Writing Workshop Is Not Group Therapy

February 24, 2015 § 33 Comments

breakfast_clubA guest post from Jennifer McGuiggan:

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.

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§ 33 Responses to Writing Workshop Is Not Group Therapy

  • Wonderful advice. In my experience, #4 (talk about “the narrator”) goes a long, long way to addressing every other point as well. If one can master that technique, many other issues automatically take care of themselves.

  • jessicahandler says:

    I make these rules part of every workshop I teach, and now I have a link w Brevity cred!

  • Jan Priddy says:

    In a workshop I once read a story, a memoir piece though with confused POV, with unfortunate sexual overtones in the narration. I did not recommend therapy and I did not address the story as if it were about the writer and his daughter, but I did warn the writer that he might want to rethink his imagery. I didn’t believe he was even aware of the way the story could be read (and was read by several participants), so I began with that: I’m not sure you deliberately intended how some of the choices made in writing this story could be interpreted. . .

  • I have been in workshops as well as literature classes focused on memoir and creative nonfiction where discussions have lapsed into uncomfortably personal territory. I think all of your points are valid, but equally important, I think, is to make sure the writer isn’t looking for therapeutic responses and doesn’t take constructive feedback as personal judgement. I have responded to pieces before being careful to refer to the narrator in third person and offer craft-related critiques only to have the writer terribly offended by my comments.

    Thanks for a thoughtful article.

  • Laurie Easter says:

    Reblogged this on Laurie Easter and commented:
    The topic of the Writing Workshop has always intrigued me in a deep way, so much so that for my graduating lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts I prepared and solicited an in-depth survey to my MFA colleagues, which I then compiled the results into a lecture titled “Engaged, Thoughtful, Creative, and Weird: An Examination of the Writing Workshop.”

    Here, my friend and MFA colleague, Jenna McGuiggan, who graduated a semester ahead of me and thus wasn’t in attendance for my lecture, shares her brilliant workshop guide covering some of the same topics I addressed in my lecture. Jenna’s guide is geared towards the creative nonfiction workshop, and I highly recommend her sage advice on the topic of staying grounded in critiquing the craft of the writing and not veering off into unhelpful territory.

  • Shannon says:

    This a wonderful article, full of great reminders. My only very small quibble is that I find fiction workshop participants do, in fact, conflate the narrator or narrative voice and the author. So we must be wary of that, too!

    • I guess I was giving the fiction writers more credit than they deserve! 🙂 I suppose the same thing happens across all genres. I can imagine this being a big problem in poetry workshops, too.

  • Kathleen Cassen Mickelson says:

    These aren’t just great rules for a workshop. They’re also great guidelines for anyone who works with writers on revision in an editorial setting.

    And, bonus, they’re great for the writers themselves to remember when they send their work out beyond the workshop world, as in, “don’t wait for editors to tell you how brave you are for sending them this piece”.

    • Kathleen: Yes, indeed. I make sure to set these guidelines when I work with my editing and coaching clients, too. It really helps to keep things focused. Plus, it empowers everyone to gently deal with the emotional stuff when it pops up and then keep going with the craft.

  • irenelandsman says:

    This is an outstanding piece, and much needed. I especially appreciate the specific guidelines to help groups avoid this kind of blurred identity. Thank you!

  • Lisa says:

    Hooray for the craft-centered exchange that is less about the writer and more about the words!

  • Great article! Concrete and so helpful.

  • Meg says:

    I just began teaching a Creative Nonfiction workshop last year, and am grateful for these guidelines, for my students, and to remember myself. I see where I could easily begin the slide down a slippery slope and I appreciate the definitives before I got myself in an awkward situation and learned the hard way. Thank you!

  • b. says:

    These are good and valuable rules…. and yet… nagging… there is almost always another perspective. I have had a high profile author insist on doing away with the pretension of third person in first person nonfiction narratives, because it feels so artificial. So right now, I am still trying to figure out how I resolve this problem… and I am mostly leaning toward third person. But these decisions are tough and weird, and we must consider them all the time.

    • b. says:

      *when critiquing* is what I meant

    • I agree that talking about the first-person narrative author in third person can feel artificial, especially at first. It takes some getting used to, and it may not feel like the right choice for every group. I find that I can do away with that rule and not worry about tipping into therapy territory when I’m working with someone over a long period of time (as an ongoing writing coach) or in a workshop with experienced writers. Just as you say, there’s always another perspective to consider.

  • […] the Brevity blog: a guest post by Jennifer McGuiggan titled “Writing Workshop Is Not Group Therapy.” […]

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  • Maya Morrow says:

    Wonderful observations and pointers. I learned a lot from reading this. The only point I disagree with you on is that 99.9% (just go with it) of writers sharing their personal stories (especially new ones) are completely terrified and anxious about how intimate details of their most private moments will be received by complete strangers. Anyone who tells me I’m brave for what I’ve written is helping to build up my confidence as a writer. I think we all need that at certain times.

  • […] Writing Workshop Is Not Group Therapy — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

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