By Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevitch
I know, we’re all really nice people! We like each other and we have big hearts and we would never be so crass as to suggest that the inner life and creative output of another human being is anything less than utterly fascinating. But hear me out.
Much has been written about the perils of the workshop model, specifically the fears that the model will drag all attendant writers down to the lowest common denominator; produce technically proficient stories that have had all spark of innovation or character life edited right out of them (the dreaded “workshop story”); or simply cause writers to abandon stories that they’ve been forced to workshop before the stories are truly ready. (In conversation the other day, a writer I know suggested another peril: the tendency to conform to the “rule of three,” noting everything in rhythmically pleasing groups of threes. Guilty as charged.)
But having been involved in a good number of workshops at this point, both as a participant and as a teacher, I’ve come to worry more about another peril of the model, a peril that can lead to readers’ failure to call writers out on exactly the kind of self-conscious tricks mentioned above: workshop students tend to forget that they’re required to be there. I don’t mean in attendance, sitting around a large table, but rather in the page—in the world of the story. They’re required to read. They’re even required to finish the piece. This simple requirement changes everything about their relationship to what’s on the page. I’ve come to think that this gap is at least partially responsible for stories that do well in workshop sometimes floundering out there in the real world. Once readers are obliged to read a piece, if there’s nothing technically wrong with it—nothing they can isolate and articulate enough to render feedback on, anyway—they will inevitably praise it. But a certain factor—let’s call it “blahness”—never gets mentioned. The workshop model in its premise has done away with what’s arguably the single most important question for a piece’s real-world success: would you read this piece if you didn’t have to?
Because, dear writer, I am sorry to tell you this, but no one can be forced to read your work in the real world except the people who love you—and sometimes not even them.
I know “slow” is the current commonly accepted euphemism for boring, but “slow” is misleading, implying as it does that the problem is one of pacing. Not every piece should be “fast.” But every piece must keep its reader reading—otherwise, in the real world, it would die a pretty quick death.
I would never suggest that a critique of “boring” alone should be enough to sink a piece, or generations of high schoolers would have done in the Bard long ago. This critique requires responsible readers, meaning readers who are not lazy, who begin from a place of good faith and interest, and who are cognizant that their tastes may not be the tastes of others. ‘Boring’ should not be about taste. That is, striking pieces that have something to say on a topic in which you personally have absolutely zero interest should not get a response of “boring.” But timid pieces about a topic you adore that have nothing new to say about the topic should. This critique, in other words, requires you not only to demand more of the piece you’re reading, but more from yourself as a reader, becoming the best—most interested! most ambitious!—version of a reader you can be.
How should we mark such a response? I have encountered readers who mark with an exclamation point or a solid-caps “wow” any moment in a text that truly surprises them, and I will admit that equally literal gestures occurred to me. But even I, who pride myself on a stolid, square-shouldered response to feedback (if only sometimes after I’ve had a good cry), would die a little inside upon seeing “zzz…” marked next to a passage that caused the reader to fall asleep—or, worse, the traced outline of the drool marks the reader made while slumbering. Even a sweet little drawing of a quarter moon, perhaps surrounded by a few stars to evoke the night sky, seems a bit too close to a knife’s blade. So how about this: a small circle in the margin of the page, to signal a change in the reader’s attention level at a given point. The circle could be filled in all the way for moments when the reader was rapt, put to half-mast for moments when the story was inching along well enough but the reader was fighting the impulse to check how many pages remained, and left empty for the moment the reader actually did put the story down, not to be picked up again until, say, the night before workshop.
This, after all, is the information a writer truly needs from a reader: when were you engaged, and when were you not. Everything else is between the writer and the page.
But, writer, if you do find a way to force people to read your work, feel free to disregard everything I’ve just said. And let me know what it is!