Creative Writing Workshop Etiquette

Creative writing workshops are strange.  A group of strangers gather in a room, sit in a circle, and critique the artistic product of one of the group members.  It’s a situation where feelings can be hurt and egos bruised.  One rule that can help is: do no harm.

We’re all there to become better writers.  Workshop is not a place for people to encourage a narcissist.  Workshop is not a therapy session.  Workshop is not a place for personal attacks.  Workshop is a place where writers of all skill levels are asking peers for help.

I’ve taken eleven creative writing workshops in twelve years at both the graduate and undergraduate level.  It’s an insult when students write thinly disguised fiction about another person in class.

First, it can be a betrayal and hurtful attack on an individual or group of people.

Second, it’s one side of the story, and as such, slanted.

Third, it wastes everyone’s time.  In a fiction workshop writers should turn in fiction.  How are readers supposed to respond to a story when they can see through it?

Fourth, it insults everyone in the class.  Writers usually read work closely.  In a workshop they are trying to look at the text and offer suggestions on how to shape the work.  It’s an insult to assume people will not see the writing for what it really is.

Finally, it creates an awkward situation that can affect the entire class.  Workshops are built on trust and relationships.  As we write, as we share, we grow together, we learn about and from one another.  If that trust is damaged, then writers may be less likely to open up, to write something controversial, to grow as an artist.  A creative writing workshop is a social contract.  For the workshop to function everyone must honor the rules.  Rule number one: do no harm.

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