Wrestling my manuscript for While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion ... (Seal Press 2014) toward completion over the last eight months, I’ve been grateful for the insightful feedback, support and inspiration I’ve gained from writing workshops I attended last summer: Squaw Valley Community of Writers and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I avoided such workshops for years. While I wouldn’t have wanted to go when I was too raw, I now regret not going a few years earlier. Honest feedback from people who weren’t family or friends could have prevented me from going down some dead-end writing paths and saved me some time.
Why did I wait so long? I’d heard rumors about snooty people, competitive environments, overly hip crowds, devastating critiques. I certainly don’t want to dismiss the stories of those who have had bad experiences at writing workshops. But so far I have been pleasantly surprised at the camaraderie and support I’ve found at the few I've attended. Yes, it’s often competitive to get in (and the first time I applied to Squaw Valley, I wasn’t accepted). But I came to think of that selection process as a positive. For one, applying inspired me to polish several 5,000 to 6,000-word chunks of my manuscript. Those became part of the writing sample that landed me a book deal with Seal Press.
Being a self-taught creative writer without an MFA, I had little confidence that I would be accepted at highly selective writing conferences. But once there, I learned that plenty of people like me do get in. What we all shared was dedication and enthusiasm for working to make our writing better.
Maybe I was so ready to embrace the workshop experience and learn all I could that I overlooked the negatives. And maybe there’s a lesson in that: you get out what you put in. On our first day at Squaw Valley, Sands Hall warmed us up with some tips on workshopping. While we might go in believing we would learn the most from feedback on our own writing, she said, we would very likely leave with gratitude for something different: how much we learned by by reading and giving helpful feedback to others. She was absolutely right. The feedback at both Squaw Valley and Bread Loaf gave me more confidence in what was and wasn't working in the specific chapters I shared. But learning to see those same places in other peoples’ writing helped me revise the rest of my manuscript with a more critical eye.
I loved last summers’ workshops so much that I’ve applied to several more for this summer. So far, I know I’m going to Tin House in Portland (which I believe is still open for rolling admissions). Although Bread Loaf’s application deadline has passed, Squaw Valley is open for a few more weeks. Poets and Writers and New Pages keep comprehensive listings of other writing workshops.
What about you? What has been your experience with writing workshops? Which would you recommend?