Wednesday, December 1, 2010

12 01 10 WRITING - Writer Workshops: The Art of Listening

I’ve decided to start a short, semi-regular series on writer workshops. I’ve been attending a workshop in South Florida regularly for about four years. I’ve also belonged to a couple of satellite workshops in between, and while getting my MFA degree in creative writing, I’ve attended class workshops which are de rigueur as part of the curriculum.

For anyone who doesn’t belong to a writer workshop, basically they are a focus group. A set of like minded individuals – writers – get together. Those with stories distribute them and at the following meeting they are individually critiqued, usually under the direction of a head or leader of the group. That’s the formal definition. The informal definition is that they’re basically Hell’s Kitchen without the food.

Workshops can take the toughest egos and sledge hammer them until they feel like the leather launch pad of one of those carnival ring the bell games. It’s happened to me plenty of times.

Let me state up front that though I have a love/hate relationship with workshops, I’m a big believer in them. The reason is simple and I’ll get to that eventually, but what I want to write about now is a topic that I consider one of the most important when attending a workshop: the art of listening.

The wisest writers will sit silently and take notes while they are being skewered. It sounds easy to do but it’s not. My first instinct for a long time was to jump up and say, “No, no, no! You don’t get it. My character isn’t insecure she’s a deep thinker.” I confess, I still have the urge now and then to do it.

But, here’s the thing, it’s not important what I think, it’s what the reader thinks. If a group of your peers tells you your character comes across as insecure then that’s probably the case and you should be thinking about ways to counter-balance that impression through a revision, instead of defending it.

In my experience, the worse thing a writer can do is speak up and defend themselves for two reasons: the first is – and I speak from experience – when I see someone protesting it tells me they don’t really want to hear anyone’s opinion. That causes me (and others that I know) to keep quiet. Now, I may not have valuable insight to the story, but on the other hand I might be the guy who says, “You know, I wonder what would happen if instead of having Mary take her lamb home, maybe it could follow her to school.”

The second reason to resist speaking up, even if to defend a small point, is that it stops the natural flow of discussion among the others. Many times, as I’ve listened to my pieces being critiqued, someone will state an opinion or idea and someone else will take it to another area or expound upon it and it will develop into something wonderful that I would have never thought of. If I had spoken up earlier and stopped that brain storming it would have never developed.

Remember, you don’t have to accept anyone’s opinion. If you don’t like what they say then ignore it, but if you don’t listen to what they have to say you’ll never know if it was good or bad.

Happy writing. See you at the next workshop. I’ll be the one with my listening cap firmly strapped to my head.


  1. Great post! I think this should be circulated and posted on the wall in every workshop classroom!

  2. Excellent post, and dead-on. When someone pushes back on one of my critiques, I always say, "I guess you're right," and stop reading their stuff. There is another side to the implied contract between writer and critique-giver: The critique-giver should try to treat the writer with respect, even if the work itself cries out to be savaged. (And even when the writer deserves to be slapped.)

  3. Thanks Corey! That means a lot to me.


    Excellent point about the critique-giver. It's one of the topics I plan on addressing.