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What I learned from a writing workshop

What I learned from a writing workshop: Two of my characters walked out in the middle and started their own movie

I have 2 ½ screenplays in the drawer, and have been told that one of them has promise, if only I can solve its Act II problems. Apparently it is bad form to send two crucial characters off on a road trip right in the middle, allowing them to start a whole new movie of their own. I’ve long been told that it’s a good thing when characters do that, take off on their own, but these two didn’t want to come back.

I recognized this pitfall only when it was my turn to have the spotlight in a recent workshop class. You may have heard authors moan about The Workshop – an almost universal method in MFA programs and writing classes of sharing work and receiving helpful feedback. When it is your turn, you send out your work to the class days before, they read it and come in with their feedback ready to go. You, the writer, sit through it in silence, absorbing what is said and fighting the impulse to stick up for yourself, point out what they have missed, cry. You get to respond briefly at the end.

There are supposed to be rules for the class to keep things safe: start with what is working; talk about voice, character, plot, pacing, whatever drew your attention; then pose the questions the reader is left with, specific suggestions welcome. The focus is on the work, not on the author or any imagined connection to the author’s own life experience or attitudes.

The author finally gets to ask any questions that arise from the feedback, and thank the group for their engagement.

I’ve heard two opposing recommendations about how to survive a workshop. One is to develop rhinoceros skin, the other to maintain a beginner’s mind. I try for the latter, invoke the former only in an emergency. So far, the latter has done its job. It is a precious opportunity to receive the raw experience of a reader of a piece in process, received in a safe place. How else are we to get better? It generally goes well if the teacher insists on those rules. In the absence of that protection, writers retreat, maybe forever.

So now my characters and I are fighting. They want an adventure to get to the heart of their own stories while I struggle to keep them around to contend with what they are trying so hard to escape – the dementia that is swallowing up their dear mother. If they want their stories told at all, they are going to have to do it my way, or they stay in the drawer. I hope they come around.

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