NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 159, Fall, 2003.
MIKE: Workshopping has almost become a cottage industry these days. There’s Clarion, of course. There’s Writers of the Future. I know Del Rey has an online workshop, and I assume other publishers do too. Worldcon almost always has a workshop. At least a dozen other conventions, some major, some incredibly minor have workshops. CompuServe has a workshop. Someone told me recently that there are more than a thousand professional and amateur writers’ workshops online.
I’ve got mixed emotions about workshops. Some work, some don’t. Some constitute a reasonable investment of a writer’s most precious capital—Time—and some constitute a total waste of it.
I’ve taught some workshops, I’ve led some workshops, I’ve observed some workshops, and I’ve participated in some workshops as a writer. I think I’ve got an idea of what separates the good ones from the bad ones, but since it’s a pretty subjective idea, I think I’d like to see your initial response to the notion and utility of workshops first.
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BARRY: “Workshop” is a big tent. What constitutes a workshop? The Iowa State Creative Writing Workshop program, well over half a century old, well financed, with thousands of alumni and two hundred MA students in process? Sycamore Hill with its seven or eight or ten pro writers who gather once every couple of years and affectionately flay hell out of one another’s manuscripts? The workshop at the local high school for retirees who want to tell their “life story”? Clarion? Jeanne Cavelos’ Odyssey Workshop, a Clarion knock-off but just as impressively staffed and already accumulating a record of success rivaling Clarion at an equivalent state? They’re all “workshops” (and so was Milford and Milford-by-the-Sea) and they all express roughly the same goals, to gather a small or not-so-small group of writers toward mutual improvement through the sharing of manuscripts and craft ideas, but they range so widely that I am hesitant of generality. Sycamore Hill might do me some good and that life-story workshop for the elderly might not (or vice-versa; let me be reasonable) but the decision has to be made on an ad hoc basis. There is no inclusive answer.
I can speak from my own experience or lack of it; since graduate school 40 years ago, at which I took one Creative Writing Workshop (with George P. Elliott who did not believe in public reading or discussion), I have never done this again. I’ve neither attended nor studied nor taught workshops. (Asked whether I’ve ever had any involvement as faculty with Clarion I’ve honestly answered, “They’ve never asked me and I’ve never asked them.”) I don’t think that the workshop situation is one which I need or at least its absence has never in any way had a negative effect, just as participating in a workshop would have ever had any positive effect. On my writing at least. I think I regret the lack of workshop experience on other grounds; in the presence of one’s peers it is at least companionable. Writing is an unpleasantly solitary business. Years and years ago Terry Bisson asked me if I’d like to join his small workshop and I said sure, why not, and never heard from him again; I regretted the silence but only because I like Terry Bisson. Hanging around with him once or twice a month would have been pleasant. I don’t think it would have had any effect on my work.
That’s my experience, of course; as we have resolved (or failed to resolve) through l8 preceding columns, my answers are not your answers. Kathleen Koja, whose work I respect as much as that of anyone breathing, said in an on-line interview years ago concerning her experience at Clarion, which she attended in l985, “It was the best thing which could have ever happened for me, it was invaluable. And after completing it I came to the strong opinion that part of its value was that it should never be repeated and I never have.” That’s a close paraphrase. (Pardonne, Kathleen.) It’s also a very good working position.
The down effect of workshops is to become a workshop junkie, toting the same story or couple of stories from one workshop to the other, reading them for approbation or companionship, obtaining suggestions and never acting on them. I’ve known plenty of people like this. I gave one of them a prize in the Writers Digest national competition I judged more than two decades ago. She admitted in correspondence that this was a story she had carried to many, many workshops (“Kurt Vonnegut really liked it”) and she intended to carry it to many more. Admirable story. I’ve never heard of this writer in any other context.
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MIKE: There is an old saying—well, probably not that old; I think it goes back to Plato’s Retreat and the other pre-AIDS public sex clubs of the 1970s—which goes: “Swans swim with swans, ducks swim with ducks.” What it means is that if you and your Significant Other weigh 400 pounds each, and sport cases of terminal acne and halitosis, don’t expect to swap partners with Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
I find this to be true of workshops.
Back in the early 1970s, when I lived in Chicago, I belonged to something called the Windy City Writers Workshop. It was divided pretty evenly between pros and wannabees. The pros were Algis Budrys, Gene Wolfe, George R.R. Martin, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tom Easton, and myself (and the late Tom Reamy drove in for a few meetings), and there were maybe 7 or 8 unpublished, or at least very-infrequently-published, writers as well. Not every one of us showed up for every meeting, but there were usually eight to twelve people in attendance.
