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Workshops are Treasure Troves

Essay 3 | Writing & Self-Empowerment Series

By Mackenzie DavisPublished 5 months ago Updated 5 months ago 7 min read
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Workshops are Treasure Troves
Photo by Florinel ZONE on Unsplash

Why should we have confidence in our writing? This is a question that has many answers. Because you’re a good writer, because you’re writing about important topics, because people love your work, because you care… We’re missing something important if we start here, though. The bigger question is, how do we GET confident?

Confidence will naturally come the less distance we put between doing the writing and just thinking about doing the writing. Anxiety is what enters that space, and it will only grow. So, really, practice is what gives confidence, but writers also need accountability in order to achieve a consistent and constructive practice.

In my own experience, community is the key. There is something about being in the same boat with others that can break down your anxiety. Not only do you have a built-in audience, you also have people who understand the process, and who don’t expect you to be “there” yet. You realize that in a mix of different writers, some have more or less experience, some have written more or less frequently, and some have more or less confidence, but that ultimately, you are all striving toward improving your skills.

Once writers have a supportive community, it should follow that feedback will automatically be honest, constructive, and helpful, that the members will be positive, but not disingenuous. However, this is not what happens. People will remain in pure “uplifting mode” and not mention anything that could be improved. Things like typos, areas where the pacing is wrong, inappropriate scenes, characters that don’t serve the narrative, inconsistent tone, genre tropes, etc. should be pointed out. Yet, because these are the areas that are the most uncertain for people, they’re just…not touched. Understandable, but not helpful to the writer who wants to be published one day. Not helpful if the writer has been struggling with retaining readers. Not helpful if the writer is trying something new and has no one to give them honest feedback. Purely positive feedback can be just as harmful, if not more so, than the possibility of hurting someone’s feelings with a criticism. Guidelines, then, are necessary.

Here is where workshops really shine.

But—why?

To be in a workshop is to put yourself in a vulnerable position and learn how your writing affects others. It’s like watching your audience read your book immediately after the purchase; a completely unique experience in a writer’s journey. Writers don’t get that privilege outside of a workshop setting.

And the thing about workshopping is that there are rules. You don’t just barge in, guns blazing, spewing off what sucked about Joe’s story. Like… rude. And you’ll be kicked out if you do that. Instead, you follow the structure: Begin with the positives. What’s working? Go around the circle. Then, start on the questions, the summaries, the critiques. This way, the writer gets to see what their reader was confused by, what they understood, and what just isn’t working. And because all the writers are in the same boat, you wouldn’t want to be rude because, first of all, it would trash the atmosphere, and would consequently result in a poorer workshop on your own piece.

That’s not to say that mistakes don’t happen. It can be hard to find time away from the workshop to do the reading, the re-reading, and the note-taking, not to mention adding questions and a summary to any given piece, and often, two or three workshops can happen on the same day, so that’s a lot of homework to get done. It’s bound to happen that people might come to the workshop unprepared, or at least, not fully prepared, and may not bring much to the table when the entire group meets. I’ve had that happen, actually. I spent too much time focusing on one area of a peer’s story, and failed to list appropriate questions, only to ask a very, very specific question (on the spot) that really wasn’t relevant or helpful to the author or the workshop, and ended up confusing and embarrassing a few people, including myself. Not a fun time, but other people made up for my slack, and I was able to apologize and not do that again in the future. A learning experience. It still haunts me, but it was necessary for my growth and I still value the workshop structure as a whole.

It helps, too, that every workshop I’ve seen has some kind of host or moderator. In fact, I can’t think of a scenario where a moderator wouldn’t be needed for a writing workshop. A teacher, a peer organizer, an accomplished writer, whoever, needs to be there to keep everyone focused. This relieves some pressure, I think, as it establishes a limited authority and aims the people-pleasing energy toward honoring the shared goal of the workshop, rather than the participants’ feelings. That shared goal is, naturally, supporting everyone’s work, and learning how to improve.

