No Country for an Old Man

I came to creative writing in middle-age. 57 when I started, 60 when I graduate. I’ve never been a creative writer, though I have written for work: instruction manuals, educational materials, and advisory publications for accountants. More than four decades have passed since I’d been a high school student in Israel (quit in grade 12). I had no interest in high school subjects, and English class was about the language, not about literature.

I’d never developed imaginative thinking – until I came to creative writing I couldn’t tell a metaphor from a hermaphrodite – and my years of training and work in accounting and law had ossified my thought processes into literal, linear, and pragmatic blocks of petrified wood.

My reading over the years had been mainly for work, and what I’d read for pleasure was by Ludlum, Grisham, Rex Stout, and later a great deal of journalistic nonfiction, a few works of literature in poetry and fiction, and books I would call wisdom philosophy.

In many ways, I was unprepared. And out of my league.

Everything I say here, then, flows from my own unique perspective. My hope is to start a conversation rather than to criticize the good work many people are doing in CW instruction. My reluctance to criticize is one of the personality drawbacks for CW workshop participation (more on that later).

In my first creative nonfiction writing workshop, our instructor asked what we thought of the assigned essays we had read. My response had been awe mixed with puzzlement, as I saw a wide gap between my novice skills and the skills demonstrated in what I had read. I asked the instructor, a published writer of short nonfiction and poetry, how I, a novice, could “get there from here”. She replied that I should find a writer I admire and emulate.

Nothing has changed over the years of doing workshops. Instructors hand out brilliant examples of literary art and point out elements we for us to learn from and emulate. The problem remains the same. While CW instructors harp on the “show don’t tell” maxim (except for Philip Lopate – see his book To Show and to Tell), they rarely do. Invariably, we read a great work, spend a few minutes talking about its strengths, and are expected to use elements of craft exemplified in the work. There is no demonstration of how to do this with our draft. There are no examples given that we can relate to our work.

Such is the nature of the workshop method. Students learn to write by reading the professionals, analyzing their techniques, and practising these techniques. This traditional approach emphasizes production of publishable writing. It is focused on the product of the creative writing activity rather than the process.

 

Product and process

In my review of the literature on creative writing instruction, I discovered that there have historically been two prevailing dominant and distinct approaches. The first focuses on the product, an approach that dominates creative writing instruction today. And the second focuses on process, an approach that gained popularity in the 1970s, primarily in teaching of composition in America. With the focus on process, the instructor facilitates development of specific writing skills in a learning process that mirrors the writing process.

The challenge I had experienced with the product-focused approach is the mystery around how professional writers do what they do, something I had been missing from the beginning to the end.

To compare the two approaches, consider the topic of structure design for personal essays. With the product-focused approach, students read essays by professional writers, identify design structures, and practice writing essays with these design structures. In addition, the instructor might assign an article that deals specifically with design structure in personal essays, such as Tim Bascom’s “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide”.

In his essay, Bascom, who teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri, explains several design structure options with reference to essays by well-known writers, with excerpts and pictograms that serve as visual metaphors for each design structure discussed. The focus here is on writing by emulating. The reader/writer can select the best design structure for her essay from options used by masters of the craft.

However, on the journey to becoming a literary artist, students (some more than others) need a bridge to narrow that skill gap between beginner and professional. Knowing something of the writer’s process helps the novice emulate the professional. All writers create one step at a time, repeating steps and skipping steps, and using different processes for different projects. As creative writing pedagogy researcher Wendy Bishop points out, “it is worth looking into these writers’ complicated and semi-obscured writing processes, for writers’ knowledge can illuminate why some writers succeed at their art.” Process improves product. If students are going to learn by emulating, it makes sense for them to know the process used to create the writing they are emulating.

Another proponent of process-focused creative writing instruction is Carolyn Mamchur, a teacher of creative writing pedagogy at Simon Fraser University. Inspired by Donald Murray, she developed and teaches a process-focused method centered on four skills:

  • finding a subject
  • sensing an audience
  • searching for specifics, such as concrete detail, imagery, symbols, and metaphors, and
  • creating a design structure.

 

To see how a teaching process could mirror the writing process, one can look to American nonfiction writer John McPhee. William Howarth, editor of The John McPhee Reader, notes in his introduction that students always ask how McPhee writes. While McPhee “does not believe one writer’s method should be a recipe for another,” it makes sense to know the process that produced writing one wishes to emulate. “When McPhee…stops interviewing… he begins the tortuous process of composition,” explains Howarth. “His working methods vary from project to project, but some steps are fairly constant.”