And I noticed something interesting. The pros were just tweaking their stories, putting on the final polish. They were either already sold (as in: anthology assignments), or were for dead-sure markets. They listened to nits (a foreshortened form of “nitpicks,” not the equally easy-to-conclude “nitwits”). If someone told them the ocean is really 8,423 feet deep at such-and-so a point rather than 8,277 feet, they changed it . . . but except for matters of ego, they didn’t really care if someone liked their story or not. It was pre-sold; the editor liked it, and that was (and remains to this day) far more important. The pros might take an occasional suggestion from each other; they pretty much ignored the ones from the non-pros.
The flip side wasn’t much better. It was clear that there were some major writers here, writers who knew all the markets and all the editors, and who clearly has mastered the Secret Handshake, that clubby greeting everyone knows that all pros hide from all wannabees. So every single criticism by a pro, whether valid or not, was dutifully noted by the wannabee writer, and even when two or three pros gave him contradictory advice, there he’d be next month, presenting a rewrite in which every single criticism and suggestion was incorporated, no matter what it did to the plot and the structure.
That was when I decided “open” workshops didn’t work that well.
It was brought home to me again when I moved to Cincinnati in the late 1970s. We had an informal little gathering of the town’s two pro science fiction writers—Steve Leigh and myself (you know, except for my daughter, I think we’re still Cincinnati’s only two SF writers)—and four or five beginners, or “pre-published” writers to borrow the lingo of the romance field.
Steve and I would present chapters from books in progress, books that had already been sold and where the signature advances had been paid, and we weren’t about to diverge very far from outlines that had already brought us contracts and money . . . so again, except for nits (which was what we really wanted in terms of suggestions), we paid very little attention to the criticism, which truly wasn’t valid since it came from people with no real knowledge either of structure or of the demands of the marketplace. The others, as with the unpublished Chicago writers, incorporated just about everything we said, even when we disagreed with each other.
I’ve had better experiences since, but those two workshops convinced me for all time to come: swans swim with swans, ducks swim with ducks.
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BARRY: Here’s the problem, though. If workshops are homogenous, if they are structured so that participants will be on the same level . . . well, so much the better for the accomplished writers (some of whom, though, can be rivalrous and jealous) and so much the worse for those you call the “ducks.” (Why not “rabbits?” Rabbits mean no harm, they are alarmingly prolific, they are governed by a life-force which gives to the world ever more rabbits performing their rabbity acts and at the end of the process there’s a nice surplus of recyclable material.) Formative or unaccomplished writers are rarely good critics (there are exceptions but this generalization will stand) and in a workshop situation they will share a great deal of bad or imperceptive advice for lack of participants who know better.
The only way that newer writers committed to a workshop situation—and I think that for many the workshop can be a good idea—can get much good from it is if they have access to better advice and professional insight and that means professional or near-professional writers, those whose practical advice comes from experience and from their own trial and error. This is true of the course taught down the street in the local high school by a bookkeeper who has sold three articles to Cat Fancy; it is true of the Clarion Workshop. Clarion, which screens its entrants closely, has nonetheless a mix ranging from writers who are on the verge of selling to writers who have shown potential but as of yet little market sense.
I think it is fair to say that a workshop, unless it falls into that rare category of “peer workshop,” always has to have a mix, a range of writers. An alliance of the amateurs may be comforting and collegial (and may improve social life markedly) but it is probably in any practical sense going to be worthless. This may seem a strong argument for the professionals to stay out of anything but the peer groups, but that is not exactly what I mean. Heterogeneity, the willingness of accomplished professionals in this field of science fiction and fantasy to share their time, manuscripts and insights with those in an earlier stage of development (or no stage of development at all) is in fact one of the most engaging aspects; science fiction writers tend to give back more passionately and generously than writers anywhere else. Many years ago Charles Platt wrote of how he fulfilled a lifelong ambition to meet Alfred Bester: he called Alfred Bester and asked to meet him. “If you come right now, I’ll see you,” Alfie said and very soon was giving Charles Platt lessons in how to construct a magazine interview, advice which Platt was able to turn into his two books of interviews and innumerable magazine articles.
“This is something science fiction has which nothing else does,” Platt wrote. It was science fiction’s great gift to its fans and readers and would-be practitioners . . . the great writers were through conventions or the Manhattan telephone directory easily accessible and almost all of them were approachable as well and willing to help. It is in this spirit that Damon Knight originated the Milford conferences in the l950s and in exactly that spirit a decade later that Clarion was founded. The accomplished were always willing, often for no recompense at all, to try to help the unaccomplished. This is a wonderful thing.
