A close second is the Good Advice Regurgitator. this is the person that's read a book on writing by a well respected and noted author and is stuck on one piece of advice, say, adverbs indicate weak writing, and can only comment when that one little piece of advice comes into play.

Coming in as a not too distant third is the Publishing Is All That Matters writer. These people don't care a thing in the world about craft and art. All they want is to see their name on the cover of a book. I bet vanity presses love them.

Good article, Naturi. Your insights are spot on!

Donald Wells's picture
Donald Wells from New Jersey is reading The Pillers of the Earth August 22, 2013 - 1:33pm

This was a great column that made me laugh more than once. The author's book, How To Die In Paris is also an excellent read and highly recommended.

TheScrivener's picture
TheScrivener from Seattle is reading short stories August 22, 2013 - 1:49pm

I like the workshopper that somehow has loads of time to respond, at length, to every comment made on their story, but somehow doesn't have the time to read and comment on other people's work.  And to make it even more rich, their defense to critism is the classic "BUT, it really happened that way!"

Part of me dies...

Raelyn's picture
Raelyn from California is reading The Liars' Club August 22, 2013 - 2:22pm

What's awful is when one of these people is your creative writing teacher.

Debra Wells's picture
Debra Wells from New Jersey is reading "A Place At The Table" by Tom Colicchio August 22, 2013 - 8:17pm

I laughed out loud as I read the characterizations and habits in each category and all are well depicted.  To my chagrin, this article brought about the realization that I could very well be a Tolstoy's Love Child (TLC) except for the fact that I have never written a historical novel.  The length of this post might be proof enough that I possess those tendencies, however, I would hope, that if I ever did, that I would not grow a foot long beard.  Great article Naturi!

Jon Magidsohn's picture
Jon Magidsohn from Toronto, living in Bangalore via London is reading The Childhood of Jesus by Coetzee August 22, 2013 - 11:22pm

The ButButButHead is the bane of my workshop experiences.  Just shut up and listen for once - you might actually learn something and potentially improve on your already-perfect manuscript.  Sadly, I'm not unable to identify myself in some of these people either.

Keep 'em coming Naturi.  And Damn you!!

Jordan Blum's picture
Jordan Blum from Philadelphia, PA is reading various novels (for review) and journal submissions August 23, 2013 - 11:49am

I've encountered plenty Cowells in my time. I wrote a similar (though much less expansive and insightful) list a few years ago, in grad school. It's always fun to dissect the quirks of other writers in the group. Question is, which traits do we have?

kensmosis's picture
kensmosis August 23, 2013 - 5:22pm

This was hilarious, and oh so true!  I think I've been in a writing group with all of these... at once.    Why do you suppose the Tolstoy is never, well ... Tolstoy.  Invariably, the more they write the worse their writing.  

In the spirit of your piece, I'll venture to add one of my own:  "Yippie the Clown" -- you know, the one who explains how they really, really love your writing and feel it moves them on a spiritual level.  Except it turns out that they also really, really love every other piece of writing being discussed and are spiritually moved by all of them ... including the agenda for next week's meeting.  

Great article!

 

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 August 23, 2013 - 8:59pm

Feeling very grateful for my (5 year strong...is that possible?) writing group right now.

We had one terrible member (TERRIBLE) but they were gone within about 6 months. The rest of us have hung together for...yeah, it must be 5 years...crazy!

 

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading September 7, 2013 - 9:16am

A fine article, indeed.

ronin356's picture
ronin356 from Cape Girardeau, Mo is reading Mark Twain September 8, 2013 - 10:38pm

I laughed at "The person who just sucks." I feel like that sometimes while writing.

Gary Walker's picture
Gary Walker from Colorado is reading Ubik by Philip K. Dick November 28, 2013 - 8:57pm

Nicely done! This also reminds me of a college workshop I took where the Cowell was also the professor.