If there's one major, defineable difference between an Art and a Skill, it's that artists are never quite, as a whole, sure whether or not they should be going to school for it. Oh, sure, there's skill involved in every art, and most writers won't argue about the necessity for potential word-weavers to be taught the basics of vocabulary, construction, grammar and so forth. But can a class or workshop teach you to write creatively?

The basic idea is that if you write, and let other people read and comment on your work, you'll learn how to tell a good story. Which is how every writer does it, really. You write, you get some eyes on it, you try your best to listen to what the readers have to say without vomiting on your shoes...you write it. tear it up. and write it again. But the claim of workshops is that you can do it better with their help and supervision than you could on your own. Creative writing workshops, as they exist, span everything from kids meeting in basements to several-thousand-dollar, live-in, prestigious affairs like Clarion.

This, I think, no artist would argue with. Of course you learn Art by making it; there really isn't any other way. And if you intend to sell your Art, you need to get good at offering it to its consumers, accepting their feedback and producing something they'll enjoy. There's also a business side to writing--there's dealing with editors and submissions, long negotiations and longer waits. Some workshops help you learn this; others don't; and there are still others strictly dedicated to teaching it.

And yes, there are dangerous workshops--they're rare, but the tricks to avoiding them are things writers should think about anyway, so here goes a short list:

  • Avoid workshops that keep a copy of your work!
  • Avoid online groups that post your work in an area that can be read by anyone--you're considered to have given up those meaty "first publication" rights if your work is freely viewable on the Internet.
  • Do check your sources--if you're going to pay for a workshop, get information on who runs it, what people have said about it before (not counting the workshop's own testimonials!), and what regress you have to get your money back if you're not satisfied.
But the merit of even legitimate workshops is still up for debate. Writing is a creative act. Some people feel the urge to do it and others don't; some seem to have a talent for it, and others don't. (But far be from me to say that some don't learn that talent, either.) That's the big question, though: Can you really foster or, uh, "create" creativity, through training?

Well, writers particularly are famous for never agreeing on anything, and as many wordsmiths and wannabes as there are in the world, I would be willing to bet that no two of them go about perfecting their Art in exactly the same way. The mechanics of creativity are as magical as anything still is these days; why a thunderstorm or a high-school teacher can occasionally inspire it, and workshops dedicated to it often fail, we may never know.

Strictly speaking, when it comes to creativity, a workshop has as much potential value as anything else you might do during the day. The trick is learning to see the creative potential in your experiences, and (the tricky part) to get them down on paper. Sometimes trying it in a group can help; sometimes it can't. Sometimes it only serves to make you feel like everything's been done before, or like nothing you write will ever be good enough, or like people are just idiots. ...Then again, sometimes one of those feelings sparks a good idea.

There are countless workshops, free and not, online and offline, to choose from; so trying one, if you're interested in writing and have never been, is a harmless idea that might get you somewhere. Whether it makes you more creative or not, you'll probably learn something. Even if that "something" is just that an awful lot of grownups still pick their noses.

That said, I personally would advise writers to steer clear of online workshops with no minimum participation level. It can be a pain to have to critique a certain number of works per week or month, but you want to know you're getting as good as you give, right? I also don't recommend anything "between" an online or offline workshop, like audiotapes or phone groups--why pay for something that's not as good as personal interaction when you could get that, or get virtually the same thing, for free online? (Heh, no pun intended.)

In any case, wherever you find your creativity, good luck!

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