With only a week until my first Stonecoast
residency I figured it was time to read Ursula Le Guin's essay "Prides: An Essay on Writing Workshops". Although Le Guin admittedly comes down on the side of supporting workshops, she does so with some reservations.
She explains that although workshops have their advantages, they have some significant dangers. One of the less harmful dangers is that people often go to a workshop thinking that they will learn how to write. When in actuality, learning how to write is done outside the workshop as you cycle through writing new drafts and writing new stories.
One of the more dangerous problems with a workshop arises when a student or an instructor brings his ego with him to the workshop. Le Guin even goes as far as to say workshops should come with a warning not to "feed the ego". Why? Because egos don't serve any educational purpose in this type of setting. In fact, it interrupts the process of learning, especially if it is the instructor who brings the ego to class. Egos often serve to undermine confidence, show favoritism, or destroy the dreams of others - none of which are justifiable actions within any educational setting.
Another danger that Le Guin points out is the "eternal returner", otherwise known as workshop codependency. This is primarily targetted at people who haven't written a thing in years, yet they continue to go to workshops, submitting the same piece time and again, and telling others what this famous person or that famous person said about the story. Essentially, this is a waste of time for everyone if that workshop attendee doesn’t get down to the business of writing new material.
But there is good news! Le Guin admits to being a workshop junkie. One of the most valuable assets of a workshop is the experience that the instructor brings to the table. According to Le Guin, "Maybe nobody can teach anybody how to write, but, just as techniques for attaining profit and prestige can be taught in the commercial and establishmentarian programs, so realistic expectations, useful habits, respect for the art, and respect for oneself as a writer can be acquired in work-centered workshops."
In addition, workshops help to you learn how to practice the craft of writing. This is done through exercises assigned by the instructor, reading and critiquing of other students' manuscripts, learning how to take
criticism, and learning how to work together as a group of writers. The best workshops are those where everyone works hard together. "This is such a rare and valuable experience that it's no wonder good workshops almost always spin off into small peer groups that may go on working together for months or years," says Le Guin.
Although you may not "learn how to write" at a workshop, you will learn "what it is to write". She describes the workshop as a pride of lions gathering around the waterhole for a drink. I can't help but to agree with her on this point. And, yes, "it is something to have belonged, even for a week, to a pride of lions."
As an aside, to my friends who attended the Viable Paradise
10 workshop: Thanks for being my pride of lions.