My favorite classes in college and graduate school were undoubtedly my creative writing workshops. At the large public universities I attended, they were an oasis of humanistic growth and communal support. I was able to develop my craft while also getting to know like-minded peers, some of whom have become lifelong friends. I had not taken a workshop or had much time to write at all since graduating from my MA in Creative Writing program, but when the pandemic and the shutdowns started, I had a strong urge both to write and to seek out connections to my writer friends whom I had lost touch with. So, I organized a free, do-it-yourself online writing workshop over Google Meet this summer with friends and acquaintances I met on social media.
I learned from this experience that I didn’t need the official stamp of approval from a university to create a communal environment where peers could share their work with one another, receive feedback, and bond over the experience of writing during a pandemic. However, having participated in many types of writing workshops before, including university courses and weekend writing retreats, I can see that this type of do-it-yourself workshop is not a panacea. There are some things you just can’t replicate online, and there will be some missed insights when there is no established author in the room. Here are some of the pros and cons that I discovered from this experience.
- It’s free. I have no objection to established authors and poets who make their living from writing workshops. It is only fair that the people who have the most expertise should be able to charge for it. But for people on a budget during a pandemic, like me and my friends, it’s a hard sell to pay several hundred dollars for a weeklong online workshop or to pay tuition at a university for a part-time creative writing program. I have paid for workshops in the past, and I think those workshops were absolutely worth the price, but I also think that banding together with your friends to create a writing group is also valuable because it is accessible to everyone who has the time to do it.
- You can receive genuine feedback without external pressures of grades or competition. When I was teaching creative writing during grad school to undergraduates, one of things I liked the least about it was having to assign a letter grade to people’s creative writing. It left me with an icky feeling. I worried that I was just giving high grades to students who adhered to my literary aesthetic. In my online writing workshop, no one had to worry about pandering to the professor’s tastes because there is no professor. We also didn’t feel like we were competing for the favor of the professor or the institution, as grad students in MFA programs often must do to secure fellowships or book deals. We were genuinely interested in helping each other improve, and we could also be explicit about our vision of what we want our writing to accomplish. That way, we could give each other the feedback that we needed to steer ourselves in the direction we want to go. It’s more democratic, although it is not immune to the pitfalls of people’s tastes. I know the MFA workshop has been critiqued before for marginalizing writers of color and women because it prioritizes the perspective of the dominant culture in advising people what literature should sound like. Since all the people in my group are shaped by dominant American literary culture in one way or another, we probably still passed on some of those biases in our feedback. Nevertheless, I tried to establish at the beginning of the workshop that if someone objected to advice they are being given, even if it was a view shared by several people in the workshop, they were free to raise their objections or even to speak in their own workshop if they felt the need to.
- Another major advantage to setting up your own workshop is being able to set your own rules and norms for the group collectively. At the first meeting of my writing workshop online we discussed what we thought should be the norms of our group and why. This probably should be a feature of most writing workshops, regardless of the setting and who is hosting them, but this was the first time I was in a workshop where I felt everyone had a voice in creating the agreements on how much people should submit and how often, whether the writer should be able to talk during their portion of the workshop, and how we would approach sensitive topics. I try to create community agreements like these with my high school students whenever we are having a discussion, so it felt natural to do so for the writing group as well. After having many writing professors who swear by certain aspects of the workshop and craft being inalienable, it was nice to have the flexibility to make our own decisions.
- You have a reason to hang out with other writers once a week. Many of us writers are introverts, although, not all, but even for the introverted it can feel like a Godsend to have structured social time planned into your schedule. I have hardly socialized with anyone in person for 6 months. It was really rewarding to get to know some new acquaintances who joined my online workshop through friends of friends and to forge deeper connections with friends I’ve had for years who live far away.
- Your workshop is only as good as the writers you invite into it. I wouldn’t recommend creating a DIY workshop to writers who have not participated in a writing workshop before in any setting. If there are a few less experienced writers in the group, you will probably be fine, but if you’re relying on your peers in the group to critique your writing, you need them to have some experience with creative writing and some knowledge of craft because you are relying on them for support. Alternatively, you could incorporate readings from a book on writing such as Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich (an excellent resource, in my opinion) into your group to give you insight if everyone in the group is a beginner, but it wouldn’t be the same as having the mentorship of folks who have been in the writing world for a while.
- Online meetings can feel awkward at times. By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the strange pauses that accompany online meetings, where you want to speak, but you’re not sure how to signal that you want to talk. You signal that you are ready to talk by turning on your mic, but then your sound and video are delayed for a few seconds, so by the time you start talking, someone else is speaking too. It’s harder to establish a rhythm when you’re discussing a piece in an online workshop, but using an online platform does have advantages as well. I’ve noticed that the chat function makes it easier for people to echo people’s ideas or express their enthusiasm without having to repeat phrases like, “I totally agree with what X said.”
- There’s no incentive to revise unless you build it in to the workshop. In most of the workshops I’ve taken in an academic setting, the final grade for the class is based on a portfolio of your work that you submit to the professor during finals week containing some new writing and some revised work. This time, there are no grades to motivate me to revise my pieces, so I will probably leave my notes from the workshops in my notebook for a while before I return to them. Still, being in a writing community with others is motivating enough to overcome this hurdle. Reading other people’s work is invigorating, and hearing comments, both positive and negative, about my own writing is a powerful incentive to keep writing.
My summer workshop is over now, but I’m hoping that I can continue to cultivate writing partnerships with the folks who have been in my workshop so that we will hold each other accountable for continuing to work on our writing and our craft.