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The Evolving Workshop - The Motive Center
June 5th, 2005
12:52 am


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The Evolving Workshop
A comment from loupnoir spurred my thinking about I hear called "writers' workshops" and critique groups. Given that a lot of people on LJ are in virtual critique groups, this might be a dangerous topic! Of course, "virtual" is a misnomer here; they're perfectly real critique groups, they just don't meet in person...which has advantages and disadvantages for these purposes. As I note in my book, there are people who live and die by these groups. Nothing is finished until it has been "workshopped." I think these groups can be very powerful, but like any power, it can be negative as well as positive. But I digress.

What triggered my interest in this is the comment that "This group is in danger of becoming more social than helpful." I think this comment raises the question of what happens to a writing group over time, which is more interesting to me than reiterating my chapter on this.

I can't say I know every group out there, or even a representative sample, but I have seen a few groups form and have studied a particularly long-lasting and successful one. One group I saw form at an SF convention, where a group of people who had participated in a one-time workshop hosted by an experienced "workshopper" decided to try and form their own workshop. They obviously shared an interest in speculative fiction, they all wanted to workshop, they were relatively near to each other geographically--why not?

That group disintegrated very rapidly. Some went at it honestly and were irritated by the attitudes of others; some wrote stuff that the others just didn't "get," and some just didn't really want to participate at the same level of depth as the others. They weren't an effective workshop--they were just a bunch of people who met at a con and were reasonably friendly acquaintances.

People generally gravitate towards each other. The Affiliation motive is probably the commonest: we're social animals. Our ancestors probably roamed the plains in groups of 20-30, and preferred doing things in groups, even hunting. The "lone wolf" is highly atypical--we're more like plains baboons, if I remember the research correctly.

But an effective group is a different animal--so to speak--than a friendly one. Here's a simple reason why: if the intent of the group conflicts with the motivation aroused in its members, and there are no rules to manage that conflict, the group will not succeed. Thus, a group of highly competitive people (probably Influence motive) can either challenge each other to do better in a positive way, or snipe at and sabotage each other's success. Furthermore, a friendly group (say, very Affiliative) can provide strong emotional support, or it can become dysfunctionally polarized.

Group polarization is a concept developed in the 1960s. Basically, groups tend to clump around a leader or against a common enemy, and become disinclined to contradict each other. As a result, group opinions are often not questioned--instead, they just reinforce each other. It's not a conscious process; you are finding reasons to agree with someone you like. Primarily Influence-motivated people may come into power conflicts--who's the most respected, the most honored--and polarize into opposing camps; but even Affiliation-motivated people form strong likes AND strong dislikes, and can polarize around who they like and who they don't.

Effective groups have clear "rules of engagement" -- they encourage people to challenge opinions in a friendly and positive way, so, for example, people feel like they are letting their friends down if they don't challenge. Without these rules, a number of things can typically happen to a group of any kind, let alone a writing group.

1. The Influence motivated will start to assert themselves to control the group. Affiliative people will either go along or drop out, but Achievement-motivated people will resist having their personal control taken away and complain bitterly about their "best practices" not being listened to, and other Influence-motivated people will find their own personal power challenged and fight back. Indeed, anyone can have what is called "personalized power" aroused by too aggressive a person. (In brief: when someone pokes you, your instinctive reaction is to poke back!)

2. Or, if the group is highly compatible and has significant Affiliation, it will become less and less about critiquing and more and more social. It will take longer and longer for the meeting to start, and the quality of the criticism will drop, becoming both positive and less specific ("gosh, that's great! I really love that!"). Affiliation motive leads people to feel uncomfortable with conflict, which means strongly affiliative people will not want to say anything that might hurt feelings and thus disrupt the personal relationship. Of course, a workshop is a professional relationship, but how do most of these things form...? And the Affiliative person is more likely to trust a friend than an expert anyhow, which only reinforces itself--someone who provides honest but negative feedback may be seen as "betraying" a relationship.

3. Or, if the group is highly Achievement-motivated over all, people may offer strong criticism without regard for the impact on the other person--perhaps confusing "personal taste" with "quality." Individuals will get impatient waiting to get their own feedback, and will either go away to operate on their own, or split into smaller groups to get more intensive individual feedback from someone they trust as an expert. In other words, the Achievement motivated person prefers to trust experts over friends, and also tend to prefer individual control of work, so managing group dynamics is like pulling teeth.

A group with good rules (they're in the book) will keep going a lot longer despite these trends, but even the rules alone are not enough. One group I know that has been going a long time is very forthright in their criticism because they know none of their criticism is done maliciously, and furthermore it is understood that the only person to decide what to use is the writer--neither giving nor taking suggestions are taken personally. Another group has more affiliation across all the members, so they always take time to reassure people that they are all friends and are enthusiastic supporters before offering any criticism. Even these groups have shifted, but they are still productive.

