I have often fielded calls from writers about workshops and should they join one. Have I had any experience with a workshop? What did I learn? Would I attend another? Do famous poets/writers present workshops? Did I have a workshop? What about critique groups? These are all very good questions, and very tough for me to answer. But I’ll start with some basic responses.
Yes, I have had experience with workshops, both in attending and running. For the most part I benefitted from them. One basic thing to consider: A workshop is not necessarily a critique group. When I started my workshop many years ago, I had one purpose: To work with writers to get their works ready for publication. As such we were taking already composed pieces ready for ordering into a manuscript or for sending out to journals (and similar) and polishing them for completion.
A critique group, by contrast, is helping writers in the formative stages of their renderings by giving them basic feedback. While I have done both, I really don’t have a preference except that for nine years I have been facilitating a poetry literary critique group where we read and discuss poets already known. Think Auden, Wordsworth, Rita Dove, John Keats, Mary Oliver, etc.
Let’s get back to workshops, however. The first question you may want to ask yourself is what do you want to get out of being in a group with other writers? If you are already published and you want to sharpen your skills, a critique group may be useful. I’ve found critique groups helpful when I am concerned about audience reception to what I’ve written. As you can see, there can be a gray area between the two groups.
So, the second question you may want to ask relates to the group itself. What is their purpose and what are their goals? Look online for workshops. Explore magazines that deal directly with writing, such as Poets & Writers or Writers Digest. They have excellent resources in their monthly publications which can often be found at public libraries.
A next question is a tough one: How receptive are you to constructive criticism about your work?
If you are very sensitive, workshopping may not be your thing. But if you can accept that everyone there is coming for the same reason, you may find the experience exhilarating.
Often, and again, depending upon the workshop set-up, there are writing prompts, shared experiences, tips on publishing, and loads of useful help.
I will promise you this: Whatever you may have thought about revision, discard it. Revision is the soul and heartbeat of good writing. Attending a workshop will show you how to embrace your inner “revisionist.” Personally, I love revision. You would be surprised to know how many poems I have created from revised lines taken out of another text.
So, for you, think about a value you can gain from joining a workshop. Perhaps you can find one as part of a writers retreat close by. Think, too, of kindred spirits gathered on a blanket at the end of a perfect day reading and discussing each’s contributions, perhaps with a nice, iced tea or white wine. What an amazing opportunity! Until next time…
Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).