Workshop Writer 1: The writer has been taking ten-week workshops for years. He has enjoyed the weekly inspiration, finds it necessary to continue writing, loves the camaraderie of other writers, and yet, the writer has not finished his novel, in fact, still stumbles with the style, and has yet to figure out how the novel ends. When he takes a few weeks off, he quits writing, but claims that the 3 week boar hunting trip he took in Texas served as great material to be inserted somewhere in his book.
Workshop Writer 2: This writer has a 1000 page novel and has been working on it steadily for about 7 years. It is written in multiple perspectives, has a storyline that goes beyond War and Peace. He attends conferences regularly, jetting off to Squaw Valley, Maui and driving anywhere within a six hour radius. Sometimes he hears the same speakers. Often he signs up for the additional workshops and takes the same teacher. His pitch is quick and efficient because he has been pitching the same three chapters for seven years. He can say "Your protagonist does not have that... je ne sais quois," hand your paper back, while blowing smoke from a Gitane.
Workshop Writer 3: This writer takes workshops paid via credit card, a home equity loan, or by a spouse or much younger girlfriend who has it on a promise that when they finish the book, the writer will sell it, get a 7-figure advance, and they'll be swimming in money. Despite his arrears, he too finds it difficult to finish his book. He struggles with money and has mentioned that maybe a rich relative will die and leave him a bundle so that he can live the life of Henry Miller in Big Sur, with a new wife or new much younger girlfriend.
Workshop Writer 4: Works all day, takes an occasional workshop at night. Works on his novel sporadically, as time or inspiration permits. Has to miss some meeting because, well, life is busy. When he doesn't go to the workshop, he doesn't write. And even when in the workshop, he'll often dash off the week's pages in one sitting in an afternoon, or worse --egads! at work. When he passes them out to his peers for critique, he apologizes profusely for the quality, saying he didn't have time, dashed them out at work --as if no one else is as busy or even busier.
Yet any one of these could make it someday. Life's a crap shoot that way, innit it?
When I decided to take the jump into fiction (and long after I'd gotten my baccalaureate in fine arts), I decided to enroll in classes at the university extension writers' program. I found the experience invaluable. So I took them for years, passing through workshops on short story, literature, poetry and novel writing. It was my education, more to the point, it was where my skills were honed. But as would be expected, eventually the same things were being repeated. This wasn't a bad thing, rather it was an indication that I'd learned everything from them. It was time to write on my own. This wasn't as hard as others might think. It's how most writers write. By themselves, with the feedback of just a few other writers. In fact, I found it liberating to finally move away from the university stuff, and work on many projects, really stretching myself. I've managed to keep track of friends by helping form a group, The Writerly Pause.
Lesson learned: If you're taking workshops, do a reality check. Workshops are expensive ($500 for a ten week course, not including parking, gasoline, food, supplies and your time), so the pay off has to be not only to be in gaining the strength to do it everyday, but also improving and becoming a deeper writer. Make sure that it's not the taking of workshops that makes you identify yourself as a writer, but the reward of steadily working on your own --doing it everyday, learning, improving and finishing a piece.