Is workshopping really good for writers?

BY IAN FRIEDMAN | JULY 12, 2012 6:30 AM

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Being a UNESCO City of Literature, Iowa City has a long-standing tradition of reading and writing. It is hard to walk around campus without noticing the implications of such a tradition.

Stroll down Iowa Avenue, and you will notice the words of famous authors and poets etched into the concrete sidewalk. Stop in at any coffee shop, and you will recognize someone curiously entranced by their computer screen or writing pad, laying down words at a furious pace.

This summer, the University of Iowa and Iowa City play host to a multitude of visitors hailing from all over the globe who wish to experience the rich history Iowa City has to offer.

Among other festivities, the university is sponsoring 137 workshops in which these aspiring wordsmiths pay a fee of $560 per week to meet with others and discuss one another's work.

Although clarity and understanding is a common goal for each participant, these workshops imbue the thoughts and identities of other members in the group into an individual's piece.

These workshops have become a hallmark of Iowa City's and the university's literary cultures, where members form groups and assess the effectiveness of each piece. The objective is to provide constructive criticism for those that are otherwise unsure of how to proceed with a given aspect of their own work: whether it is plot formation, word choice, or overall style.

As part of the experience, participants are usually encouraged to read what they've written.

Some of the readings take place at Beadology, owned by Karen Kubby.

"A lot of the writing that I hear is very intimate, personal stories. Once in a while, writers are kind of introverted people, and then they come here and have to put it out there," Kubby said as reported by the DI.

This is the common sentiment among the undergraduate writing classes that are offered at the university during the fall and spring semesters, the main emphasis being a respectful and constructive approach toward everyone's work.

Having sat through three creative writing classes myself, I've been subjected to the workshop format as well. I have read material from people studying writing, English, philosophy, and areas that have nothing to do with creative writing.

I can honestly say that some of the best writing I had to read during those times came from individuals with no real training or significant experience with writing before. It seemed that they were writing well despite the workshop.

For those trained to write, their stories or pieces, while eloquently written, weren't necessarily good pieces. 

"Writing can't be taught. Creative writing can't be taught," bestselling author Stephen King said in a 2009 BBC interview with Mark Lawson.

The workshop format tries to force individuals to take too seriously the opinions of others. This is a very slippery slope. If people were to take the advice of every person in their workshop group, then their piece of writing wouldn't be a piece all their own anymore. Instead, it becomes less an individual's piece and more a hodgepodge of others' ideas.

This isn't so bad if your workshop group is composed of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Dr. Suess, and Chuck Palahniuk. But the reality is that the people that make up a workshop are your peers, ordinary people who love to write.

Why then should someone take people's advice on how to write when the chances are that they probably know little more than you do about their own craft?

You can garner enough creative and emotional support to make you a better writer, but that doesn't mean that your writing is great or even good. I understand that writing is a learning process: The development of each writer is only comparable to a former self.

However, when someone begins to rely on the opinions and tastes of another, how much of the thinking behind the writing is actually theirs?

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