Sunday, September 26, 2010

Steven Amsterdam on the Value of Writing Groups

In the 46th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Steven Amsterdam, author of Things We Didn't See Coming (Pantheon), discusses how to put together a writing group and the frame of mind needed to benefit from it.

A writing workshop is contrary to the nature of writing. A writing workshop is vital for developing work. It lavishes unrealistic and motherly confidence onto the most undeserving dribble. It’s a market research group, a torture chamber, a circle jerk. I say yes to all of these things, and loudly, but the fact is that I’ve been in two workshops for the last five years and I credit them for much that is lucid and balanced in my writing.

For a long time, the clearest criticism my writing received was an acceptance letter or, more often, a rejection letter. Since joining a workshop, the regular criticism has helped me advance the meaning of my stories—develop them, make them whole, stitch them to a better fit. Plus, I’ve gotten more acceptance letters. That’s all the proof I need.

Getting a group and realizing the benefit took time. Although I frequently recommend workshopping, there is much that has to go right for it to work.

First, the writer must find:

  1. Five or so people who write, or at minimum, read. These people may start out too kind or too critical, but sooner or later, they will tell you what you need to know. Libraries, writer’s centers, and universities often have noticeboards where a writer can connect with a group. I connected to my groups through a creative writing masters, which meant that several of us had workshopped together before and had already gotten to know each other’s writing, needs, and limits.
  2. A good mix. From my perspective, the more different, the better. We all arrive with our own preferences and bizarre associations. We all have different obsessions and weaknesses. I need someone to ride me about underdescribing places. Someone else may benefit from my focus on tightening.
  3. An agreeable regularity. This means whatever most of you can manage. Both groups I'm in have been content with monthly meetings. That’s often enough to keep us active and not so frequent that the scheduling becomes onerous.
  4. A quiet space. One of my groups meets upstairs at a pub in the middle of town on a Saturday afternoon. The other meets in a room at a university.
  5. A willingness to share the spotlight from one meeting to the next.

Second, and maybe most importantly, the writer needs:

  1. A certain maturity. I believe my 19-year-old self would have probably been so cowed by the process that he would have attempted to make every suggested change and would have ended up crumpling it into a ball (we still had paper then) and throwing it away. So yes, one has to be able to listen without believing that what other people say is always true. For me, this took time.
  2. Faith in the story being told. This allows you to help yourself and help others sculpt away what isn’t needed.
  3. Knowledge of the people in the group and their tastes. This is critical and requires good observation of people (which presumably a writer is capable of). It is doubtful that you are going to find five to ten people who have your tastes and are working in the same area that you are. (Should you find this to be the case, you might want to consider changing your project.) There may be one person who rattles on annoyingly about the demands of genre, but actually knows what she’s talking about, and another who drums loudly about word choice, but you often disagree with his choices. Which leads to—
  4. The capacity to know what you will accept, what will improve your story and what will simply make it beige. Sometimes this is easy, as when three people suggest to you that the twelve-year-old character sounds forty-four. Fix it. Another time those three people may speak convincingly of a flaw you don’t see. What do you do? And sometimes one person’s comment may touch ever-so-slightly on a flaw in your piece, but even as they’re speaking you feel caught, like you didn’t do your job. Make the change.

Most of my writing over the last few years has taken place in a speculative universe or in scenarios that have a slightly magical edge. To pull something like this off alone is not easy. In the process of creating a world of alternate rules it is easy to over-explain. It is just as tempting to keep it all so obscure that not even the reader knows your meaning. This is not good. What I get from my workshoppers is crucial for telling me where I must trim or delve further.

I know there are plenty of writers who don’t need this added market research, masochism, or masturbation for their writing. Maybe it’s insecurity or maybe it’s simply that I’m too social for the solitude of sole authorial creation, but I like it. I enjoy the ongoing involvement in other people’s creative endeavours and the frequent surprise of hearing someone else's suggestion for someone else's piece expand my mind a bit more. I enjoy the sense of collaboration. Most of all, I value my final product.