Workshop paralysis

Sorry for the long hiatus.  I have excuses, but that’s all they are, and after a while all excuses sound the same.

At the beginning of the month, I spent the better part of a week at Viable Paradise, a one-week writers’ workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d originally attended in 2004, at VP 8, and this time I was back for my second year as staff.  It’s a fun, if intense, experience, and it’s always strange to see the workshop from the other side.  One of the best parts of being staff is meeting all these new writers, some just starting out, some with a few stories under their belt, all trying for the same goal: to write something really good.

Of course, because it’s a workshop, all of these fresh-faced shiny new writers are there to meet the same fate: a crushing, soul-wrenching critique not unlike the mighty stompy foot of a stompy guy.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an overstatement; crits vary, and reactions vary with them.  But one thing I remember well, not just from my time at VP8 but from discussions with other alumni (and Clarion alumni as well) is the feeling of paralysis after a workshop.  It doesn’t happen to everyone.  Nor should it; since all writers are different, there’s a wide range of reaction to an intensive workshop.  But there’s a certain range of responses that many people have, and for me it was one of the hardest parts of a workshop — and it didn’t even take place until I was off the island and away.

When I emerged from Viable Paradise, I had a brain that was fizzing like Diet Coke with Mentos dropped in.   (Slightly less messy, but you get the idea.)  Lots of new ideas, new skills, new resources for work and revision and chasing down that elusive great idea.  And that wasn’t even touching the work I’d had critiqued!  (For the reaction to that, see here.)  I had a whole new toolbox with which to assemble a story!

And I sat down to write and…nope.  All of a sudden, every time I started to write something out, I could see not only the stylistic flaws — which I had trained myself to overlook, knowing that I’d fix them next time through — but the plot issues, the pacing problems, the characters who swung wildly between flat and cliche.  Hell, I’d spent so much time concerned with how a story should begin that I couldn’t for the life of me begin one — every beginning seemed too slow, or too didactic, or not nearly the right place to start!  I’d spent so much time learning that for my process, the most important thing was getting that first draft down, and now I couldn’t even start that first draft.

I had a bad case of Workshop Paralysis.  And I suspect I’m not the only one to have gone through it.  There’s even a learning model that explains some of it: moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence (with conscious competence just barely and perpetually out of reach).   Now that I knew all the errors I was prone to, I could not for the life of me unsee them.  Every story I started had them, and had them to a crippling degree.

There are many ways of getting through this.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of letting the data settle in one’s head.  Sometimes there are other factors in your life affecting your creativity.  Sometimes you need to work around the problems — write something silly, or useless, or just to remind yourself what you can do.  I’ve got a notebook full of vignettes that will never go anywhere, but are the result of “lunch break and either I write something stupid or I combust…or I check the internet again, but what’s the point?” moments.

For me, some of the solution was time.  Some of it was remembering my strengths and how I wanted to use them — plot, and the intricacies of it, and thus the need to be more rigorous in how I revealed a story.  And some of it was sheer mind-trickery.  I still have trouble beginning a story, and so if I’m just trying to get that first draft on paper, often I’ll either write a few lines for the beginning and then jump ahead, or I’ll just not write the beginning until I’m well into the rest.  By then I have a better idea of where the story’s going, after all.

But that sudden task of having all these new methods of critique, that moment of realizing that your work is a lot more difficult than you’d thought…that can be paralyzing, and worse still if you turn those delicate tools for critique into blunt instruments for beating yourself up.

Writers, did you have this workshop paralysis as well?  How did you get over it?   (Did you?)

Next time: technobabble can be your friend!



8 Responses to “Workshop paralysis”

  1. October 19, 2010 at 10:20 am

    This is a great articulation of the experience. I have not had the pleasure of going to any of the big workshops, but I can have the same effect after a writing convention when I’ve just spent all my time focused on learning a billion techniques all at once until they become an overwhelming jumble. There’ve been articles over the last year about multitaskinga and indecision, how having too many choices means you don’t make any choice at all, and that’s a little how this feels like to me.

