Workshop magic

Our speculations about Shakespeare are almost as multifarious and foolish as our speculations about the maker of the universe[…]. The itch for personally knowing authors torments most of us; we feel that if we could somehow get at the man himself, we should obtain more help and satisfaction from him than from his chosen self-revelation.
—Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, p. 57

It again is later than I wanted it to be. And the day was not, of itself, particularly rich… which is not the day’s fault. Days get to be ordinary, or sleepy, or mute. Surely I’ve got enough writing chops, however, to honor my intention despite a lack of obvious material! And lo, I had dropped my tabbed copy of The Mind of the Maker into my inbox (boy howdy I really need to shift these other piles into that inbox… or just slog through my inbox… or…)

and when I fished it out, I opened to this quote. It’s a common lament among artists, this. It lurks at the heart of my bleak tale of writing workshop dysfunction from my undergraduate years.

So it amuses me that during my recent Glen Workshop workshop, we experienced the diametric opposite. I bet you don’t understand what I mean, though. This is what I mean:

We participant-colleagues found way more in each work than ever its writer had dreamed it contained-!

The classic contract in writers’ workshops is that the creator sits silent while the rest of the group talks through the work at hand. This is to let the work stand on its own legs, to avoid the extra-curricular revelation that Sayers refers to. No mentions of, “I wrote this while I was at a residency in Banff,” or “I was reading a lot of Lives of the Saints at the time,” or “This is [something] that I wrote in a time in my life when I was very, very, very sad.

Many writers find this intensely frustrating. So much confusion could be avoided with just a few additional words! Eh, so sad, too bad, scribble it on your spare copy of the work so you can go back and add it in later.

Or you can be me, and find it extremely entertaining to hear all the speculation while at the same the time knowing “the answer.” Well, knowing an answer, though even if you wrote the thing you might be wrong. For the record, during my work’s review they were mostly accurate about the title, 20170412, and a few were thoughtful in noticing that the work’s not gendered. I have to decide for myself whether I want to pick up the torture aspect I originally intended, or if the currently-noticeable abject terror is sufficient.

But all that’s an aside.

It was a miraculous thing each time to hear one voice begin, haltingly, to tease out what that person noticed in the work under discussion. Then the next would comment, and the next. Add some gentle needling from our instructor, Gina, and from the edges of what had been spoken more insight would bloom, revealing more, and still more… .

I think our first… participant 🙂 …chose to be first in order to get the dread over with. Not speaking metaphorically, either.

She sat near me at the big oblong table. I watched her face shift, her eyes rounding with wonder, as we unpacked increasing significance, beauty, and skill. Clearly this was not a view she’d held of her work, nor of herself as the maker of such a work.

For we were a motley group. As are all the Glen Workshop groups, as best as I can tell—motley may be one of the Glen’s special gifts. Folk with multiple books published, writers of renown, persistent amateurs, novices… all of us together at an oblong table, offering our insights. Building upon each other, passing the revelations around, like jazz musicians.

Everyone’s work receiving similar treatment.
Each poem deeper and wiser, somehow, than the intention of the one who made it. (That’s a paraphrase, but I can’t put my finger on the quote right now.)

We get to say this, at the Glen: each creation a sliver of God’s creation, refracting a little Light everywhere, as the group (two or more gathered) are dazzled by each instantiation of Presence.


Anyone who wants to track the creator down to gain additional help and satisfaction is a fool.

2 thoughts on “Workshop magic

  1. With art, there is what the artist intends and what the experiencer encounters. Neither and both are the correct view. Sometimes there is even overlap between the two.

    1. The part that’s super special is how this duality is present at all levels of skill–if one hangs out with the work long enough on its own terms.

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