What Happens When We Don’t Like A Workshop Piece?

A few months ago, a group member asked me, “How do I write a response to a story I don’t like?”

Given the diversity of artistic sensibilities in the BWW, it’s pretty common that participants will read stuff they don’t like. That’s normal. In almost every case, the piece isn’t finished yet. There are plot holes. There are things that don’t make sense. There are characters that still need to blossom into real people. Typical first, second, even third draft stuff.

To me, judging a BWW workshop story/essay/poem in this way is like judging a painting that’s only half finished. Half the canvas is blank, or maybe the whole canvas is just a rough sketch, waiting for color or texture. Who would dare to judge it when it isn’t fully realized yet? For these workshop pieces, the author is likely still trying to figure out the piece. Our job as workshop participants is not to pretend to be Michiko Kakutani and decide what’s good and what isn’t. Our job is to help the author see the variety of ways her work can be interpreted. We are receiving a message when we read someone’s work. But did we receive the message the author intended? Our discussion of the piece should answer that question.

The implication here is that we should remove all judgments from our comments, which is impossible, because when you say, “This passage made me feel like I was in the room with these characters” (a helpful comment), isn’t the implication that you like it? And if you say, “I don’t get why Character X does this. It makes no sense,” aren’t you saying you didn’t like it? Perhaps, but only if we assume that feeling so close to the characters is a good thing and a lack of clarity is bad, respectively. What’s right for the piece is not up to the workshop—it’s up to the author. So if the author wanted distance from the character, she failed; if she wanted ambiguity, she succeeded.

This of course ignores the question of what the author “should” want. Let’s save that for another time!

Still, there are moments you’ll find yourself reading something in workshop that you don’t like, and for supposedly good reasons. Once, when I was a graduate student, a fellow student submitted a story in which a child molester chops off half of a child’s foot. None of us liked that. I still remember that scene today because reading it made me feel terrible. So, in the workshop, instead of saying, “This scene sucks and I really don’t like it and you should change it,” I said, “I felt sick reading this.” If the author wanted me to feel sick (and I don’t know what he wanted), then I suppose he succeeded. If he didn’t, then it’s up to him to revise. My hope is that he decided to revise, but it’s not my decision to make.

All this is to say that we’re trying to create a supportive atmosphere in our workshops, one in which participants aren’t worried about being perfect from the get-go. If you do like the piece, then everyone wins, at least for moment. Then, of course, there are usually changes to be made—there’s canvas to cover and sketches to fill in with color, texture, and depth.