Planing in the Workshop

This is a guest post from Caleb J Ross, author of the chapbook Charactered Pieces: stories, as part of his ridiculously-named Blog Orgy Tour. Visit his Web site for a full list of blog stops. Charactered Pieces: stories is currently available from OW Press (or Visit him at

…generally just presenting something semi-publicly is a big thing. And it might, for me, help whatever piece I’m working on if I get some feedback in-progress…as much as this idea [of a workshop] excites me, it also scares me senseless.

Revealing your work for the first time to people (especially friends) can be emotionally debilitating. I’ve been in many critique/workshopping groups over the years, so let me offer some tips that may help alleviate the stress. If these fail, drink.

• You are not your story

Detach yourself from your work. Remember that criticisms are aimed at your writing, not you. Even if the writing is about a personal experience, the criticisms are about how well that experience comes through on the page, not about the validity of the experience. I’ve even had college professors who disallowed participants from engaging directly with the writer and instead insisted on addressing the piece-at-hand. Saying “the story doesn’t work here,” as opposed to “you didn’t do this correctly, here.” This level of structured detachment worked quite well.

• Temper your skin

I always like to stay silent for at least a few minutes at the beginning of my story’s discussion, allowing the other workshoppers to converse before I voice any opinion. One thing that always breeds unnecessary conflict is the writer/artist’s defense of a work. Don’t defend your work, unless you are asked directly to by one of your peers. The workshop is about discovering how well you communicate an idea, not about what you intended to do with the idea. If the workshoppers are confused, be open to the possibility that your story may be unnecessarily confusing.

• Less is usually more

Above all, remember that every participant is workshopping to help get a better product out of you. The criticisms might hurt, especially when you think a particular passage or line is perfect, but sometimes you have to “kill your darlings,” as William Faulkner said. He was referring to murdering children, I believe, but the advice translates well enough. I can count a handful of lines that I stripped out of Charactered Pieces before it printed. The positive spin, though, is knowing that I’ll be able to give those lines to a more fitting story somewhere in the future; if they truly are good, then they won’t die.

• You need some alone time

It is easy to get intimate with a project. And perhaps, the more homely (re: room for improvement) the easier it is to drink into a courthouse wedding and hole up in the nearest trailer. This to say, the writer is with his project for a long time. Often, perhaps always, this intimacy promotes a skewed perspective on the work. The writer unwittingly learns to overlook flaws and convince himself that obvious faults are “creative” or his “style.” Fresh eyes, even if they disagree with what you may perceive, are often the best way to reset your own eyes. Trust the criticisms, even if they hurt.

• Sometimes it’s not you, it’s them

Finally—but take this piece of advice sparingly—it’s okay to disagree with the workshoppers. I say use this advice in moderation, because my experience tells me that the crowd is usually right. Or if not right, they touch on things that need to be addressed in some way. Sometimes the particular individuals in your group may be wrong. But not usually.

G here. On 11/21/09, I sat down with Caleb at The Newsroom in Kansas City, MO to sink a few pints and pick his brain about Charactered Pieces: stories. Lucky for you, I had my trusty point-n-shoot in pocket and now share that interview below.

About Gordon

Gordon Highland is a video producer/director in the Kansas City area who also makes music and writes fiction.
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