Louis Menand, in his 2009 article “Show or Tell?” published in The New Yorker, discusses whether creative writing should be taught while also delving into the consequences of “students who have never published a poem [teaching] other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem”. My aim here is not to tackle this debate, confuse you, or to get into the nitty-gritty of workshop methods but to share my undergraduate and postgraduate workshop experiences. I don’t agree with the idea that workshops are nothing but emotional scarring or forms of group therapy. Even the most inexperienced writers I come across in class are capable of offering insightful and craft-focused suggestions. There’s nothing writers hate more than silence or lack of critical options. Each time I leave a workshop of my own poems, the main question I have is: What do I do now?
The primary difference I’ve seen from undergraduate to postgraduate workshops is the flow of conversation and the restraint from repeating. Though I might have been in the dark too long, UCF Associate Professor Lisa Roney taught me the knocking technique—to simply knock on the workshop table or desks to indicate agreement to a comment, criticism, or suggestion. Prior to implementing this technique regularly in my peer review routine, I could NOT understand the worth of five students paraphrasing the same point. I am so grateful that postgraduate workshops are small yet intense. But how do you choose whom to listen to? Whose advice do you take? What advice do you take? Sometimes there are just too many ideas, and too many ideas can lead to over-editing.
My solution to avoid over-editing is creating lists. We make lists to go grocery shopping, to complete tasks during the workday, or to create some sort of order in the chaos of our lives. Making a list is a great way to isolate major issues in your work. If six of your ten workshop peers are telling you that you need to reevaluate the transition between the fourth and fifth stanzas in your poem, don’t ignore them. That weak transition obviously did not fly low enough under the radar, because more than half of your current writing community thought it worthwhile to mention.
Majority rules most of the time, but you must also remember that your work is yours. You make the ultimate decisions about how your work is absorbed and how you want to be represented. When considering the array of suggestions you’ve received, take the opinions of those that matter most to you as an individual. Last year, I asked mentor and veteran poet, Don Stap, how to decide. In summary, you hear all of the comments, and you can tell who’s reading your poems thoroughly. Listen to everyone, and you’ll soon find you already subconsciously filter on your own. You know the more experienced writers and readers, and they usually offer advice stemming from wisdom, which cannot be taken lightly.
If there’s something I cannot stress enough, speak up in workshops. Literary types and writers come in all shapes: boisterous, meek, opinionated, and impartial. Speaking in public may be your worst fear, but the opportunity to affect someone’s writing for the better is priceless.
Menand, Louis. “Show or Tell.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 08 June 2009. Web. 30 Sept. 2015. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/06/08/show-or-tell>.
Brianne Manning is a second-year Poetry candidate with special interest in body image, sexuality, family, and her upbringing in New England. After graduating from UCF with a BA in Creative Writing, she worked as a Copywriter for a software company and she is now their sole Human Resources Coordinator. When she’s not at work or in class, you can find her refurbishing antiques, singing at coffee houses, and teaching her Border Aussie new tricks.