Now, I know that some workshops cost money. I also know that the cost can vary, depending on the popularity, renown, size, location, etc. Some are free, but most will cost you. This may put some people off, make them rethink the utility in them. But I don’t think any writer should miss out on having at least one workshop in their life.

After all, we are writers. We must have an open mind about criticism, just as we have to be open to different perspectives, ideas, problem solving, etc. If we can’t accept constructive feedback, I struggle to see how we can reasonably call ourselves open minded, liberal, or progressive…or even creative. It takes knowing oneself in one’s limitations, strengths, weaknesses, and short-comings in order to then give valuable feedback to other people. And honestly, doing that means that what you give will be accepted with gratitude. The alternative—thinking that we are right about, well, anything—flies in the face of creative philosophy. To reject advice or even criticism is a sign of ignorance, and usually ignorance of one’s own weaknesses.

Having an ego as a writer is, simply, counterproductive. Think about those writers you’ve seen who take political stances or who lecture others on the best way to do x, y, or z; who think they’re enlightened beyond their own personal experience. It’s one thing to give advice from learning from our own mistakes and successes, but to put oneself above others—that is self-righteousness; it is ego. We all struggle against it (well…I’d like to think so, anyway). To those who do not know themselves very well, I wonder if that fight is alive and burning. Can you fight what you do not know?

To me, workshops smash this ego, or rather, the pride we all have. The rubble is then reshaped into confidence, empowerment, and constructive support for others; I’ve seen workshops grant humility and generosity through empathy. Some of the best writers I know are focused on supporting their peers. It’s the isolated writer who can easily fall into self-righteousness and ego, as these are the pathways to an echo chamber. Even if you don’t constantly use workshops, what they represent—honesty—works toward the same end—growth.

Just once in your life, I urge you to participate in a writing workshop. It will truly be invaluable to your writing journey in ways that you don’t even know yet. This is a solid step toward gaining the confidence in yourself as a writer, and thus in your writing. This is how you can achieve self-empowerment, and I truly hope you stretch yourself outside your comfort zone. I think you will find there is much to learn and strengthen.

                    

                    

***

A/N: Thank you for reading! Here's a prize:

I’ve taken some time to find workshops around the internet!

  • Literary Fiction Workshop — This one is self-paced, online, and completely FREE. It’s for literary fiction specifically.
  • Online Short Story Writing Courses — Here is a list of quite a few workshops (varying in expense) for short stories. This site also offers workshops for poetry, novel writing, and nonfiction (personal essays and memoirs).
  • Online Writing Workshops — Same site as above, but this is a list of their live workshops (prices are much cheaper), on various topics, like blog writing, narrative and voice, visual poetry, Japanese poetry, flash fiction, revising a novel, etc.
  • Writer's Digest University — Writer’s Digest University has a wide variety of online courses and workshops. Their list is linked above.
  • Don’t forget to look up local and in-person workshops in your area too. Those would be ideal; second-best would be over Zoom (I’ve done both).

You can find countless resources of courses and workshops online if you take the time to look. Some will be hosted by universities, some by freelance writers, some by established writers, and others by online writing companies, such as Writer’s Digest. Thus, the prices will range greatly, but so will the type of course offered. I will say this: Do not start with the most expensive option if you’re unfamiliar with the workshop structure. Oh, and remember not to confuse workshops with courses when you go looking; the algorithm likes to bring up results that mix them together. Courses will be re-recorded, have a completely different structure than a workshop, and will most likely not offer direct interaction with other students.

Cheers, all!

***

Cendrine will be up next with essay 4. Who knows, it could be another 3 months away (sorry for that!) but at the same time, we want to do this right.

If you missed the first two essays, here they are:

Essay 1

Essay 2

As ever, leave any questions you'd like us to answer in the comments! We plan on this series going for quite some time.

