Workshops: When, How and Why?
I just finished taking a writing class that I wasn’t very productive. In this case it was almost entirely my fault. I had taken a class with this instructor before and found it to be quite beneficial. That’s part of the reason I decided to take the class, despite having reservations. My classmates seemed nice and capable enough. I really didn’t stick around long enough to find out just how nice or capable though. My concerns turned out to be valid.
The problem had to do with timing. I still have a lot to learn and am perpetually looking for ways to enhance my understanding of the writing craft. However, I was in the middle of a rather large project and was afraid that taking the class, no matter how illuminating, would disrupt my progress. I also felt that what I needed to work on most was characterization, and the class, though advanced, was on the more universal aspects of writing. Still, I was also desperate for some unbiased, constructive criticism and so signed up. My fears about an interruption of my work proved well founded, especially when other unrelated issues popped up to further distract me. I dropped out of the class about halfway through when I could no longer participate in a manner that was fair to either my classmates or myself.
All of this got me to wondering about just how productive it is to take a writing class. Four or five years ago I absolutely needed all the instruction I could get. At that time I was capable of writing a proper sentence, most of the time, but not much more. I needed the most basic guidance in every area of composition and creativity. The question I have now is when does the principle of diminishing returns kick in?
I’ve been giving it all some thought for a couple of weeks and have come to some conclusions. At some point you have to leave the theoretical behind and put what you’ve learned to practical use. Which is not to say that you’ve learned all you can, but at some point more can be accomplished by doing than by studying. Only the individual in question can decide when that is.
I should also point out that this isn’t a screed against taking writing classes or workshops, I believe they can be quite helpful, as long as they are pursued strategically. That’s where I failed. It’s a bit like taking golf lessons. Beginners necessarily start out with the basic swing, but more advanced players who have habituated the basics go to a coach to identify specific problems and work almost exclusively on those. I think the same approach applies when looking for a writing coach. I needed practice and guidance in techniques of characterization and should have more patiently searched out ways of learning about that specifically, maybe through books or online tutorials, rather than rushing to take a class that didn’t suite my needs.
Another lesson I learned was not to interrupt myself when I have some momentum. I will never again take a class or do anything else to disrupt the creative flow, no matter how positive or helpful it may seem at the time. I can only speak for myself, but all it really did was throw me off my stride. It was like a marathon runner stopping in the middle of a race to take an aerobics class. Getting restarted and back in rhythm again took longer than I imagined.
To sum things up, never stop learning or looking for ways to improve either yourself or your writing, but don’t do it haphazardly. Always have a plan and a purpose.