Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Writing Workshops: Satan at Large

I had the misfortune to enter a pub last week. I was supposed to meet up with a gang of sci-fi writers to discuss a writing workshop, but was stood up, or lost them to another venue. Even worse, I had to ask the barman if he’d seen a group of youths enter the pub. I mean, actual conversation with a barman. Can you imagine the trauma?

Who do barmen think they are? Standing behind a hardwood counter polishing glasses and dishing out patter like afternoon quiz show hosts. Is that supposed to put me at ease, being called mate and chief and pal? Yes, banter is fine, banter has its function in social situations, but this impromptu banter needs to be curbed. Too many people are walking about making humorous remarks and making themselves look witty and clever. I’ve had enough. When I meet friends of friends, I have to drum up ironic mots that comment on the briefness of our acquaintance and the unlikelihood of ever meeting again. Worse still, I have to pretend that I want to meet this person again at some point in the future. Sure, they might be a talented pianist or harpist or balloonist or whatever, and thank you for taking an interest in what I get up to (not), but why should I make a phony promise to this two-second nobody because I happen to be occupying the same Cartesian coordinates as them for a fleeting second? I mean. This is madness.

Anyway. Since then, noncommittal shrugs and unanswered emails have rendered the workshop venture moot.

Writing workshops is our topic. I hate them intensely unless they are web-based. Face to face groups are awkward and embarrassing and the following people are usually in attendance:

a) Braggers. Those who have been fortunate enough to have the piece they are about to read published in a new collection from Canongate and thought they’d share the story anyway. Instant reaction: hatred. We hate you because we have not had our new piece published in a new collection from Canongate. Please leave our group forever and die. Please.

b) Actors. Hellish. On my MA Course, I have had to slink under my chair many times when co-students have read things out in theatrical voices. I have nothing against extroverts (well, I hate them) and there’s nothing wrong with being an extrovert (well, there is) but doesn’t everyone cringe a little when someone puts embarrassing relish on a story that would be fine if read normally?

c) Monotones. People who write stories with the humour surgically removed and read them in slow and earnest voices and send the room to sleep. These stories seem to go on for hours, and politeness forbids interruption. Whether the story is good or not is irrelevant. I used to speak in monotones but then sped things up, drowned things in humour, and shut up.

d) Talkers. When asked about the present piece, they will tell you about their time in Germany. Then their time as a civil engineer in Bulgaria. Their life has been so much more amazing then yours and they will prove this by discussing their meeting with Ghandi, the Pope and Jesus.

e) The Young. Let’s face it, people in their twenties are insufferable idiots. The hesitations and apologies never end. “Well, this is crap, but here goes.” “I wrote this in five minutes, but OK.” Shut up. Read. Usually what they read is their most polished work and that wave of praise will keep their petulant egos bloated for another half an hour.

f) Oldies. Oldies will dither and chat about themselves with the same unselfconscious effusion for hours, talking about their sons and relatives and how they are writing this for a relative who passed away and how they don’t have big literary ambitions, they want to write this for that family member who died horribly and want to celebrate his memory. What can you do? Sleep.

Criticism at workshops is limited to general comments on the piece. Perhaps someone will point out an awkward sentence. Having to come up with thoughts spontaneously is impossible and the most useless babble comes streaming out a dozen gobs in surround sound. It’s hard enough listening to the million different voices telling you what a story should be and how to write a sentence properly and what literature should be and why you are mostly terrible at everything you write without factoring in a bunch of wittering twerps dishing out their unfounded opinions for a hellish hour.

Then again, your experience may vary.


  1. I couldn't agree more. Useless. I'm still jealous, though, that you have the opportunity to participate in a non-internet workshop.

  2. b and e are the worst, and I do not mean breaking and entering, which is also bad. But still nowhere near as bad as b and e.

  3. Chris: Well, I almost did, but then the no-show. Past horrors came to me in the night.

    Jeff: Yes, B&E is probably worse. Unless they steal the workshop itself. Which would be blessed relief. (Provided you were weeing during the burglary).

  4. I have nothing against extroverts (well, I hate them) and there’s nothing wrong with being an extrovert (well, there is) *snort* Oh this was fabulous!

    And aren't YOU in your 20s? Loved this little summary though...

  5. Hart: I never respond to your comments. I'm feeling guilty. I am in my twenties. Exactly. I observe.

  6. I've often wondered how clever people listen to a reading and then can comment
    "Paragraph 6, subsection 3 should have the word 'had' deleted from the 3rd line and 'then' deleted from the 6th line. Paragraph 8 should be moved in front of paragraph 3. I note you mispelled Beezlebub as Beezlebib in paragraph 10, subsection 2, 3rd line."

    Personally, the best I could do would be to ask "Was the sneeze after 10 minutes actually part of the story? It somehow seemed out of place."

    With the exception of b and c, all the others appear in online workshops as well.

  7. Ha! Yes, I've never had such razor-eyed feedback as that. You must invite me to these workshops of yours. Online workshops are a whole different punnet of onions. I should write a post about them and make all ex-Urbisites turn to drink. (Or even more drink, the sots).