Making sense of the writing workshop exercises

I’m currently working on my third assignment for the writing workshop, and I’m starting to wonder what the best way is to approach these exercises, at least for me personally. There is the “correct” way, and that is to faithfully follow the guidelines of the exercise. There is certainly value to that approach, but isn’t it more meaningful to experiment a little bit with these exercises, to approach it from a slightly different way, with the added risk that I am not doing it the correct way? In my opinion it is. By approaching the exercise in a slightly different way and then “failing,” which happens quite often, and receiving feedback on why and how a particular piece has failed the exercise, provides me with more understanding than if I had done the exercise perfectly.

I don’t want to sound like the exercises are too restrictive, because they are not. They actually give you a lot of freedom to write what you want. And I don’t want to make it sound like my way is “better.” I’m not even sure if I am getting my meaning across, so maybe I should illustrate it with an example. Let’s revisit the previous assignment:

Describe a dramatic event during an otherwise ordinary day. Move back and forth between the drama and the ordinary events. The narrator does not explicitly describe his emotions, but it becomes evident from the way he describes the ordinary events.

One of the criticisms of my story was that the narrator seemed too indifferent, because he showed too little of his emotions, and seemed too focused on the external things. Well, these are actually the elements which I was deliberately trying to incorporate into the story, so in a way I managed to accomplish much of what I set out to do. One of the participants even commented that she had the feeling that everything I put into the story was a very deliberate decision. I’ll definitely take that as a compliment.

However, the narrator  of the story did not seem to resonate with the other participants and the teacher, and that was something I hoped I would be able to accomplish. He just came across as too unsympathetic to the others. Some of them even thought the narrator didn’t care about his brother at all! Yes, I wanted the narrator to come across as somewhat indifferent, but only because he was struggling to cope with and ignore his emotions. The narrator did not have to be sympathetic or likeable in the eyes of the reader, but the reader should be able to understand his predicament, recognize the struggle he is going through. I thought I made that apparent through the many different clues I sprinkled throughout the text, but clearly they did not get the message across. Mission failed. To make the reader better understand the narrator, I needed to show more of the narrator’s feelings.

So you see, I’m not saying that the exercises themselves are not meaningful. They are. And I’m not saying that the comments of the other participants or the teacher are not valid, because they definitely are valid. In fact, those comments are very valuable. I’m just saying that for me personally, it makes more sense to try to approach the exercises slightly differently, to take a little risk. Writing is a very creative process, and I am still trying to find my way around. In that sense, failing is not necessarily a bad thing. The insights you gain from failing may in the end prove to be more valuable than all the positive feedback you receive by succeeding every single time.

 

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Making sense of the writing workshop exercises

  1. Ishana

    “The insights you gain from failing may in the end prove to be more valuable than all the positive feedback you receive by succeeding every single time.” — Completely agree. Though I do hope you’re still getting positive feedback on what your strengths in writing are. Going by your fourth paragraph, it seems you are.

    I also agree that it’s good to go about the exercise in your own way. If you (generic you, not you specifically) simply follow all the directions, what will you do when you have no assignment? It’s hard to write a story on your own if all you know how to do is complete assignments. Taking your own route will help open your mind to new possibilities and perspectives, perhaps even making it easier for you to write on your own when you no longer have guidelines to follow.

  2. I think you should do the assignment as assigned. You may have a pattern to your writing that you’re not even aware of and need to shake it up a bit. If the assignment, as is, makes you feel out of your comfort zone or just isn’t “you” then by changing it you haven’t learned anything. You’ve gone back to the old familiar you destined to continue repeating the same thing over and over.

    It sounds like, to me, in your story you didn’t put enough physical action to show the emotions the charater was trying to hide. That’s why he came across indiffernt. In His mind, he should have been trying to be indiffernt but his body language should have been spilling the emotion. I haven’t read the story so I could be off base.

    I would stick to the assignment. I’m sure they are designed to help teach you something about yourself and your writing. Changing it will only defeat the purpose.

    • You actually make some very good points. It’s actually not so much I’m changing the exercises, but looking at it from a slightly different angle. Sometimes it works out well (week 4 for example), but other times maybe not so good. But you may be right, maybe my subconsious is urging me toward a certain direction which I’m trying to justify afterwards. Yes, I tend to do that also in my daily life.

      Good point about body language. I tend to get caught up in a character’s mind, so that I sometimes forget about the physical aspects of a story. Maybe that’s why the exercise of week 4 worked out well for me, as I was forced to focus on the external scene instead of the character’s internal thinkings.

      Thanks for the helpful comments! You definitely gave me something to think about.

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