The Necessary Stress of the Workshop

By: Madeline Bodendorf

My first workshop was held on the last day of finals of the first semester of my freshman year. A mouthful, I know, but the point here is that I had literally the entirety of a semester to prepare for my first creative writing workshop. I should have been emotionally ready by then, right?

Cue the workshop anxiety.

By some miracle, I was chosen to workshop last.

I got to see my classmates get workshopped before me – some being poetry majors and having to muster up an entire short story. At least I had an advantage in that. However, one girl did already have a book published…

. I had always written fantastical stories and here I was in a workshop full of contemporary, non-genre writers, and I felt like an outsider. I was sweating.

Twelve voices spoke about my work for an entire hour, and I remained silent taking notes about what they had to say. I noted the people I knew were just mean, and put hearts next to the comments that made me feel good. I stressed over nothing. I was unsure of my work before workshop, but I left knowing it had potential. The same people who said they loved the entire piece also gave me constructive criticism to make the story better – not make me want to never look at it again. No one laughed at me or told me my writing was bad. If anything, they wanted to read more. Now, I’m reworking that first short story as part of my senior project.

I wondered if my peers also had similar fits of anxiety prior to their first workshop. I spoke with my only creative writing friend at the time, a poet, who said her first workshop in narrative techniques gave her such bad anxiety that she wanted to leave the hot room on the third floor of the crumbling natural sciences building to puke in the bathroom. She made it through, though, and used that piece as a submission to a lit mag.

One of my classmates didn’t even show up for her critique, and we as a class did not talk about her story. It was forgotten. Whether it was anxiety that kept her from attending her workshop or not I am unsure, but she missed out on the best opportunity to get feedback on her work from a class of her peers.

One of my other friends switched her major to creative writing in the middle of her college career. She was absolutely terrified to workshop with writers who have been through the ringer more than once. But as someone who didn’t consider herself a writer prior to joining the major, she came to see her own potential through the workshop. “It gets easier with each one,” she said.

Someone in Fiction II workshop wrote bravely about rough sex and bondage and went in to critique holding her head high. She was proud of her work and eager to hear what her classmates and professor thought about it. Not all of us can have this same confidence, but remember that this is normal. Everyone in creative writing writes to be critiqued – that’s just what the program is about.

The workshop works best when the author is silent and listens to every suggestion for their piece with attentiveness. Many creative writers do not even get to workshop until the graduate level. This is an amazing opportunity for us as undergrad writers to hear what our peers have to say and be noticed for our work.

If you’re going to put your work in the world, people are going to judge it. The workshop model may not be best for everyone emotionally, as they are faced with multiple people telling them what is bad about their writing. I cannot be an advocate for this model working one hundred percent of the time, but I can say that the workshop is the model widely used in creative writing programs. You will experience harsh judgment, but it will be in a safe space.

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