McPhee transcribes his notebooks, reads additional material to flesh out more facts, chooses a structure, drafts a lead, and divides different parts of his material into topical segments. Howarth points out an interesting parallel between McPhee’s writing process and his need to make order out of chaos: “McPhee’s writing method may seem excessively mechanical…but it runs a line of order through the chaos of his notes and files. Structural order…is the main ingredient…that attracts his reader.”

Order establishes where the writer and reader are going and when they will arrive at a final destination.” This desire for order attracts readers and writers alike. And for writing students, this insight into the professional writer’s process provides a valuable link for developing her own process, which makes her better equipped to emulate McPhee’s writing.

 

Blending product with process

CW instruction does not require choosing between a product-focused and a process-focused approach. Blending both gives instructors the flexibility to weigh one or the other more heavily depending on what suits their students’ needs. Carolyn Mamchur’s four-skill method is a process–focused approach that empowers students and instructors alike. Instructors are empowered because teaching process serves as a scaffold for organizing lessons and activities, as well as developing students’ skills, and students are empowered because the process respects their innate curiosity about how “to get there from here.” The process helps to demystify the magical genius of literary art.

Bascom’s essay on choosing a design structure proves the efficacy of Mamchur’s teaching process. While Bascom’s focus is on product, the very topic of his essay – creating a design structure – is the fourth skill component of Mamchur’s teaching process. We could say that when both approaches converge, students experience the benefits of the natural overlap between product and process.

My beginner’s experience with the product-focused approach, my sense that something was missing, represents a need to know the “how” as well as the “what” of creative writing.

 

The CW workshop and my discontents

After a recent blended (poetry and creative nonfiction; undergraduate and graduate) workshop yesterday, I’d had a middle-of-the-night visitation. A peculiar thought – the “guards and prisoners” experiment I’d read about some years back, and the German feature film based on that experiment, “Das Experiment.”

Curious, I thought, that a CW workshop at UVIC would bring about such a thought process, perhaps a symptom of my paranoia. Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist, actually conducted two different experiments, one in 1962 and another in 1971. The first I’ll call the “shock experiment,” and second the “guards and prisoners” experiment. Both were designed to measure the extent to which people would obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their conscience.

In both cases there was a surprising amount of harm and abuse caused by volunteers following instructions – just doing as they had been told. So what was it about my supposedly tame workshop experience that brought about this grotesque thought process? Sitting by and listening to students heaping abuse another student’s work for participation marks and an A+.

Maybe I’m too sensitive, but so often I feel I have nothing of value to contribute. Or, maybe I just don’t like being told what to do. My workshop experience has come with many compulsory requirements to do what I would rather not do, over and over and over again. Who am I to critique someone else’s writing? There is so little I can add to others’ writing process or craft.

But I think my three years of experience with workshops leaves me feeling the workshop group dynamic is the very antithesis of community. Often polite. But lacking authenticity. The workshop is home to the largest mountain of bullshit north of Fox News.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a sense of community in our CW workshops? Extraordinary, yes. But why can’t community become normal? Yes, people need to learn how to do it. But it’s possible a sense of community would make the workshop experience a pleasant incubator for literary writing, and a safe environment for lesser talents to practice the craft.

 

Adding development and a notion of community to the mix

Further along my research into CW Instruction literature, I found a development-based process-focused model proposed by two creative writing instruction researchers in the United Kingdom. They propose a model that views the learner as a developing writer, progressing through stages of development.

Andrews and Smith review theories of writing and development in their book Developing Writers: Teaching and learning in the digital age (2011). They distinguish between development and learning, and advocate switching the term “writing development” to “developing writers”. In other words, they believe the focus should be on student writers, instead of on the act of writing – the product that is produced.

Also, I found an interesting article by two American instructors who have “invented” the better workshop, calling their method a “learning community”. The creative writing learning community features smaller peer groups of 3 – 5 students (with a mentor) critiquing drafts, and then presenting a revision plan to the whole class and the instructor. In using this method, these American instructors have found that there is less criticism, greater intensity and engagement, and the natural creation of a community of writers.

With all I had found in the literature, I decided to propose a model for creative writing instruction I call the “DPP” model, a model that integrates the three components of development, process, and product. With this model, instructors view the learner as a writer-in-development (alongside the notion of writing in development), and structure their instruction along the lines of Mamchur’s teachable writing process, or another process-based method. Where the workshop is used, the community-of-writers method of workshop could improve on the traditional method. Finally, since so many examples of craft, technique, and style that make writing literary are available in published works, student writers will always benefit from reading and emulating literary art. Good writers are invariably good readers.

