cambridge sf workshhop - membership

Way back in 1980, when we were first putting together the workshop, one of the more contentious issues that came out was how to determine membership. This is, I've come to understand from discussing workshops with other writers, one of the more interesting issues of workshops.

How does the admission process happen? How are candidates chosen? How are they accepted? How are members removed, if they don't want to go? If they leave, can they return?

All of these questions revolve around issues a permanent workshop has to solve. If this week you get nasty criticizing a member's work, next week you might in turn get nastied. If you don't like somebody and get them pushed out of the workshop, next time it could be you. How is this going to affect your criticism of material? How will it affect somebody's criticism of your work?

Early on we made what turned out to be the single most important decision in the life of the workshop. We decided that once a person was a member of CSFW, that person could not be cast out. A member could leave but never removed.  We have had members take sabbaticals (where one can return without re-admission) years long and then pick up where they left off. We've also had members leave, outright, and have to go through the admission process all over again.

The reasons for this is straightforward. A writer has to feel they can submit any material to the workshop. A critic must be able to say what he must. We felt this could only occur in an environment where the member knew that he could not be thrown out for what he said or submitted. It's a reinforcement of honesty. A second reason is we consider ourselves professional writers. Therefore, we expected professional behavior of ourselves both in the quality of the submission and the quality of the critique. It's true of the members and it's true of the candidates we invite. Publication history is irrelevant.

Not to say we haven't had our issues of performance critiques. Or that membership has not been abused. However, the workshop mechanism has been self-correcting for nearly thirty years and we don't expect that to change.

The knock on effect of uncontested membership, though, is we have to put a lot of thought into admission. If you can't get rid of someone, you better make damned sure that person is who you want.

There are two roles a member has to play: submitter and critic. We have seen good writers stumble on criticism and good critics stumble on their submissions. A temporary workshop, such as Clarion, screens out submissions and trusts a good writer is a good critic. If the screening process fails, the worst that can happen is there's six weeks of bad criticism. A permanent workshop can't make that sort of mistake.  There's no way to evaluate a critic without a critique.

We developed a trial workshop method.

A trial workshop is an actual workshop where the candidate is invited as a guest. The candidate submits a manuscript. Some members also submit works. We like to have at least two member works to sandwich the candidate's work. It makes for a better workshop.

We go through the normal process. Then, we politely ask the candidate to go home. After they leave, we wrangle over whether the fit is good. Sometimes this is a long process. More often, it's quick. It must be unanimous. We, as a workshop, want to fully endorse the candidate as a member or what's the point? Then, the Poobah, informs the candidate of the decision. Sometimes the workshop wants the candidate but the candidate doesn't want the workshop. All possibilities have occurred. Occasionally, the workshop suggests that the candidate try again at some later date. But not often. Usually, it's pretty clear what both parties want.

If the candidate is accepted, and the candidate wants to be accepted, the workshop has a new member.