Writing Workshop Is Not Group Therapy
February 24, 2015 § 33 Comments
It’s easy to read a memoir or essay and feel as though we know the author, even though all we really know is what the writer shared with us on the page. This false sense of familiarity is one thing when we read published work by authors we may never meet. But in a creative nonfiction workshop, this faux intimacy becomes a slippery slope.
We all know that writing workshop can be an emotionally charged environment to begin with. Add in stories of personal trauma, and you’ve got a veritable Slip‘N Slide of intense moments and awkward interactions just waiting for you to lose your footing.
How can you keep your balance and avoid any more uncomfortable moments than necessary?
Make this your mantra:
Writing workshop is not group therapy.
(Say it with me.)
(And if it helps, you can sing it to the beat of MC Lars’ “Hot Topic is Not Punk Rock.”)
Don’t let a writing workshop turn into something it’s not meant to be. Here are some tips on how to stay grounded.
1) No problem solving—unless it relates to writing. Remember that you are in workshop to discuss the craft of writing and the world on the page. You aren’t there to coach a writer on how to heal from a traumatic childhood, a dance with addiction, or a spiritual crisis. You are not in workshop to help anyone slay their personal demons, unless those demons deal with writing better scenes, understanding narrative arc, or improving sentence rhythm.
2) Kindness is good. Empathy is dangerous. Pity is bad. I get it: You are a decent human being. You care about other people. By all means, be kind. After all, you are talking about someone’s real life, so don’t be crass or insensitive about his or her experiences. But don’t go overboard. Empathy might sound like a good trait, but it’s dangerous in a workshop. It can tempt you to identify too much with the narrator and her experiences, which can derail a workshop discussion and send it skidding out of control, devolving into a well-intentioned (but ultimately unhelpful) chorus of “me too.” A few steps beyond empathy is sympathy, and beyond that is the minefield of pity. Don’t go there. The events on the page may be uncomfortable or even horrific, but workshop is not the place for sentiments such as “You poor thing” or “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
3) Question the right things. When dealing with creative nonfiction, you can question the author’s craft choices, but not her life choices. Feel free to point out muddy writing, confusing inconsistencies, clichés, awkward passages, and boring descriptions. Go ahead and question anything that doesn’t feel believable on the page, but limit your comments about believability to the work itself. People do weird and unbelievable things in real life all the time. Your only concern is how those actions are presented in the story at hand.
4) Depersonalize the discussion. Although the narrator is a facet of the writer herself, the two are not wholly one and the same in creative nonfiction. Treat the narrator like a character. When you’re talking about the “I” of the essay, use terms such as “the narrator” or “the persona,” and use third-person pronouns. Try not to say things like, “The pacing is too slow in the scene where your mother leaves you.” Instead, say, “The pacing is too slow in the scene where the mother leaves the narrator.” This might feel strange and contrived at first, but you’d never conflate a fictional protagonist with the writer of a short story or novel, even if you suspect (or know) that the story is drawn from the writer’s own life. Depersonalizing the language helps to keep the discussion focused on the craft.
5) No comments about bravery, please. If someone chooses to write about a personal event and share it in a workshop, she doesn’t need you to tell her how brave she is—either for surviving the event or for sharing the story. You’re not in workshop to comment on the writer’s courage; you’re there to give feedback on her work. As a creative nonfiction writer, I never feel more squeamish or vulnerable as when someone encounters my work and tells me how “brave” I am. I don’t write to be brave. I write to create art. I’d much rather hear: “I’ve never thought about it that way, and you wrote it magnificently!”
6) What happens in workshop…(say it with me)…stays in workshop. Don’t overstep personal boundaries outside of workshop. Unless you are already friends with someone or she initiates the conversation, don’t assume that you and the writer you just workshopped are now BFFs who can talk about her dark and twisty past. It’s creepy to assume this kind of familiarity.
7) If you’re the workshop facilitator, set the ground rules and stay focused. As the workshop leader, it’s your job to set the tone and direction of the workshop. People will be people, of course, and even the most conscientious participant may veer off into therapy territory. If this happens, gently but firmly course-correct your ship. Be a captain, not a therapist.
The act of writing may be a form of therapy. And a bad workshop might make you feel like you need therapy. But remember: You gotta keep ‘em separated.
Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan writes, edits, and teaches from southwestern Pennsylvania. She is writing a book about losing her religion. She is not currently in therapy. Visit her online in The Word Cellar. She tweets @thewordcellar.