 

A best practice creative writing program, I submit, integrates these three components:

A          Development

Instruction focuses on facilitating the learner’s development as a literary writer.

B          Process

Instruction facilitates literary writing practice structured around the literary writing process and demonstrates process models for different genres and sub-genres. The process approach provides an instructional structure that mirrors professional writers’ creative process. The structure helps the instructor by providing a teachable method, and helps the student by revealing the complexities of creative writing process.

C          Product

Instruction facilitates literary writing practice by analyzing literary works for strengths, techniques, and artistic qualities. Recognizing that good writers are invariably good readers, instruction encourages learners to emulate, model, and adapt from literary works.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What CW teachers and writers have to say

Carol Bly’s Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction (2001)

is radically critical. For example, she notes a fundamental mistake made in how we learn to write: skipping the long middle stage of writing. This long middle stage Bly calls the psychological stage. In this stage a writer relies on psychological tools rather than artistic tools. The problem is, however, that writing teachers for the most part “muddle along using ineffective, even damaging pedagogy because they don’t learn anything else to do.” Bly describes using empathic questioning to deepen a writer’s first draft, something I picked up for the first time from my second level CNF workshop and had reinforced with greater impact in my first third level CNF workshop.

Bly advocates an alternative workshop method that omits the cardinal rule that a writer must remain silent when his work is up for workshop. The idea here is that the instructor should ask certain important questions and direct them to the whole class, including the writer whose work is being scrutinized.

 

Graeme Harper, editor. Creative Writing Guidebook (2008):

Harper says that creative writing is both a set of actions as well as the final product of these actions. “As creative writing is both act/action and end result, it is sometimes thought that the primary critical understanding of creative writers rests in considering the end-products of their endeavors.” But, claims Harper, this is very far from the truth. Understanding in creative writing happens before, during, and after the act of creative writing. “Often creative writing proceeds by way of organized actions combined with fortuitous circumstances. Often it involves the very human activity of making mistakes, and then seeking to correct them; of thinking one way, but finding it impossible to articulate those thoughts in action; of imagining, initially, that a piece of work in progress is well structured, well voiced, well pitched, only to decide later that it is none of these things.”

 

Joseph Moxley, editor. Creative Writing in America: Theory and Pedagogy. (1989):

Moxley describes the standard workshop as “the heart of most creative writing programs.” While Moxley believes the workshop method is a convenient and sometimes effective way to teach creative writing, with many advantages to its credit, he also feels that despite these advantages, “the workshop method has a few limitations.” Such limitations include focusing primarily on revising and editing, which fails to address pre-writing strategies, an omission Moxley finds “particularly troublesome.” There is an assumption in the workshop method that students already know “how to gather, shape, and revise material. Most teachers direct the group’s analysis by asking, ‘Does the text work?’”

The problem with this approach is that it assumes students are already proficient with literary writing, that they can tell whether a piece ‘works,’ that they know literature, and that all they need to master the craft is a little practice before a critical, peer audience. Moxley recommends:

  • the primary focus of all writing courses should be on the students’ writing
  • students also need a strong background in literature
  • writing can be learned, if not entirely taught; we should teach students about the successful practices of professionals
  • writing is valuable in and of itself and does not need publication to validate it; writing promotes thought, empathy, learning
  • we need to talk about writing holistically; discussions of elements of craft must be placed in the context of the creative process; writing is not learned from the parts to the whole, but holistically, from the whole to the parts
  • we don’t know enough about the developmental stages writers go through; but, from recent research we do know that learning to consider the needs of external readers, to empathize, is both emotionally and intellectually demanding
  • successful writers take risks, and we should be careful to give student writers room to do the same
  • writers have to learn to draw on their felt sense, on that intuitive, prelinguistic, bodily feeling
  • writing is not solely a cognitive process, but a deeply affective one; we intellectualize beyond value when we ignore personality in our theories and practices

 

And, Moxley has this to say about the writing process:

  • writing is a generative, recursive process of forming meaning; our classroom exercises and goals must be grounded in an awareness of what process goals students are considering as well as their content goals
  • we need to familiarize students with the mysterious nature of composing; doubt and uncertainty are inevitable; writers (and readers) seek the mysterious and the surprising
  • there is no all-purpose writing process; writers use an array of different strategies

 

Donald Murray. A Writer Teaches Writing. (1985):

Murray’s philosophy of writing instruction includes:

