The Joy of Workshopping
Keeping the connection with other writers.
One of the many highlights of my M.A course was the workshopping sessions. As part of a group of four or five, I would submit my latest 2,000 words by a prearranged date and receive my fellow workshoppers’ work in return. By the time we came to the workshop, we had read and made written comments on our fellow students’ writing. Around half an hour was allocated to each member and we would start off by summarising what had happened in their extract – a good way of ensuring the work was clear and easy to follow. So often what we think we’ve said in our heads fails to translate onto paper, or we are so immersed in our characters and plot that we forget others do not have the same insights. Then, as a group, we would offer an oral critique of each person’s work. Some weeks I would come home high as a kite, convinced I was the best writer ever, at other times I would be full of self criticism and doubt. Whatever the case, I almost always moved on in my writing. Every term we would be put in a new workshop group, and each time I met wonderful people whose patience, generosity and perspicacity made a huge difference. I still continue to workshop today.
World War one poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were workshop buddies. They’d both ended up at Craiglockhart hospital, Edinburgh, being treated for shellshock (although in Sassoon’s case it was more of a punishment for his anti war stance). Their subsequent friendship is famously described in Pat Barker’s brilliant novel Regeneration. Under the more experienced Sassoon’s tutelage, Owen’s somewhat naïve, romantic poetry becomes harsh, cynical and immensely powerful. Sassoon changed Owen’s rather prosaic adjective ‘dead’ to the more haunting ‘doomed’ for example, in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and made the guns’ anger ‘monstrous’ rather than ‘solemn.’ You can view several drafts on the British Library website and see Owen’s poem became more intense and raw under Sassoon’s guidance. Consumed by survivor’s guilt after Owen’s death, only a week before the armistice, Sassoon collected and published his friend’s poems and it is thanks to him we have some of the most vivid, memorable responses to the war.
Other writers workshop too. William Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Daffodils’ might not have existed if he hadn’t taken a walk by Ullswater with his sister on a stormy day. In her journal entry for 15 April 1802 Dorothy Wordsworth describes how the daffodils 'tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake.’ When William came to write his poem two years later, the ‘dancing daffodils’ of the fourth line was clearly derived from his sister’s words. I’m sure there were a lot of discussions at Dove cottage about the poet’s composition.
If it’s possible to connect with other writers I would highly recommend it. My monthly workshop sessions with two wonderful writers are a highlight of my calendar. I think we would all say our novels have flourished as a result. Writers spend many solitary hours poring over a keyboard – getting out and discussing our work with sympathetic and constructive readers can be sociable, enjoyable and highly productive.