I guess this is another way of saying, Mike, that way back there (or not so way back there) every one of us was a duck. Or a rabbit. Some of us became otherwise because the birds of plumage were willing to escort us to the lake.
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MIKE: Don’t understand me so fast.
I am not saying that beginners don’t need all the help and criticism they can get. Of course they do.
I am not saying that this field hasn’t got a long and proud history of established writers going out of their way to help newcomers.
Personally, I’ve bought more than 40 first stories as an editor, and ghod knows how many second and third stories. I’ve been writing a bi-monthly column for beginners for 9 years now. I’ve written a Hugo-nominated book for beginners, and edited another one. I’ve worked privately, one on one, with more than a dozen promising writers over the years.
None of which has anything to do with my conviction that in what I shall term a “mixed workshop,” one with top-notch pros and unsold wannabees, the pros won’t listen to much the wannabees have to say except for the occasional factual nitpick, and the wannabees will listen to, and act on, too much of what the pros have to say.
So what’s the solution, since it’s obvious that beginners aren’t likely to get the best structural and market advice from other beginners?
The answer would seem to be simple: a workshop for beginners, run by a skilled, market-savvy professional. He’s there to help and criticize their writing, not to have them criticize his. He’s there to lecture them, not be lectured by them. He’s got the credentials, and they’re there to learn from him.
Turns out it’s not quite that simple after all.
OK, personal experience. Up until 2000 I truly felt that no workshop involving beginners was worth the powder to blow it to hell. I’d been a guest co-editor (co-leader?) on a computer network’s workshop , and gave it up after a month and never came back. My co-editor spent all her time nit-picking punctuation (yes, it drives me crazy that so few stories I buy as an editor could pass an 8th-grade punctuation test—but that’s never stopped me from buying them if they’re good. That’s what we have copy editors for.) I saw her praise grammatically correct but artistically and creatively empty stories . . . and when she trashed a perfectly saleable story because the girl had a few commas in the wrong place, I served out the few remaining days of my term and never looked back.
So what happened in 2000?
I was invited to teach at Clarion. I don’t know why the hell I accepted, given what I felt about workshops, but accept I did. I agreed to teach the fourth of the six weeks.
Now, before the session began, each of the six instructors was sent all the manuscripts—two stories per student—that had been submitted (and it was these submissions that were the basis of approval or rejection of the student’s application). There were 38 stories in that batch, the very best work of 19 embryonic writers.
I dutifully read each story. When I was done, my wife asked what I thought of them. I replied that I had a feeling every one of the 19 was wasting his money. There was one writer who was already so good and so polished that I doubted we could teach him anything. As for the other 18, well, if God dropped everything else, maybe one or two of them might someday sell a story to a minor market . . . but not soon.
So I showed up after these kids (well, I’m an Oldphart, so I think of them as kids; most were in their twenties, one was younger, a few were older) had been there for 21 days of intensive work and criticism and lectures and more work, and I read what they’d written, and I couldn’t believe my eyes: in just three weeks’ time, they had produced 17 stories that were either saleable as they stood, or could be made saleable with very little editing and polishing.
That was my revelation at Tarsus. There is a way to make workshops productive. (And I put my money where my conviction was. I bought stories from six of them, and sold collaborations with three of them.)
I was so stunned by the experience that when a convention up in Calgary, Canada, which had invited me to be their Guest of Honor, asked if I’d like to come up early and lead a two-day workshop, I jumped at the chance.
Well, it wasn’t like my first few experiences . . . but it wasn’t Clarion.
In retrospect, the difference is obvious: there is no way you can do much more than generalize in two days of telling unpublished writers how to become published writers. Yes, they sent me their stories before I got there, but in two days all I could do was point out what was wrong and suggestion possible directions they might pursue. In six weeks at Clarion, each instructor could see a story through all the necessary rewrites and polishes until the end.
And of course, when only one pro runs a workshop, the students hear his views and no one else’s. At Clarion there were six points of view, and it tends to reinforce something good old Kipling say about tribal lays.
Let’s say your name, for lack of a more original one, is Malzberg. I can critique your story, and I can generalize about market advice, and I can try to think like you think, and I can encourage you to write what’s meaningful to you in a style that seems natural to you, but in all honesty what I’m probably best at is telling you how to write a Resnick story. And if I was Nikos Kazantzakis, I’d probably be best at telling you how to write a Kazantzakis story. But when you hear from six writers, and see what kind of input each of them has on your work, and you get to pick and choose that advice and criticism that works best for you, why, at the end of the time, maybe, just maybe, you’ve learned how to write a pretty good Malzberg story.
