Sixteen chairs are arranged in a circle at the center of a lonely classroom on the second floor of the Arts building. Their occupants sit in silence — trepidation and unease filling the air as they all gaze toward the form of their proctor. The dark winter sky beyond the windowsill shadows everyone’s faces in darkness as the proctor raises their hands to the heavens and cries out their command, 

“Bring forth the sacrifices.”

Four of the trembling attendees jump to their feet, shivering in fear and anticipation as they place their sacrifices at the center of the room. The art to which they have placed their hearts and souls and the effort to which they have granted their deepest fears and emotions is laid bare before their peers for the sake of the ritual.

And with a chant and a flourish, the other attendees step forth and smash the art to pieces.

Workshopping an art piece of any form can be one of the most terrifying experiences out there for any creator. Whether you are a novice from another discipline who’s experimenting with something new or an experienced artist trying to hone their skill, showing off what you’ve created to your peers is as important as it is terrifying. From academic classrooms, to online peer networks, to sometimes terrifying cultlike artistic experiences, what you get out of a workshop depends entirely on how ready you are to learn from them. 

To get ready for your next turn in the sacrifice circle, here are a few pieces of advice from someone who’s been workshopping for years now. Do note that most of my experience comes from writing workshops, although I have participated in a few other types. As such, there’s an inherent bias to what I feel I can talk about assuredly. You’ve been warned!

Know what you want to know.

Unless you have some form of editor or publisher tinkering with your work after you’re done, you’ll be the person who sees it most. Spend enough time with it and you’ll know what about it you like, what you dislike, and what you’re unsure about. While workshops are an excellent opportunity to see new angles and ideas you hadn’t even thought of before, they’re also the perfect space to run the things you are aware of past an audience. Are you unsure about how a character’s voice comes across, or wondering if that empty space on the canvas effectively communicates what you were going for? Ask! You don’t need an extensive list of questions to succeed, but knowing a place to start can go a long way in making sure you get the most out of your workshop.

What to take and what to leave.

Deep in the recesses of the workshop, as you watch your peers point out the things they didn’t quite “get” from your piece, there are two conflicting thoughts that might fly forwards and backwards through your mind:

“They just don’t get it,” the first thought cries, its voice shrill and emphatic. “They can’t appreciate your genius!”

“You missed the ball entirely,” the second thought shrieks, doom and gloom ever-present. “You messed up everything!”

Sometimes the first thought wins, and sometimes the second. Both are endlessly familiar to artists and can even coexist at the strangest of times. Sometimes your peers won’t get what you’re going for, or won’t see your vision played out. It can be easy to bulldoze your work in these scenarios; after all, if other people don’t like it, then you’re probably doing it all wrong, and it’s better to start again from scratch, right?

Probably not. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be unadaptable — the whole point of the workshopping process is to learn and grow, but you also need to maintain a careful balance of confidence and malleability. Your piece won’t be for everyone, and not every chance you take will pay off. Critiques in a workshop aren’t orders or commands, they’re advice that you can choose whether or not to follow.

Be honest. Be empathetic.

“I’m just being honest” is one of the most terrifying things an artist can hear, because it’s sometimes accompanied by some of the most bad-faith, downright mean critique one can receive. As a creator, you must prepare yourself to interact with people who will tear into anything you write like it’s for sport. And sometimes, even if it’s not maliciously intentioned, all critique can feel like that. This drives some people to have the exact opposite problem, and refuse to say anything negative during workshops at all. Both of these approaches are harmful in different ways (though, I think you’re much more of a jerk if you do the former).

The fact of the matter is that everyone who attends a workshop is there to learn and better themselves. Be honest in your critique of others’ work, but remember the human on the other side. Find ways to be constructive, tell them what you liked and didn’t like, and overall, just be a reasonable person. Hopefully, the same will be done for you in return.

Once the ritual concludes, the workshop ends, and all you’re left with is the splintered pieces of what you created, it’s up to you to put them together again. Sometimes your end product will be something similar to what you started with, and sometimes it’ll be entirely different.

Whatever it is, it’s going to be yours.

And whatever it is, it’s going to be beautiful.