One of the things I remain ambivalent about from my college days is the seemingly dozens of writing workshops I took. I took them in short fiction, poetry, novels, and play writing. In come cases I took more than one in the same genre simply to try out a different teacher.
For the most part, if someone is interested in writing I would encourage them not to study it at university. Instead I would recommend they choose a different field and then, perhaps, take a couple writing workshops, but even that is dodgy advice. At best you get some discipline because you are forced into deadlines. However you have to be careful because writing workshops are addictive and the work you produce not always your best. You do get exposed to a lot of criticism and critics–and have to develop a thick skin–however, you also may find yourself giving up on humanity.
What limits their usefulness is that most writing workshops are populated by the same characters. There’s the Stephen King wannabe who writes blood-soaked screeds that make classic splatter films like Blood Feast seem G-Rated. He complains about any story that doesn’t include a dismemberment and/or “naked chicks disemboweling men and eating their hearts” and tends to pepper his writing with big words and random italicized asides:
Mary took off her clothes. Now you will make me bloody. Mary plunged her hand into his stomach and reached up inside his thorax to his heart. Now shall you satiate my ravenous hunger. She let his heart beat in her hand for a few seconds. Alas my ravenous hunger cannot be sated by such miniscule flesh. Babette ate with glee. She has small tastes, my sister.
He has a thin skin to criticism and always reminds you that he has an agent. His odds of becoming a millionaire are quite high, though, so you always pretend to like at least one of his stories.
The bombshells, scattered equally between blondes and brunettes, usually write fantasy stories or mystery stories or stories about how much it sucks to be the oldest/middlest/youngest sister. They like everything, except the Stephen King Wannabee stories, but always try to find something positive to say. “I’m really impressed by your depictions of Mary’s emotions in this scene. I REALLY felt her disappointment that she wouldn’t be satiated.” The one who writes mysteries and the one who writes about her sisters will be rich.
The guy bombshells usually write fantasy and or sci fi or “real literature” and say things like “I really appreciated Mary and Babette’s different reactions to eating the hearts. I like that Babette felt satiated but Mary didn’t. I really like that dichotomy.” The one’s who write sci fi or fantasy will become rich. The one who writes “real literature” will end up as a university writing teacher complaining about the success of people like the other two.
The Spooky Smarty Pants likes to make comparisons to foreign writers you’ve never heard of in languages you can’t understand. “The focus on hearts is especially invigorating. It puts me in mind of the great Dutch writer Jaap Van Aarses and his famous line Chocolade is het meest gelukkig in de winter. (Yes, the Spooky Smarty Pants really speaks in italics.) There’s always at least two people who nod and say “ain’t that the truth” to these comments. (And at least two other people who want to beat the living crap out of those two.)
Then you have the wannabe comedians who pepper their comments with throwaways “I really wanted to tell Mary to have a heart.” or “I like how Mary really gets to know her boyfriends from the inside out.” or “That must leave a bad taste in her mouth.”
You also have the judgemental assholes. They usually write “real literature” and doom themselves to a life of teaching and blogging. They usually say things like “why did you decide to focus on hearts?” The writer, if allowed to respond, says something like “it represents the way she is taking their power” to which the judgemental asshole says “Isn’t that a bit cliche though? I’d be more impressed if she ate the liver because it was high in iron.”
Guess which category I belonged to.
The worst part, unless you have a teacher who knows how to limit comments and direct the discussion, is that you end up with lots of collaborators who offer bits of advice on how you should change your story. What’s frustrating is that individually they aren’t wrong, but taken as a whole they help you ruin your story.
Your best bet, if you take these, is to make friends with a couple of the most sane people–if any actually took the workshop–and give your stuff to them to check out. That will help you more than the committee.
Note: A special thanks to Adam Curry of the No Agenda Show for the Dutch translation.