Anyway, that’s my current feeling about workshops. I am finally convinced that they can work . . . but I’m equally convinced that most of them are structured in such a way that they won’t work, or at least they won’t work as well as they should.
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BARRY: Big generalization, Mike. Stanford Graduate Writing Program is a workshop. YMCA Writers Voice in Manhattan is a workshop. What is going on in someone’s living room right now (and by mutual consent) is a workshop. Big tent there and I think it’s difficult to make a statement which will be inclusive.
But I think the Clarion experience as you describe probably works. It is in itself based in part on the Milford model (no surprise; Damon Knight was present at the origin of both): reading of story, circle of commentary, writer silenced until all others have spoken, marketing issues predominant, and it has over 35 years and after something of a slow start propelled many writers into science fiction and fantasy, some of whom have had enormous careers, others who are clearly in the process of so doing. Writers of the Future has an honorable record also, and although Jean Cavelos’s Odyssey Workshop is less than ten years old it too has begun, in the aggregate, to assemble a creditable list of success.
Clarion surprised me, I admit. In its early years it struck me as an insular, self-serving institution, one whose “graduates” sought to make themselves an in-group. “It’s just bringing another goddamned clique into a field of science fiction which from the start has been a composite of cliques,” I mumbled. “The Lunarians, First Fandom, the Secret Masters, the Guilford Gafiators, all of them have taken on the aspect of exclusive in-groups with secret handshakes, and to that we can add Clarion, which may become the biggest, most exclusionary clique of all.”
I think that this to a certain extent has happened. What I did not factor then but gratefully understood later is that the Clarion process was working for many of its attendees and that some extraordinarily good work and writers were benefiting from its instruction. Perhaps another goddamned clique is not too high a price to pay for—as an example—the careers of Kathleen Koja or Lucius Shepard. Science fiction in the more embracing sense has itself been a Secret Handshake for more than seventy-five years, founded upon the letters of comment and fannish odysseys of a We Happy Persecuted Few. If cliquishness is the subtext or side-effect of science fiction, then certainly Lucius Shepard and Edward Bryant have given more to the world (or at least the science fiction world) than Francis T. Laney.
So, okay. The Iowa and Stanford Mafia are as insular and quietly cliquish (moreso!) than what Ed Bryant calls the “Clarinoids.” At worst, science fiction in its early maturity in the mid-sixties learned to imitate that mainstream, not only stylistically but in its importation of so much paraphernalia of which the workshops were an important part. I do think that some writers who might have been useful and good have been damaged by Clarion. This seems to be the consensus of many and that includes the successful writers, who have been attendees. It is a ruthless, brutal process; cruelty is integral to the mix. Damon Knight’s Milford was a cruel exercise and Clarion, mirroring it in so many ways, is no less cruel. Maybe if you can’t survive a brutal critique you certainly can’t survive the marketplace, that is the argument, but I wonder. I wonder a little.
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MIKE: Clarion surprised both of us. And it’s certainly got a track record: Ed Bryant, Dan Simmons, Lucius Shepard, and on and on. I’d say about 20% went on to have careers or at least produce some work that received favorable notice throughout the field. But I can’t help wondering: did they really need it, or would they have been just as successful on their own (albeit at a little slower rate)? If Clarion brings together some of the very best embryonic writers each year, would 20% have succeeded with or without it?
And of course the answer is: I don’t know. And since I don’t know, I’m inclined to borrow the old advertising adage: we know that X percent of the ads work, but we don’t know which X percent, so we have to run them all. I know something clicked at Clarion, as I’m sure it did on occasion at Writers of the Future, or at the workshops Kris Rusch and Dean Smith put on all over the country—but I don’t think anyone’s pinpointed what it is yet, or everyone who attended would reach much the same level of professional success for a year or two, after which the truly gifted ones would keep improving.
I’d also heard Clarion was brutal, that the students with weaker egos were destroyed—but I didn’t find it so. I went there prepared to explain that no one writes a poor story on purpose, and that no critic should view a bad workshop story as a personal affront . . . but it simply wasn’t necessary. I heard a lot of negative criticisms of stories (as I have at every other workshop I’ve led), but I never heard a vicious one.
And if there were some that occurred before I arrived or after I left, or at workshops about which I know nothing (and I’m sure their number is legion), my only comment, harsh as it may be, is that anyone who can be discouraged from writing should be discouraged from writing.
