All the Pointers, None of the Intimidation
by Patrick Ryan
Workshops are like relationships in many respects: they can be healthy or unhealthy, productive or unproductive, a fusing of minds or a battle of egos. A healthy, intimate relationship is one where you feel as much enthusiasm for what your partner brings to the table as for what you yourself bring, right? That’s what a good workshop can be.
I’ve been in plenty of workshops that were more about ego than about writing. The instructor’s ego, the participants’ egos. That kind of workshop can be not only counterproductive but damaging to the whole process. I’ve been in workshops where some of the participants are really only interested in being told how to “fix” their work, or where their main objective is to impress everyone else in the room.
But a gathering of earnest, energetic writers who are trying to help one another in a moderated setting? That’s a gorgeous thing, and the big secret is that it can also be enjoyable.
This is important, so let’s break it down. A good workshop is not about intimidation, fear, defensiveness, showing off, being taken down a notch. A good workshop is about exploration, encouragement, generosity, and sometimes tough love.
As an editor, I always try to help my authors find their own breathing space within their projects. I strive to find out what an author is trying to do and then work with her or him to do that. I approach workshops the same way and encourage participants to do likewise.
Some workshops are free-for-alls; some are structured. Mine is structured. I want the atmosphere to be as relaxed as possible, but I find that these things work best when someone is at the helm and is keeping the conversation on track. I really do think that’s the good news, because free-for-all workshops, in my experience, can be disastrous.
Ideally, you’d bring to the workshop a project that’s already underway (whether that means you’ve finished a draft, are halfway through a draft, or are ten pages in, or are about to start writing after giving your idea much thought and taking notes). And we’d do our collective best to keep you fueled, focused, full steam ahead.
Writing is hard work, but it’s also about being happy. We have to keep ourselves actively in a state of enjoying the process. By logical extension, that process includes the workshop.
Patrick Ryan is the author of the story collection Send Me and three novels for young adults: Saints of Augustine, In Mike We Trust, and Gemini Bites. His stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Tin House, One Story, The Iowa Review, Yale Review and elsewhere. From 2009 to 2013, he was the associate editor of Granta. He is the editor-in-chief of One Teen Story and lives in New York City.