On Groups, Workshops, and Agendas

Snake warning signCrossposted to the Deadline Dames. This is a post I wrote a while back and lost when my site was hacked. I managed to find a backup copy, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, so here it is, slightly edited but still crunchy. Enjoy!

Come in, sit down, have a drink. Let’s talk about groups.

Let me begin by saying that I know writer’s groups, critique groups, and workshops do work for some people. I know a few (far too few, IMHO, but that’s beside the point) people have been helped by them. I don’t dispute that under the proper conditions and with the proper safeguards, they can be safe and fun. So can cars, stand-up comedy, juggling, and sex.

But I don’t attend workshops and I don’t have a group. I very rarely (like, maybe once a year) partake in a critique group. I am very wary of workshops and groups in general, just like I’m wary of writing “classes”. It’s all because of ersatz jolts and agendas.

Writing is hard, and support and community are good. I don’t dispute that. I do have what I consider a community, and a good beta reader. I find both invaluable–but it took me a long time to find either. I had to find people whose agendas matched mine. My agenda is to make rent as a professional writer, and to have as little bullshit as possible going on around my work. This means I have no time or patience for the usual “critique” group or workshop.

This is not the fault of the really earnest and dedicated people who organize or attend. It’s the fault of the Speshul Snoflakes and predators, conscious or unconscious. It’s also the fault of the “self-help” component of lots of classes, workshops, and groups. Let’s talk about that component first.

I don’t like self-help books for the same reason I don’t like books about writing or the diet industry. If there was a magic bullet that let you do all these things without hard work, the billion-dollar industries would tank overnight. While there might be one or two things of value in these books, people end up mistaking the effort of reading them for effort toward changing whatever it is you’re unhappy about. It’s an ersatz jolt that people mistake for real work. After a while it wears off, and you run to the bookstore, begging another self-help book to take your money and give you that jolt again.

This is the trap.

Notice that I do not dispute there is some use to self-help, books on writing, or diet books. But to my mind, that use is far outweighed by the risk of mistaking the passive effort of reading for the active effort of doing the damn work. I fully admit to falling into this trap over and over again until I realized nothing was changing and got disgusted with the whole thing. Even now I feel the siren song of self-help or diet books. It’s hard to resist that prettily packaged temptation.

I see a lot of talented and otherwise self-directed new/young writers getting caught in mistaking the emotional jolt of workshops or crit groups as a valid replacement for the thankless slog of writing every day, submitting and getting rejected, and just generally working your ass off for very little pay. Which, to be honest, is what writing is. I view workshops and crit groups as a nice occasional condiment, but in no way comparable to the main course. So to speak.

I realize that I come to this as a working writer with kids to feed. Mine is not the only writing “agenda”. There are hobbyists, people who don’t want/need to make a living but do want to get published, and then there are the Speshul Snowflakes. Any time you have a group setting, you have people with different agendas. And there are many people whose agendas are not about writing, per se.

These are the people with emotional agendas who hijack groups and workshops. Suddenly the group/workshop is not about writing, it’s about Them And Their Drama. They can get Passive-Aggressive, Abusive, Loud, or just plain Backstabbing And Horrid.

This is the largest reason why I don’t do groups and workshops. I have seen too many of them get hijacked by a Speshul Effing Snowflake. Or by the person who can’t take honest crit because YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THEIR GEEEEENIUS; the person that doesn’t need an editor because editors only cramp their style, dontcha know; the person who is so avant-garde and groundbreaking that The Business Won’t Understand Them–do I have to go on? If you’ve attended a group or a workshop, I will bet you money you’ve encountered one of these, or one of the many others I could list.

These people waste a lot of time. In a group, they can be toxic because sharing one’s writing is an emotionally vulnerable exercise. There are people who are writing and crit-group predators. (Any source of vulnerability/prey will draw them. This is just a fact of life.) If the group dynamics don’t exclude them and exclude them HARD, they will destroy your group, do their best to destroy your peace of mind, and move on to the next feeding-ground. So many writer’s groups have no boundaries when it comes to interpersonal behavior. Critique can get very personal with very little provocation. It’s a recipe for disaster.

