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Don’t Be Afraid to Show People Your Work! Or: You Never Forget Your First Workshop

I’ve been thinking a lot about writer’s workshops in the past month. One of my good friends and I had a discussion this summer about whether they are helpful, and whether I should encourage her to take them.

In full fairness, I told her about the reason I love workshops and still believe in them. I’ve been attending them for years. The first one I remember was part of a summer arts programming series put on by my hometown university. It was offered for kids in the area who were interested in creative writing. My mother signed me up and told me I was going. I imagine it was in the hope that this  would be a good opportunity for me to be encouraged and to meet new friends around town.

The story I prepared was about a Victorian-era girl named Lucy, who was twenty (glamorous!), was a college student involved in a dark mystery (even more glamorous!), and who also had a dashing fiance named John who wore three-piece suits (I die of glamour!) It was probably the result of fervent, ongoing obsessions with Anne of the Island, Daphne duMaurier, and a lot of PBS shows.  

Here are the two vivid memories I have of that workshop: I didn’t have an ending for my story. And, as the group sat around a dilapidated, square lab table, flipping through our typed printouts and our copies of handwritten stories, I was convinced everyone hated it. Granted, I was probably ten or eleven at the time, and the other kids were in middle school or high school. I might have been convinced they didn’t like me no matter what I wrote, because a lot of them wore ripped jeans, were into alt rock, and had multiple earrings. Compared to a seventy pound kid in a kitten t-shirt and LL Bean athletic shorts, they were all way cooler by default. But that anxious tugging in my chest–that awful silence as I waited for strangers to pass divine judgment on words I’d put on paper instead of keeping inside my head–is a feeling I’ve never forgotten. And it’s what prompted my feelings about workshops as a tool for writers.

A. They are terrifying.

B. If you get the chance, and feel brave enough, you should do one.

I’m not saying a single workshop session will make you a better writer. Over the years, I’ve participated in plenty of classes where the group didn’t click. Workshops where I left feeling more confused than when I went in. Workshops where I had no idea how to fix the draft I’d submitted, and didn’t get much concrete feedback other than “what you have now isn’t working.” Workshops where we weren’t allowed to write science-fiction or fantasy stories because they weren’t “real.” I’ve also been my own worst enemy in some workshops. I’ve turned in drafts of ideas I hated because I was too afraid to write about an idea I loved.

But for all of those experiences, I also have plenty of stories about positive workshops. Sessions where I sweated and angsted about a submission I couldn’t wrangle, and my fellow writers said, “Well, have you tried x? What if your main character did y? Why not start the story at point z?” Sessions where I feel I can be brutally honest with the group, and they’re brutally honest with me in return. Sessions where I was also excited (and not just terrified) to put up my work for peer review.

In the end, I still love the workshop model and believe in it. Mainly because it is so helpful, and so important, to have other people see your work. Whatever you produce – whether it’s fan writing, original fiction, an outline, or a bare thread of an idea – being able to talk with a trusted group or trusted person about something you’ve created is one of the best feelings in the world. The story I produced for Athena’s Daughters was done under deadline for my writers’ workshop.

For me, it’s a way to make sure I have legitimate writing output, as opposed to keeping multiple, hundred-page word documents on my computer and tinkering with story bits in secrecy for years. A good workshop doesn’t even have to be a formal class that you pay to take. It can be as simple as assembling a group of your people, fellow writers, who love telling stories and want to see what like-minded peers think of their drafts.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss is about, I say try it. Maybe your workshop will be fabulous, and you’ll meet your people. Maybe you’ll just get a wince-inducing story out of the experience, which you can then trod out at parties. (“Hey, remember the workshop where that guy didn’t spell or grammar-check his submission? WTF?!”)

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AthenasDaughters-cover-front-webConley Lyons is a 2010 graduate of Elon University, with a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing. She is an avid costumer and runner, having completed a full marathon, numerous half-marathons, and many other races. After years in restaurant management, she is currently a freelance writer living in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Her work will be featured in the 2014 science-fiction and fantasy anthology Athena’s Daughters. Find out more at http://lyonswrite.wordpress.com

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