I’m not a group person. As in workshop group. As in, join a workshop and have your writing critiqued. I tried to be a group person but I inevitably left each group with a feeling of muddledness rather than clarity, regardless of whose manuscript was being workshopped. I simply don’t care for the dynamics of groups. Perhaps it has something to do with my former professional life as a therapist.
And yet, I know enough to know I need a critical eye on my writing. I need someone to point me due North and tell me yes, you can get there. Someone who has walked the walk and is ahead of me on the path, who wants to help me build my confidence and my humility, who wants me to finish, and finish well.
I attended such a workshop with such an author. It was earlier this year. The facilitator was LA Times book critic and book editor, David Ulin. The intensive was a turning point for me. My friend, author and teacher, Amy Wallen, hosted Ulin at her home. She told me in advance that the setting would be intimate, supportive, and would provide an opportunity to have someone who not only writes for a living but reads for one, too, to evaluate my work. Amy knew I was not a group person, but for this she urged me to attend.
I came away, not only with clarity, direction, and ideas that helped me grow my story rather than shrink it, but with something completely unexpected: the belief that yes, I could do this.
I wanted to do a dual interview with Amy and David to enable more people to learn about the workshop and attend – whether you’re a group person or not.
Email Amy if you are interested in the upcoming workshop. Contact information appears after the interview.
MEREDITH: Tell me how your own experiences in workshops, with teachers who turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help, with your own perceived failure or setbacks, helped shape how you run the fiction workshops you do (at Amy’s).
DAVID: I have limited experience in workshops as a student writer. I took a few during college, and then participated in a great one, with the novelist Sonia Pilcer at the Writers’ Voice in Manhattan for a couple of years after I graduated. I wrote my first stories there and began to feel as if I were part of a community, as if there were other people trying to do what I was trying to do. But it stopped for me with a master class I took at NYU in 1987. I was 25, and an arrogant young writer. But the guy who ran the workshop (let’s leave him nameless) was also a negative force. He told me I was being too ambitious, that I was expecting too much from the novel I was writing, that novels needed to be constrained. As it turns out, the book I was writing did end up falling apart on me, but it wasn’t its ambition that was the problem; it was my inability to execute. To this day, I think that’s the single worst piece of advice I’ve ever gotten: to dial down my ambition. If you’re going to dial down your ambition, why write? I’ve been running workshops for more than 20 years now and I always try to encourage writers to do the opposite: dial up the ambition, go for it, write a masterpiece. Why bother if you’re not trying to do something really great?
AMY: The main thing I learned from writing workshops, was to have not just one teacher, but several. What works best for me is to listen to all the input from several readers, and then focus on the critique that rings most true. So, when I started hosting workshops in my home, the goal was to bring many teachers from all over and from many different perspectives to provide a variety of teachers for writing students.
MEREDITH: My experience has been that when workshop participants don’t understand a person’s work or don’t want to understand it – perhaps they are preoccupied with their own sense of am I good enough or am I a failure? – they tend to grandstand or pick on things that are inconsequential. I think we do this to ourselves as well, when we sit in front of the computer by ourselves. How do you move the discussion (outside or in one’s head) away from what doesn’t matter to what can unstick a person – the workshop heckler and the writer?
DAVID: The key is always to make the conversation about the work. I say this straight up at the beginning, and I try to pay close attention to what each person in the workshop is saying, and steer them back (gently or firmly, depending) if the commentary starts to sway. I also remind everyone from the outset that one of the most important lessons of the workshop is what not to listen to — how to take well-intentioned critique (and I assume that it is always well-intentioned) and discard it if it is irrelevant to one’s literary concerns. This is a key point to remember: All criticism is subjective. Even the most well-meaning reader can be wrong. We need to develop the spines, the thick skins required to stand up to and for our work, the ability to hear and to integrate critique into our own larger vision for the piece. I tend to be a benevolent dictator in a workshop, letting it go where it will go. But I will (and do) jump in to redirect the conversation, and I always use my authority as workshop leader to (again, gently) mitigate critiques that I think are off the mark. The job of the leader is to know when to speak and when to stay silent.
AMY: It’s important to make everyone feel heard. It’s also important to not let the discussion wander too far off course. Just like we have to learn to do when we sit in front of the computer and we start to nitpick our own work, as a teacher I also have to rally around the important topics and maintain a focus. That’s where it’s important to be a good facilitator. I wish I was as good of a facilitator with my own wandering and nitpicky self-editor as I can be as workshop leader.
MEREDITH: Working in one’s home is very different than a classroom. It’s somehow safer yet more vulnerable. Can you share your observations, thoughts, why it works, how it’s different, what it does to the process.
DAVID: For me, there’s no real difference, but that may be because it’s not my home. I really like the intimacy of these workshops, which has a lot to do with Amy and the Savory Salons model: We read, we discuss, we eat, we hang out. It’s hard not to develop a bond with people through those interactions, and that bond has a positive effect in the workshop. In the case of these manuscript review workshops, there is also the intensity of the engagement. We do two weekends, back-to-back, four writers a weekend, each submitting up to 200 pages of work. It requires a deep dive, a commitment, not just to the work but to the time, to the group, to the process that we all individually and collectively undergo. I don’t know of other workshops like this, either in the consideration
of a large manuscript sample, or in terms of the intimacy produced by spending two weekends together, neck-deep in each other’s work. It’s a rare and wonderful thing, and the setting is an important part of why it works the way it does.
AMY: I find being in a home to feel safer on most levels. To me, the smaller class size, the comfort of the furniture—soft couches as opposed to cold metal chairs, the privacy and safety that someone else is feeding and nurturing you, are just some of the aspects that make it safer and more productive. There is something to be said for the anonymity of a classroom, but to be able to allow oneself to be vulnerable, which a home is more attuned to allowing, that’s how we get to the deepest part of our writing. And that’s the intention of these workshops.
For the David Ulin Manuscript Workshop, in particular, I found that there is an aspect that is rarely found in the novel-writing world. This workshop is a rare occasion to have a large chunk (200 pages) of your novel looked at. Most workshops, especially classroom type, or conferences, focus on 30 pages at a time. For short story writers, or essayists, that’s fine. For a writer of larger works, the luxury of having your work examined from the big picture level, and not piece-meal, is so rare, and so necessary. For a workshop of this type, being in a home suits it best. We can take the time to discuss in depth what the big picture of the story needs. It’s truly a luxury.
For information about the May workshop with David, email Amy Wallen at email@example.com