A long-lasting and dynamic group tends to move members in and out, which shifts the relationships over time as well. Groups are not stable, despite affiliative desires to the contrary. One must be alert to the unconscious desires to be overly nice or overly nasty, and focus on the work itself, being aware of your relationship to the people whose work it is! Remembering that those relationships shift over time, as you get to know people and work with them, is important to keeping the group dynamic percolating and productive.

Current Music: Imagination

(8 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:June 5th, 2005 01:53 am (UTC)


This is interesting stuff! Both of the 'true' workshops I've been in have been in school, and it was interesting then to see how the personality of the professor can make the experience that much better or worse.

Thanks to the second workshop class I was in, I prefer now to have things read one-on-one, instead of in workshops, and without some of the rules that we had in class. (One of the most annoying of those was that the writer couldn't speak - it made sense in theory, I suppose, as we couldn't give anything away, and the piece was taken merely on it's own merits, but when I wanted clarification or more insight, I couldn't ask for it.)
[User Picture]
Date:June 6th, 2005 07:08 pm (UTC)

Re: Workshops

People used to think it was possible to have a "self-managed work team" where all were equal, but in fact what the research has shown is that someone acts as a leader. It may not be official or formal, and indeed it can change, but effective groups have someone leading. By the same token, leaders obviously have a profound effect on the group either way! In research I did in a previous life, I found that 78% of someone's experience of a work environment is directly attributable to the managerial styles of their direct boss. (It's referred to in Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee's Primal Leadership, known as The New Leaders in Europe.) Kinda scary.
Date:June 5th, 2005 08:31 am (UTC)
That was an interesting post - I could see where it would be hard to manage the personal/professional dynamic within working groups, and how a successful group balances the dynamic in order to create a supportive (yet productive) atmosphere.
[User Picture]
Date:June 6th, 2005 07:10 pm (UTC)

Balancing the personal and professional

You got that right! Given that the affiliation motive is most common, yet it gets in the way of making tough decisions about people, it makes it quite a challenge. It's one of the two commonest challenges I've seen in fifteen years of management consulting--along with being an Achievement-motivated micromanager who can't let go...
[User Picture]
Date:June 5th, 2005 08:41 pm (UTC)
Good stuff, Steve. I can easily see the examples you cite both positive and negative. We have writers' groups at B+N that meet monthly, and I wonder how productive they are. They're even more free form as they're held in a bookstore and there's no joining criteria I know of.

I also have to wonder at what point the group is seen as the goal and publishing the work seems secondary, not unlike feeling that, once something has been 'punlished' in LJ, it's effectively done. Also, does running and participating in the group start to take up too much of the time of the participants such that it eats too much into the work time?

Always thought provoking, Steve!
[User Picture]
Date:June 6th, 2005 07:19 pm (UTC)

B&N Workshops

I didn't realize they were totally freeform! I've been thinking about trying to appear before some of these groups, but if they're all impromptu, they may have bigger problems.

You've expanded on the point that started me going--when it moves from a working group to a social group. I think you've hit on an important point, that for some people the online group is the only audience. After my experience earlier with people flaming me for casually referring to online writing as good practice for "real" publishing, I want to phrase this carefully... I am (now) convinced that there are people who would rather be read by certain people (i.e., their friends, an in-group, or knowledgeable people) than by any person. I'm fine with that--I'm a fan, I understand what it means to share a common understanding of something--but I am thinking that it may be driven by different motives than published writers.

I read once that there are about 4,000 published and publishing poets in the US, and they are basically writing for each other. Hmmm...

Some of the folks I interviewed did indeed back out of groups because it wasn't worth their time. They were obligated to read and comment upon everyone else's works, and they did not feel they got enough benefit out of it personally to justify all that time invested. They had nothing against groups, it just wasn't enough for what they were doing, and they were not drawn by the social aspects.

Most groups also seem to have a person who tends to do the scut work, who likes the instant gratification of running the group, or they have to rotate so no one spends too much time doing it. I have an example of the former, but I don't think I can disguise this person's identity adequately...
[User Picture]
Date:June 6th, 2005 10:14 am (UTC)
I saw your option #1, and couldn't help but thinking of the current Romance Writers of America conflict, since I'm seeing my friends reacting to the latest dictate-imposed-from-on-high-with-little-to-no-explanation by complaining bitterly and either threatening to quit or trying to stage their own retalliatory strikes.

As always, great stuff!
[User Picture]
Date:June 6th, 2005 07:21 pm (UTC)

Power in action

Yep. Personalized power arouses personalized power in others. Sometimes it isn't intended--people are just being clueless as to the impact of their actions. Published writer's groups are chock full of highly Influence motivated people, after all, which is kind of like putting nitroglycerin in a Tilt-a-Whirl. I've never seen a writer group that didn't have some kind of conflict--SFWA is famous for battles, MWA has many, even Sisters in Crime has an occasional tiff.

Glad you liked it!
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