Clarion: Workshopping

(Note: This is part of a series of posts about Clarion 2017. Other posts so far are Clarion: Application and Clarion: Planning.)

Most of you thinking about applying to Clarion have probably participated in some sort of writing workshop format before. Our year stayed almost 100% to a format modeled after the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (and others): written critiques, and in-person round table critiques where the writer stays silent and the critiquers each have 2 minutes. If someone has already said something you were going to say, it’s better to say “ditto Jane on the wanting more interiority” (or whatever) and move on to something that hasn’t been addressed yet.

So how to prepare? First and foremost, and I can’t believe it took me so long to figure this out, but the most valuable part about workshop is not getting your piece workshopped.

Let me say it again: the most valuable part about workshop is not getting your piece workshopped.

I know, it sounds counter-intuitive. And don’t get me wrong, it is a gift BEYOND RUBIES to have 18 super-smart brains picking apart your submission. But what you learn to do, as your critique 3-4 stories a night, is you actually learn to READ a short story in your own way.

We’ve all heard about how each writer has their unique voice, right? Just as important, I discovered, is your unique PERSPECTIVE. You’re going to pay attention to things, notice things, that no one else does. You’re going to start building a pattern of how you read stories, and you’re going to start understanding what’s important to you, what drives you, what questions you’re driven to ask over and over again.

And that is going to be way more valuable in the long run than the critiques you get on your 5-6 submissions. You will have a chance to build up your individual critical faculties and practice them over and over again, every day, for six weeks.

So, to prepare: embrace the experience. If you have a choice between skipping workshop to work on a submission and turning in a crappier story so you don’t miss workshop, try to not miss workshop. Your crappy story is a) probably better than you think anyway and b) an exercise and no one cares if it fails. You’re here to learn. You learn by attending workshop.

Okay! Other tips!

When giving crits:

  1. Be generous. Remember that you are reading what is almost certainly a FIRST draft. We all only have a week to create our stories, so remember that. Don’t waste your energy on things like tense confusion and grammar. (If it’s a persistent tic, note it, and move on.) Try to see the shape of the story and the direction you think it’s going to go (especially if the ending is rushed, as will often be the case.)
  2. Writing a summary of what you think the story is about is HUGELY helpful. It sounds simple, but it can give shape to your thoughts (and is also really valuable for the writer to hear.) Note any themes that stand out to you. Sometimes when I wasn’t sure how to approach a crit, I’d just start writing a summary and that would often trigger ideas to explore.
  3. If someone’s already said what you were going to say, don’t repeat it.
  4. Don’t feel like you have offer things to fix. Sometimes a work is really close to done and you can say that! Don’t get nitpicky because you feel like you have to criticize something!
  5. And on that same tip, don’t crit technical issues like spelling or basic grammar! That’s all stuff that can be learned, or fixed in a proofreading/copy edit pass.

When getting crits:

  1. Be gracious! Your classmates spent a lot of time and care in preparing your crit. Smile and say thank you, even if you’re sure they’re wrong.
  2. And to that point, they could totally be wrong and that’s ok. Feel free to ignore any piece of crit you get — or all of it, for that matter. trust your instincts.
  3. Don’t defend your work. Just listen and absorb.
  4. Be open-minded. Sometimes the crits I thought were most out there ended up yielding the most interesting ideas.
  5. And finally, don’t feel like you have to review the crits right away. Sometimes they’ll take awhile to settle in. Take your time. Ponder, Reflect. Then trust your instincts about what to do.

Okay great! Next time, I’ll talk about what I wished I’d brought with me.