• Jamie Lynne Burgess

What I Learned in My First Workshop

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

As an undergraduate, I went to the Young Building on Friday afternoons and climbed the curved staircase to the door of Peter's office. We had a memoir and creative non-fiction independent study together, where he assigned the readings, and I brought a piece of my own writing to discuss.

Peter sat across the big desk while I read my work aloud. Then, he asked me questions about it, for which I had no answers.

Like this:

"Why did you choose this word?"

"I don't know."

"Why didn't you make a new paragraph here?"

Shrug. "I don't know."

Writing was intuitive for me, so I didn't want to think about it too hard. He said I was good at it, so I believed him. In our honors classes together, he'd loved my essays. Now he was scrutinizing them.

He had me reading David Sedaris and trying my hand at humor essays. He had me reading Annie Dillard and Murakami. Many of the writers I love best I learned about in that office. He leaned back in his chair and pulled some tattered volumes off his towering bookcase, and I left with armfuls of books. If he didn't have the books, he used my library account to order them for me through interlibrary loan. There was always more than I could read, though I tried my best.

I knew so little of writing workshops that I failed to recognize that's what we were doing: workshop.

Though I've long known I want to "be a writer," I have not always known what that entailed. Sometimes, I thought it meant being like Peter: sitting behind a big desk and handing my unwitting students the books that would change their lives. Sometimes, I thought it meant what I do on a daily basis: hunt for ideas, hustle, work on editing projects. Bang my forehead against the desk. Cry.

Writer's workshops are the rite of passage for every working writer, but I avoided them at all costs. I will freely admit that I was afraid. With Peter, I knew I was safe. The best feeling in the world was having my work praised. I could only imagine what was on the other side of that feeling.

This year, I decided to do something I thought was pretty brave: I decided to take a writing workshop.

I have just finished my 8 weeks of Intermediate Personal Essay and Memoir with the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver (on Zoom). I do feel in some ways like being a novice at writing workshops helped me to have fresh insight on the workshop process. As I feel pretty enamored with it at the moment, I thought I'd share some of what I learned.

Composition theory was helpful: While I was in graduate school, I had an assistantship teaching composition. We studied Peter Elbow, whose mantra "liking creates virtue" helped me approach my students' pieces with an open mind. I found this to be at the forefront of my approach to offering feedback to my peers in the workshop as well. It was easy to offer feedback when I already "liked" the piece and just wanted to see it grow and get better.

I also relied heavily on comp ideas for things like context, genre, and situation. I went back to my old notes from Lil Brannon's Teaching College Writing course, where we had to proclaim our identities as writers and learn to see each other that way too.

Support & encouragement are important to me in a workshop philosophy: One of my biggest fears going into the workshop was that it would be catty or competitive or judgmental. My writing, which has grown in the dark, has that soft, pale quality of plants that have been deprived of light. So I was afraid to bring these fragile pieces into view. I really had nothing to fear that way. The overall tone of the workshop was very positive, and one of the most surprising aspects of the experience was the care with which everyone read each other's work.

Someone informed me that this is not always the case, especially in an academic context. I figured, if that's true, then I made the right decision to start with a non-academic workshop. The other people were undoubtedly writers, and serious about their work and about the workshop. I didn't feel like I "missed out" by being in a non-academic context.

I revised work that was otherwise dormant: I was so impressed by the caliber of the work from my fellow classmates. I liked their writing, so I wanted them to like mine. I had written 7 different essay drafts while at Elsewhere Studios in the spring, but I hadn't edited any of them. This class prompted me to revise those essays, even more than I had a chance to submit, so I had to decide between them. I made more progress on my work in the 8 weeks, with even the suggestion of other eyes on the pages, than I had in the past several months.

Next step is to find a writing group that's more permanent: I immediately saw the benefit of working with the same writers over a prolonged period of time. In our 8-week class, we had time to workshop each writer's work twice, and by the second round, it was much easier to offer feedback because I was already familiar with the writer's style and particular strengths and challenges. For the first time, I understood how MFA programs evolved out of this model, imagining the benefits of really knowing my peers' style and work.

I also know that with time, I'd be able to understand the reasons behind my peers' feedback to each other. Some people have preferences about things like openings or endings, some would have more ideas about character and dialogue. While I gained a great deal in the workshops even when I wasn't directly involved in the conversation (ie. giving or getting feedback), I knew with time that those would be equally valuable pieces of the workshop, listening to what the others said to each other.

This is not to say that the workshop was easy. I shared two pieces that felt deeply personal to me, and it was the most vulnerable I have ever been as a writer. But! I survived, and my writing is better for my classmates' feedback. And wasn't that the whole point?

It's hard not to think about what Peter would say about my work these days. I think of him often and miss being able to ask for his opinion, or better yet, to sit in his office on a Friday afternoon, talking about Annie Dillard.

Yesterday, I read an essay called "Money (2014)" by Keith Gessen, about how he earns his living as a working writer. Gessen taught his first workshop at a private university, and one of his students asked him if he thought she could publish. In other words, was she a writer? She was his best student. She was extraordinarily talented. But he cautioned her. "Whether or not you became a writer, in the end, depended on a lot more than talent.... Being a writer required you to make the decision over and over and over again, to write."

It seems that the workshop--a class of peers, an expectant teacher, fear of humiliation--is something that helps me make that decision. So, here I go again, into another 8 weeks of workshopping, trying to make the decision, every day, to write.

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