There is so much cultural lore and publishing cachet attached to fiction workshops these days it’s hard to remember that workshops exist to server a utilitarian, craft-driven purpose. Leaving aside questions about the quality of a particular workshop, the history of a given program, or any famous alumni or participants who attended or currently participate, workshops as a process are important to writers because they provide useful and timely feedback that cannot be replicated in any other way.
Again, with emphasis: a fiction workshop is a tool that has proven useful to authors. Workshops exist to serve the needs of writers at a critical time, often at the end of a first, full, good-as-you-can-get-it draft, and not the other way around. If you are smart — and by smart I mean genuinely committed to learning your craft as a means of expressing your art — you will never, ever forget that. If you are not smart you will embrace workshops as a social destination, as an artistic echo chamber, as a church, or as a market. (I’ll have more to say about all that in a subsequent post.)
Just as a ratchet both solves and speeds the problem of turning a nut or bolt, a writing workshop is, in theory, the best possible way for a writer to determine if the words they wrote hit or missed the literary target they were aiming at. I say “in theory” because there are always ways in which a workshop can fail a writer in this quest. I say “best possible” because any other mechanism (and believe me, they’ve all been tried) inevitably introduces even more potential for confusion, error and abuse.
The reason a fiction workshop works, and generally works better than any other method of settling the question of authorial intent and accuracy, is the same reason that any broad-based sampling works. By providing more responses to the author, outliers are marginalized and there is at least the possibility that an informative consensus may emerge. As it was put to me in my very first workshop (paraphrasing):
If ten people (out a workshop-normal fifteen or sixteen) agree on a particular concern, it’s probably something you should take a look at.
And that’s it. The super-mystical reason why workshops are valuable is because they help authors focus on what worked and what didn’t work, and no other process provides the same kind of debate and response. The best you might do otherwise would be to send your work to fifteen people yourself, then compare the responses, but that would cost you considerably more time while precluding any discussion among the respondents.
Obviously, frequent participation in writing workshops may help speed the overall development of a writer simply because feedback can be delivered and processed faster and in a more concentrated way. This does not mean, however, that workshop-centric writers are better, or that participating in workshops is necessary for a writer to be able to grow.
The only way to know if a writing workshop will be helpful to you is to try one. In the next post I’ll talk about how workshops work and how you can get the most out of one.
— Mark Barrett