Inspiration
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About the Creator

Mackenzie Davis

“When you are describing a shape, or sound, or tint, don’t state the matter plainly, but put it in a hint. And learn to look at all things with a sort of mental squint.” Lewis Carroll

Find me elsewhere.

Copyright Mackenzie Davis.

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  • Teresa Renton3 months ago

    Totally agree with you Mackenzie. I love workshops. I made the mistake, in my first ever one, of just being positive and telling everyone their work was simply wonderful. Not helpful 😂. I learned that rather than being seen as arrogant and full of myself, constructive critique was seen as more professional and helpful. I also realised that by taking the time and putting in the effort to critique productively, you improve and grow as a writer yourself. Everyone’s a winner 🤗 Regarding vocal’s critique group, I’m not sure how to make it work. Once it’s been on there and received feedback, you can’t really do anything more with it. Lit mags don’t want self published work and even Vocal challenges often specify a particular community. Regarding any corrections around proofreading errors, I steer clear unless it’s obviously sought. If I know it’s unusual for that author and was a genuine mistake, I might mention it. I would welcome it personally. Some critique groups rather you focus on content rather than pointing out a rogue ‘s’. I guess it depends on the group. I love that you’re writing these essays 😍

  • Cendrine Marrouat4 months ago

    As always, a wonderful essay, Mackenzie! I really like your mention of the ego here, it's very true!

  • Alexander McEvoy5 months ago

    Brilliantly written, Mackenzie! I particularly liked how you described the destruction of ego from the workshops. Rebuilding your confidence in yourself from the rubble that remains is such a strong and poignant metaphor for it. Can't say I agree with the idea that having a creative ego as a writer is counterproductive. Rather, I see it as a balancing act. The right amount of ego means that you think your writing is worth reading, so you share it with people in the hopes of positive feedback. Too much ego, and you wind up thinking that you're some kind of generational savant who knows all. Without ego, I don't believe that we would share our works at all, but with a surplus of it, we stop learning from the experience. Generally, here on Vocal, I ignore other people's typos and hope they do the same unless it's more a wrong word usage than a misplaced s. Like when people use 'fulsome' to mean complete or comprehensive, I hate that because that word means 'unctuous.' But I always love and appreciate any constructive criticism I receive for my works! Much as I adore the praise that people give me, just as valuable is constructive feedback. I have one story called 'Shrouded meetings' that involves some complex perspective switches that a friend told me can be difficult to follow. So going forward, I try harder to make sure any perspective switches are easier to identify and follow :)

  • I would offer constructive feedback, but honestly I can't think of any. Great article, Mackenzie.

  • Chloe Gilholy5 months ago

    This made me think of the time when I saw other writers say they won't update or write more of their work unless they got x amount of comments. It always made me sad. I've attended some workshops last year and I loved them because the skill mixes and experiences were different and I found we were bouncing off each other.

  • I always struggle giving people constructive criticism because it makes me feel like a hypocrite. I just feel like how can I give someone advice when my writing isn't perfect? However, if there's a typo or any minor mistakes, I'll send them a DM because I feel so bad to inform them in the comments where everyone can see. But if there is no other way to contact them, the comment section it is, lol. I usually use the hamburger method/technique where I start with the positive stuff, then mention the typo or mistake and finish off with something else that's positive. These workshops are a bloody brilliant idea for those who really want genuine feedback. It's so nice of you to even provide a list of them!

  • Lamar Wiggins5 months ago

    Thank you, I always look forward to these essays and this was one of the best. So many points of truth to consider and absorb. I am open to constructive criticism and have had some on vocal without asking for it. It turned out to be valuable advice. I'm willing to try one of these workshops. I think we all are curious about critiques except for the ones, like you said, have to deal with ego first. It's nice to read positive comments, but in the back of my mind I'm wondering how many of the comments are just people being nice when they actually saw mistakes that need corrected. I think one of my biggest issues (with fiction) has to do with maintaining tone and finding the balance for 'show and tell.' Thank you both again.

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