With workshops, you get a slightly different class of predator–the predators who paid to be there just like the folks who honestly want to get writing practice/advice instead of drama out of the workshop. Forking over the cash does give them some rights, but not the right to completely hijack the workshop and behave inappropriately. If the people running the workshop don’t watch and set boundaries (and refuse to take any shit), the situation quickly becomes unbearably toxic, and a complete and total waste of money and time for the people who really needed to get something other than drama out of it.

Because of the emotional component of writing, and because of the way we treat creativity and artists in our society, groups and workshops are playgrounds for predators, from the sad and pathetic passive-aggressive to the finely-tuned killing machine. Writing groups implode regularly from this type of stress, so do crit groups. Perennial workshop attendees can be predators, dead weight, or people mistaking the drama and ersatz jolt of a workshop for real work. (They can even be nice people who find the workshops stimulating and useful. I don’t rule that out.)

The chance of drawing a decent writing group or attending a workshop that won’t get hijacked is, to my mind, analogous to the chance of winning the lotto or having an airplane part fall out of the sky onto your head. It CAN happen, sure. But my money is on writing every day and getting to the point where you can spot the people with Emotional Agendas, not writing agendas–and AVOID THEM LIKE THE FUCKING PLAGUE. Then you’re ready to sift through your community, online or not, and find a good beta reader or a nicely-balanced group, if you really think you need one.

Community is a wonderful thing. I have a great one, and I have a beta reader who is worth her weight in gold. Literally. (Yes, Selkie, I’m talking about you.) It took me over a decade to find my beta, and I had to function as a professional, largely on my own and without a community, for a long time before I did.

If you need a group, if you really think you need workshops, fine. If that works for you, go for it. Just be careful and watch out. It’s a dangerous jungle out there.

Good luck.

  • wolflahti

    Workshops I’ve found in general to be an exercise for the participants to feel good about themselves, no matter how bad their writing might be.

    On the other hand, I’ve had good experiences with writers groups; they can impart invaluable benefits to one’s writing
    . I’ve been in three that worked really well for me, and one that never went beyond the mutual-admiration stage. The ones that worked used the Moscow Moffia format, but whatever pattern you follow, you need to lay down ground rules at the start and be sure they are followed.

  • Thanks to wolflahti for the nice words re the Moscow Moffia (actually, our name was “Writers’ Bloc,” but AJ–Algis Budrys–coined the Moffia phrase, and it stuck) format.

    As one of the founders of said group, I will say that if you are serious about kickstarting your writing, it’s a good way to start–if everyone else is also serious! As you learn to write and critique others’ writing, you also learn to critique your own. But you can’t allow personal attacks nor any of the other time wasters mentioned above.

    OTOH, maybe the best way to learn to write is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and type! (Or longhand; whatever works for you!) And then follow Heinlein’s rules. But there is no single solution to becoming a better writer.

    As Kipling said, “There are nine and sixty ways/of constructing tribal lays/and each and every one of them is right!”

  • Shannon

    Moscow Maffia… do tell what is this Moscow Mafia, and are you bringing Viggo with you…lol

  • Not “mafia”–“Moffia”; it was a writers’ group formed in Moscow, Idaho in the early ’80s by members of the Palouse Empire SF Association, or PESFA–the same group that put on MosCon. (The name “Moscow Moffia” was coined by Algis Budrys, who was a regular attendee at MosCon, and who formed a friendship with several of the founding members.)

    The group originally consisted of me, Jon Gustafson, Victoria E. Mitchell, Dean Wesley Smith, Nina Kiriki Hoffman and one or two other members–forgive me–whom I can’t recall at this moment. We originally met in Dean Smith’s Paperback Exchange, a used bookstore.

    I’m sure you either recognize or can Google these names. I think our success speaks for itself.

  • Good things to think about! I put on a writers’ workshop and conduct two monthly critique groups. We don’t tolerate bullshit. Maybe not everyone is there to write as if their rent depended on it, but we treat them as if they do.

    Yes, a sense of community is one of the greatest side benefits of attending a workshop or critique group. For many solitary writers, that is a wonderful thing. I’ve lost count of the writers who have thanked me or the workshop in the acknowledgments page of their books. It’s not always a waste of time!