Confession: I miss workshop.
In these late days of winter, cold season, and COVID-19, I yearn for a classroom or a conference table, a coffee shop, or a Zoom call where a group of supportive writers gathers to critique one another’s fledgling stories.
I have a complicated relationship with workshop. Or maybe just the idea of workshop. In the second semester of my MFA at Mills College, I dove deep into workshop. I pitched a semester long independent study with a writing instructor I deeply admire. I worked as her TA in an undergraduate fiction workshop and read on my own about the origins and pitfalls of the modern workshop. Up until that point, I’d taken many workshops, but never really thought about or understood how workshops developed and why the workshop model most frequently (at least it seems that way to me) practiced is the Iowa model in which the group critiques the story of a silent writer who can only sit there and absorb. Sure, I had professors experiment with feedback models or story length or sentence frames for constructing productive conversation. But ultimately workshop always felt the same: overwhelming, disheartening, anxiety-inducing.
But now: I’m driving down a country road in Middle Tennessee. The clouds threaten rain. I’m not from here so I can’t tell if there’s weight behind this weather. I’m not sure if I’ll be running into the Publix with my coat over my head or enjoying the pre-spring warmth in just my T-shirt.
I’m from California. I’ve lived in other places (North Carolina and Washington), but the state of return for me has always been California. But my family is all uprooting, transplanting to a state about which I know very little. And I’m seeking the comfort of something familiar.
Every writer I know has a workshop story. The story that really didn’t land, the writer who was harsh or flat-out vicious, the professor who made them cry. In one workshop, another writer told me they just didn’t care about any of the characters in my stories. The stories were essays. The “character” was me. In another, I drank way too much wine at an event beforehand and ripped into another writer’s essay. I can’t even remember my comments, but from what I heard the next day, I was rude and monopolized the conversation with slurred words.
So why the desire for workshop? I think what I truly miss is akin to fellowship, something I have found in online communities—on Twitter, in virtual workshops offered by writers I admire, writing classes offered online for the first time because of the pandemic, and connections with writer friends that have developed or been sustained through Zooms and Google Meets—in addition to the tradition of in-person workshops.
Yet, much of our time as writers is spent in isolation. You and the keyboard. You and the notepad. You and the blank page. I find little relief knowing that I am not alone in this loneliness.
My favorite mathematician is Paul Erdős (pronounced air-dish). He was perhaps the most prolific mathematician of the twentieth century, publishing over one thousand papers in his lifetime. He traveled the world staying with other mathematicians and living out of a suitcase. He’d routinely wake his friends and colleagues in the night saying, “My brain is open.” Erdős took mathematics out of the solitary and into the community. He worked and published with hundreds of coauthors creating knowledge and solving complex problems with others.
I think this is what I’m yearning for when I say I miss workshop: a full room, a group of writers working together to make a story better, learning from one other, pushing toward a common goal, the comfort of togetherness, the shared struggle to fill the page, tell the story.