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BARRY: The early Clarions—the workshops in the first ten years, anyway—were brutal. As I’ve noted earlier, I’ve never been asked to teach at Clarion, have never volunteered to do so, have never had any involvement with the workshops so this is hearsay . . . but it’s creditable hearsay. Furthermore, Harlan Ellison, in one of the story introductions in Again Dangerous Visions remembers without regret his brutal attack upon one student (who went on to write the anthology story which he was introducing). There are many memoirs in the fanzines and prozines which detail the experience; it was not pleasant for many. Damon Knight, a great writer and a good critic, was also one of those people who felt that cruelty could be masked as “instruction” and he was merciless. He wasn’t the only one. The writing workshop as psychodrama. Clarion was notorious for this, at least until Damon gave it up, and presumably some of the other workshops have been difficult for some.
I don’t know how I feel about this. Most amateur writing is quite bad; with all due respect to the late John W. Campbell, I believe that I have read more unpublished fiction (John Campbell restricted his claim to “science fiction”) than anyone alive and most of it is terrible. For most of it, “The only true cure is flame” as a colleague of mine in the Meredith fee department wrote a hapless novelist so many decades ago. But whether brutalizing writers, good or bad, promising or unpromising, in the spirit of a kind of nebulous “integrity” does anyone any good is another issue. I know that I wouldn’t want to do it.
But almost every workshop for unpublished or barely published writers, from Clarion to whatever is going on down the street tonight at the local high school, becomes a kind of sub-society. There are the favored writers, the scapegoats, the vague or silent types in between and scapegoating seems to be as essential to the process as the elevation of one or two writers. In an abstract way this may be for the best; in an abstract way in fact, this is possibly how a workshop must function, there is more to be learned from flawed manuscripts than good ones if the workshop leader is a competent critic . . . but I’d rather let someone else do it. Clarion’s Masters are probably as instinctually correct as I have been in my own disdain; I do not want to be asked to do this. I might well accept and I do not think that the exercise would be particularly beneficial.
But for some writers, such as my esteemed collaboratrice Kathleen Koja, the exercise is obviously not only useful but irreplaceable . . . and if one Kathleen Koja or Lucius Shepard emerges who might not have done so otherwise, Clarion may have expiated all of its sins. There are other ways to succeed (and plenty of other ways to fail) but a good workshop can in certain cases be quite useful.
That said, and conceding that I too am a refugee from graduate Creative Writing courses, I wouldn’t recommend workshops for either of my daughters. Who, fortunately, have always had less interest in being writers than I do in founding a SFWA workshop in the arts.
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MIKE: It seems to me that what you’re doing is first, referring to a lot of hearsay about Clarion without ever having experienced it, and even if it was true at the time, you are also, second, assuming that nothing has changed over the years, that the instructors don’t learn from their mistakes at least as quickly as the students do. I’m here to tell you that’s not true. I asked my students about their prior instructors; each one seemed to have bent over backward not to be cruel or abusive.
My own experience as an editor who frequently deals with new writers is that the best instructor around is Nancy Kress. If I get a story by one of her students, I know it’ll be well-written and properly-structured—and I would doubt that Nancy has ever been anything but kind and generous to any student she’s ever had. (Yes, that’s also second-hand information . . . but it’s recent second-hand information from half a dozen of her students.)
Kris Rusch and Dean Smith have given their workshop at a couple of conventions that I’ve attended, and I dropped by to observe. I agree with most of their teachings; some I disagree with—but again, neither of them ever raised a voice or said an unkind word.
Every embryonic writer with whom I’ve worked privately has gone on to sell, and since I don’t believe in being abusive, they have all become personal friends. I remember that when Walt Kelly, unquestionably America’s greatest comic strip writer/artist, was asked what Pogo Possum’s politics were, he thought about it and replied that Pogo stood four-square on the side of gentleness. There are worse philosophies for a writing instructor to emulate.
I don’t think cruelty and learning go hand in glove. I wouldn’t learn from such treatment as a student; hell, I wouldn’t put up with such treatment as a student. And since I feel that way, I won’t abuse any student of mine. Some are clueless and hopeless, but there are gentle ways to get the message across. (And if the message is wrong, then you won’t spend the next third of a century receiving a copy of every published piece of work by the student you told would never sell a word, as I’m told one of Harlan Ellison’s college professors did.)
So do workshops work?
My answer remains a very qualified yes. They work under certainly clearly (and perhaps rigidly) defined conditions.
Given the percentage of failures in any of the arts, I suppose that’s often enough.
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About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.