Why Do Writers Need Workshops?

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Last week I attended the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop in Portland, Oregon.  Each day was packed with morning workshops, afternoon craft talks, and evening readings and parties.  It was amazing.  On the flight back to Salt Lake City, I was thinking about the importance of these kinds of conferences for writers.

There are practical reasons writers need workshops.  To start, we can be deaf to our own verbal tics.  It usually takes another reader to gently point out that we have an inordinate affection for the word “inordinate.”  It also often falls to other readers to perceive a novel’s structural problems, such as that two characters serve virtually the same function in the plot and therefore one of them needs to go.  Finally, it’s vital to hear what we are getting right and where our work is hitting its mark.

However, the benefit of a writing workshop goes beyond critique and praise.  Writers are strange people.  On one hand, we love to work by ourselves, researching, drafting, and revising in isolation.  For many of us, solitude is a necessary and pleasant state that frees the mind for composition.  Because we are trying to understand and represent the full range of human experience, we are often venturing into the darkest corners of that experience and doing so all alone.

As much as writing requires us to go it alone a lot of the time, writers are also profoundly social people, obsessed with other people’s stories and hungry for companionship.  It can be hard to explain the nebulous and solitary endeavor of writing in a casual conversation at a neighborhood picnic.  Sometimes I just don’t tell people I’m writing a novel.  Sometimes I do and a long, awkward pause follows until they ask whether there’s a detective in it.  Which is why it’s such a balm to be in the community of other writers.  We are loners.  We are social creatures.  We are introverts with strong extrovert needs.  We get each other.  We come together to support each other in our intensely individual endeavors.  Thus, the paradox of a conference for writers, and, as writers, we love a good paradox.