Warning: Parameter 2 to wp_hide_post_Public::query_posts_join() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/customer/www/johnmstoryteller.com/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-hook.php on line 292
The Art of the Workshop | John M Morelock: Storyteller
March 28, 2021

The Art of the Workshop

By In Blog, Narrative Structure, Personal Development

How to Recieve Critical Review in a Workshop Environment

A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop where lecturers criticized our video editing skills.  We had just finished our rough edits of Lethe, and this was our opportunity to receive feedback before doing a picture lock and handing the work off to sound design.  If you are interested to see more about Lethe, go read this blog entry about the post-production process.

Overall, the workshop went quite well.  We received detailed and specific notes on our cuts and choices.  The lecturers highlighted our strengths and pointed our weaknesses.  Most students took this quite well, but one did not.  I watched as this individual stood up and defended every choice he made in the edit.  It seemed to me he was not willing to hear the advice of the teacher, wanting instead to justify his own choices.

This was not the first time I had seen such a reaction, it’s the mark of someone just starting to work in this type of environment.  During my last two years of high school, I attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.  It’s a small art school nestled away in the heart of Greenville, South Carolina.  Students of all different backgrounds come there to study and practice their artforms.  One of the major cornerstones of the curriculum was the workshop.  This was especially true for the writing program.

I still remember my first workshop in the program.  A piece of fiction I had spent weeks writing was on the chopping block.  I was quite proud of it.  In my view, it was the best work I had ever done.  But the feedback I got was harsh.  These workshops tended to open with positive aspects of the piece, where we would discuss what was working well.  For my short story, this section was close.  Going into the criticism, it was no less than brutal.  While the teacher did temper his criticism to be constructive, the other students hadn’t learned to use a soft touch.  One in particular ripped into my work, and I didn’t take it well.  I remember that hot feeling as the hairs on my neck stood up.  I spent the better part of ten minutes trying to justify my artistic choices, to prove why I was right.

A workshop at SCGSAH, with Alan Rossi at the head of the discussion

I learned a lot that day.  As I sat that night, reading back over the handwritten notes and reviews of my work, I realized they were right.  While the delivery was a bit harsh, almost all the students had said the same thing about my work.  Reading back through my short story, I agreed with them.  When I set about writing a revision, I took on their advice, and it helped elevate the piece to a higher level.

At Edinburgh Napier, these types of workshops are quite rare.  We have them perhaps two to three times per trimester, and each group, let alone each student, only gets 20-40 minutes.  At Governor’s school, these workshops were weekly, and each student’s work would receive criticism for an hour to an hour and a half.  Often, we could only go through two or three student’s pieces in a class period before the class was finished.  Each individual’s work would only be workshopped once every two weeks, to make sure there was enough time for everyone for each and every student.

Receiving 12 different viewpoints on my work like this taught me a lot.  I’m sure you can imagine, in such a situation, the artist would have no choice to but to let their ego and guard down.  If they took every comment personally, they’d likely break into tears.  Instead, the artist must accept two truths.  The first is that the criticism is on their work, not on them.  Second, is that every opinion is subjective and not objective.  Some of the students would agree with one another, others would not.  One person may say one particular character or story beat had issues, while another would praise it.

It’s important to recognise commonalities here.  If nearly everyone says the same thing about the artist’s piece, its most likely an objective issue, that needs to be changed.  If the workshop group is split on the topic, then it’s up to the artist to decide what’s right.

The trick to parsing out this information is to maintain the original artistic vision.  While specific artistic choices may have failed to achieve that vision, that doesn’t mean the original goal was wrong.  Intentionality is important, and it’s how the artist can get the most out of these situations.  Let’s return to the student in my Napier workshop.  His artistic vision was to maintain quicker pace.  Most students’ edits were longer than 3 minutes, while his was only two and a half, all using them same footage. 

The criticisms he received were largely related to the choices he made in trying to achieve this goal.   His cuts were too quick, the eye could rarely rest on an object long enough before something else was brought into frame.  Rather than taking this criticism on, he dug his heels in and defended the position, instead choosing to criticise the source material, complaining that it was too slow, and he would have filmed it differently.

But the film industry does not work like that.  Barring serious technical issues such as focus or any other issues which are impossible to “fix in post”, editors do not get to change the footage they are provided with.  If the pacing is slower or faster than they would like, tough.  They have to create work which fits into the director’s original vision.

That doesn’t mean an editor doesn’t get to make their mark.  Working within these restrictions an editor can increase suspense by drawing out a scene or increase pacing by and intensity by speeding it up.  This student’s goal to make the pacing fast was not entirely wrong, but his specific artistic choices were.  When pointed out, he found it very difficult to accept these criticisms.  If he were working with a director, he likely would have been out of a job for not listening and taking on the feedback provided.

In order to maintain artistic vision, its often important to reframe the question.  As stated before, especially when the feedback supplied in a workshop environment is split and not unanimous, there is a lot of room for the artist to decide what advice is and is not in line with their vision.  However, this does not mean that the artist should disregard the advice they do not agree with.  Instead, try reframing the issue.  Identify the source issue their criticism and advice stems from.  If someone tells the artist to make a specific change, it is more than likely due to an inherent underlying issue, rather than the vision itself.  If the specific advice brings the artist further from their vision, instead they should clarify what they had hoped to achieve and ask how to work towards that goal instead.

To come back to the student, he should have asked the lecturers in the class, “How can I maintain a quicker pace while also removing these jump cuts?”  By asking the question in this way, not only will he come off as more cordial and less combative, but he would also get more specific advice and ideas which are inline with his vision.  By turning over this stone, he may well be provided advice that would not have come up otherwise.  It may have been the missing key he was looking for.

Gordon Lish editing Raymond Carver

In workshops like these, the criticism received is invaluable, but not absolute.  Keeping true to the original artistic vision is important, but when receiving criticism in this type of workshop environment, the artist never has to justify their choices.  They do not have to prove to the person giving criticism why they’re right and why the critic is wrong.  At the end of the day, the artist can still throw out the advice given if they truly don’t agree with it.  The artist does not have to take onboard everything said, but they also don’t have to justify themself.  Instead, the artist should try to find what the actual core issue is, and find a unique solution, rather than the solution provided.  By doing this, they can still gain all the benefits of a workshop, drastically improving their work, while still maintain their vision.

What do you think?  What has been your experience with workshops?  Do you think I missed anything?  If there is interest in this topic, in my next post I may explore how best to give advice to others, so you don’t serious pushback, and your advice gets through.  Let me know in the comments below what you think.  I hope you enjoyed reading this and that your next workshop or review will go more smoothly.

Leave a Reply