What's a Generative Workshop Anyway?

stacks of paper


For most of my writing life, I’ve participated in critique-based workshops. I still do. They go like this: You write a story. A week before your workshop date, you send .docs of your story to your fellow writers in the class. (Back in olden times, you prayed your ink was full, stapled ten copies, nearly ran out of gas on the way to your too-far parking spot, ran through downpour, and panted hard as you passed soggy copies out.)

Things are drier now but much the same. A week later class reconvenes and you sit back all chill (ha ha) and listen with an open mind while the other writers discuss your story (your baby), maybe drawing its topography with chalk, themes and obsessions joined by arrows and circles. Later, the writers return copies with scribbled margins, carrotted additions, cross-outs, clipped with letters of helpful thoughts, suggestions, ideas. This model has many variations, but it’s always an end-of-the-line process by which we move toward finer finished drafts, polish, emphasis and, hopefully, toward formerly unseen final leaps. Since the writer simply can’t see all. Just can’t. 

I’ve always said writing is a team sport and critique workshops are sterling proof for me. But there are other ways too. Generative workshops, for example, happen at the opposite end of the process, at the very beginning, are just as helpful, but in totally opposite and more mysterious ways. 

Until a few years ago, I’d never attended a generative workshop. I didn’t know what they were or why I should sign up. But I couldn’t have grown a short story into a soon-to-be published novel without them. I also lead them now.

A generative workshop allows someone besides you (workshop leaders) to trigger you into a story. Carefully designed prompts (thought experiments) free, provoke, assist in its conception. They operate before the first line. Before you are aware the idea of the story exists.

Yes you! 

It’s a crazy idea to many since generative workshops operate outside our comfortable ideas of where stories come from. And if we were still little kids and if our innate wild minds had not been frozen in place by the dictates of the adult world, by slavish devotion to logic, to reason, to the need to “make sense,” and the terror that we don’t, well, there would be no need for generative workshops. A generative workshop is designed to pull the plugs on the adult conscious mind for just a little while. Long enough and in a safe enough environment to thaw down to your wild child mind that was there once and is still.

To ignite, embolden, excite.

Later, back home at your desk, you, the mature adult writer, can ultimately shepherd these wild beginnings into more formally-shaped completions. You might take these to critique workshops or lit mag editors where they will say “wow.” Generative workshops are mad-scientist labs of freedom! Enter with new, like-minded friends. Depart with lines you didn’t know you could write. Try one?