    How do I work through it? I have very specific goals and I focus on one at a time. Like your technique of skipping the beginning to just get going, that focus narrows the field of vision enough that only some things apply and I can struggle through as best I can until they click and settle.

    I love the line about unconscious competence transitioning into conscious incompetence. That is so true. I have that problem with workshops I’m teaching because I have to analyze how I do things down to the slightests aspect in order to convey them to others, and anything that close becomes a jumble of disconnected events.

    Thanks for this.


  2. 2 John Chu
    October 19, 2010 at 11:53 am

    I’m going through Workshop Paralysis right now. Time has helped a lot. So has selling a story I wrote during the workshop. (If nothing else, that drives home the point that what I need to do is sit down and write.) Also, giving myself a deadline helps. (It’s amazing how quickly I write when I tell myself that I need to finish in time to hand the story to the writing group.)

    However, I haven’t started anything new yet. Everything I’ve done so far is revision (albeit substantial revision at times). Part of it is that I’ve always been a little single minded when I write. I find it hard to work on any story besides the one that I’m writing right now, and I’m in the midst of a novella I started during the workshop. Part of it is after 6 weeks of new stories, I think the “new story” part of me just needs some time off.

    When I finish the novella, I’ll probably just scribble a bunch and see what comes out. If nothing good comes of it, that’s ok.

    (And I’m going to finish the novella. I’ve told myself I don’t get to read Ted Chiang’s “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” until I do. I’ve also given myself a deadline of the end of November. It’s not NaNoWriMo since the novella won’t be 50000 words long (I hope) and I’m already working on it. I’m just borrowing the deadline.)

  3. 3 mlronald
    October 20, 2010 at 8:05 am

    Margaret, I know I’ve stolen the line about unconscious incompetence from someone — I just can’t remember who. But it covers so much, from going along thinking everything’s fine to suddenly noticing all the flaws to beginning to learn the way through those flaws…I haven’t yet reached the last stage, I think.

    The very specific goals you mention is a major part of it. I slowly trained myself to ignore stylistic problems in the first draft so that I wouldn’t bog down searching for just the right sentence (since I revise frequently, this worked with my style). But I’m still training myself to ignore temporary plot holes or characters who need better motivations. I’ve got one whole draft missing a subplot, and I won’t go back to put it in till I’ve finished the draft.

    John, that deadline does wonders, doesn’t it? I’ve written some of my favorite stories in that last week before deadline. Of course, they all got critted hard, but they came out the other side all right.

    I think you’re right about the “new story” part being a little tired — hell, I’d be exhausted after six weeks of new ideas. I do like working on several new projects at once, though. For me, it means that I don’t regret the old project because I’m jonesing to start on the new one, which tends to harm how I treat the old project.

    Also, that’s a great idea — a reward after you’re done. Maybe I’ll save Kraken for after the Giant Draft of Doom hits what I thought was its midpoint and what is turning into the end of the first book.

  4. October 20, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Um yeah. Having written about 500 words of fiction in the time since I got back from VP I can pretty much claim workshop paralysis. But for me it isn’t so much an inability to do something because I can see how bad it is (being a firm believer in shitty first drafts), it’s the urge to fix everything all at once on everything I’ve ever written piling up in my head and stopping up the plumbing. So to speak.

    I’ve been writing nonfiction though.

  5. 5 mlronald
    October 20, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Hi Phiala! How were the last few days of the workshop?

    I’m with you on shitty first drafts. (I love my shitty first drafts…well, I don’t, but you get the idea.) But yeah, that impulse to fix everything right now! is less than useful when trying to get back to writing, though. What nonfiction are you writing?

  6. October 21, 2010 at 5:54 am

    The last few days of VP are kind of a blur, although there were definitely glowing jellyfish, writing, and stunt copyediting.

    I write SF-related nonfiction for the Science in My Fiction group blog (Laura is also a contributor), and occasionally for Clarkesworld.

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