  1. A) Writing is thinking – “The act of writing is an act of thought.”
  2. B) Writing is a process – “Writing is a craft before it is an art; writing may appear magic, but it is our responsibility to take our students backstage to watch the pigeons being tucked up the magician’s sleeve. The process of writing can be studied and understood. We can re-create most of what a student or professional writer does to produce effective writing. The process is not linear, but recursive. The writer passes through the process once, or many times, emphasizing different stages during each passage. There is not one process, but many. The process varies with the personality or cognitive style of the writer, the experience of the writer, and the nature of the writing task.”
  3. C) Effective teaching is responsive.
  4. D) Writing is an interaction of the global and the particular.
  5. E) There is no one way – “We do not teach writing effectively if we try to make all students and all writing the same. We must seek, nurture, develop and reward difference.”

 

For Murray, conference teaching is the most effective and most practical method of teaching composition (I contend he would say the same is true for teaching creative writing). Conference teaching is the tutorial – one-on-one, teacher with student. In Murray’s view, the workshop – the group response, naturally evolves from the conference response. When students know how the response of a single reader helps improve their writing, they are ready to test drafts with a group of readers.

In Murray’s approach to the writing workshop, the workshop pattern follows this sequence:

  • The writer COMMENTS on the draft
  • The workshop members listen and READ the draft
  • The workshop members RESPOND to the writer’s comments and the draft
  • The writer RESPONDS to the workshop members’ responses

 

Murray stresses that the pattern he uses was not the workshop pattern that he used when he was a student, and it also is not the pattern that he used for many years as a teacher. “The normal workshop pattern was a trial by fire, in which the student’s draft was subjected to as much criticism as possible by workshop members. The student’s work was under attack, and the student was required to keep quiet. The writer could not establish the agenda and certainly could not defend the draft.” Murray describes how he had realized at a certain point “how much the workshop was a macho test, a walking-on-coals, a trial by fire. And having just been burned, I was ready to be critical of it.” He writes that when he decided to experiment with his own pattern of workshop teaching, he invited the student whose work was being workshopped to speak first, saying, “How can we help you?” Here is how Murray describes what happened next: “The student was startled, but answered, telling us very specifically the doubts she had about the draft and what she thought worked pretty well. She wanted us to tell her if the good parts worked for us and to make suggestions about how the weaker parts might be strengthened. It was the best session I could remember, and that is now the way I start every workshop: ‘How can we help you?’.”

 

Donald Murray. Read to Write: A Writing Process Reader (1990):

Murray reproduces an anonymous student essay, followed by a brief history of the essay including comments by the student describing how difficult it was for her to write about a very painful experience. Murray then goes on to describe some of the feedback that he provided as a teacher and then the various changes the student made to her essay over a series of drafts. He then provides, by way of final evaluation, the student writer’s own description of her writing experience and process.

 

Donald Murray. The Craft of Revision. (2004):

Murray says our attachment to the traditional workshop approach can sometimes make it more difficult for students to take on the revision process efficiently. Students are encouraged to present a draft for workshop that is as near to publishable quality as possible. But students are not given a chance to say where the draft is along the process. And they are not given the opportunity to ask for specific help until the end of the critique. “We need to suggest the reading,” proposes Murray, which “we need to get effective help.” It is not of much use to the writer for someone to give feedback about voice when the writer is mainly concerned with structure, for example. On page 38, Murray offers 17 questions, or requests for feedback, as examples of specific help a student might be interested in.

 

Donald Murray. Write to Learn. (1990):

This book is devoted to Murray’s description of the writing process as he sees it. One of the most valuable parts of the book is the last segment, beginning at page 250. Here, Murray presents a writer’s case history, and the writer he is speaking of is himself. What he decided to do, and what he describes in this last part of this book, is to create one piece of writing that would demonstrate the many writing techniques that he has described in the book. So his section headings are “collect, focus, order, develop, clarify,” and “the final draft.” Following his description of his process in writing a particular short piece, Murray provides the first part of his marked up edited draft and then the complete finished article. After he presents the finished article, Murray gives us an annotated version, with his commentary, explaining his process along the way, together with how the process produced the final version.

 

Carl Vandermeulen. Negotiating the Personal in Creative Writing. (2011):

Vandermeulen questions practices many CW teachers accept as standard: the full-class workshop, early emphasis on critique over other kinds of response, and the tradition of the silent writer. Vandermeulen prefers an active writer who questions her writing and sets some of the agenda for response. He discusses how reflection makes creative writing teachable “by making writers more open to response by giving them responses they can use and by giving teachers a window into their thinking and feeling about their writing.” The author also believes that small writers’ groups are more productive for beginners than the workshop.

Vandermeulen also talks about setting up groups and “training them in reader-response so that their members are more able to support each other…especially early in the composing process.” He also devotes a whole chapter to teacher response, including how one-to-one conferences contribute to the process of becoming a writer.

 

Stephanie Vanderslice. Rethinking Creative Writing in Higher Education: Programs and Practices that Work. (2011):

Vanderslice notes that the creative writing workshop, as implemented at the University of Iowa, had as its primary intention to provide a post-graduate incubator where young writers could come for a year or two and have their work critiqued. What the Iowa workshop constructed was a place where “seasoned writers could be hardened to the critics, where success could be claimed if a student (usually a female) occasionally… fainted after a particularly rigorous session.” She notes that in some circles the Iowa workshop was considered the Bobby Knight school of writing pedagogy, named for the abusive, chair-throwing American college basketball coach, and that it was also designed as a kind of boot camp that would “toughen students so that they could withstand inevitable adversity and criticism as an artist.”

The problem with this method of pedagogy, says Vanderslice, is that the creative writing landscape has changed since the early days of the Iowa workshop. Most creative writing workshop students are nothing like the polished writers who came to the workshop as it took hold in creative writing mythology.

 

Michelene Wandor. The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived. (2008):

Wandor traces the roots of a variety of methods and approaches for teaching creative writing and hones in on the workshop. She points out that the process of workshopping “is driven by procedures of re-writing, rather than writing.” The problem is an “inbuilt tension between the theoretically egalitarian responses of the peer-friendship group, and that of the tutor, which might be quite different.” It is not fair for students whose writing receives praise in the workshop to then be criticized in assessment and feedback by the tutor. Also, criticism in the workshop involves value judgments, value judgments that are “inevitably concealed, because not taught and shared. The CW literature does not theorize or discuss its critical values.” In addition, Wandor reports that the workshop model of peer-reviewing “cannot fail but be discouraging and educationally disempowering.”

Donald Murray. “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.” The Leaflet (November 1972):

Murray believes that most creative writing teachers are trained by studying a product: writing. The skills of creative writing teachers “are honed by examining literature, which is finished writing.” Because teachers are trained this way they also teach this way, they teach writing as a product, focusing critical attention “on what our students have done.” The problem is that what the students create usually is not literature. “Our students knew it wasn’t literature when they passed it in, and our attack usually does little more than confirm their lack of self-respect for their work and for themselves; we are as frustrated as our students, for conscientious, doggedly responsible, repetitive autopsying doesn’t give birth to live writing.” The product doesn’t improve.

Murray’s main complaint is that year after year the student suffers “under a barrage of criticism” much of which is irrelevant or contradictory.

Murray believes that instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, “and glory in its unfinishedness.” He feels writing is a process of discovery through language, which can be introduced in the classroom as soon as the creative writing teacher “achieves a very simple understanding of that process and accepts the full implications of teaching process, not product.”

“We have to be quiet,” advocates Murray, “to listen, to respond… We have to be patient and wait, and wait, and wait… We have to respect the student, not for his product…but for the search for truth in which he is engaged… We must respect our student for his potential truth and for his potential voice… We are coaches, encouragers, developers, creators of environments in which our students can experience the writing process for themselves.”

 

Murray lists ten implications of teaching process, not product:

  • students examine their own evolving writing and that of their classmates; they study writing while it is still a matter of choice
  • the student finds his own subject; the teacher supports but does not direct this expedition
  • the student uses his own language
  • the student writes all the drafts necessary for him to discover what he has to say; each new draft counts as a new paper, because you are not teaching a product, you are teaching a process
  • the process that produces ‘creative’ and ‘functional’ writing is the same; you teach a process students can use to produce whatever product the subject and audience demand
  • mechanics come last; first it is important for the writer to discover what he has to say
  • there must be time for the writing process to take place and time for it to end
  • papers are looked at to see what kinds of choices the writer might make; the responsibility for seeing choices belongs to the student; he is learning a process; his papers are always unfinished, evolving, until they are graded; the student is graded on what he has produced at the end of the writing process
  • students are individuals who must explore the writing process in their own way, some fast, some slow
  • there are no rules, no absolutes, just alternatives; all writing is experimental

 

What these implications require, asserts Murray, “is a teacher who will respect and respond to his students, not for what they have done, but for what they may do; not for what they have produced, but for what they may produce, if they are given an opportunity to see writing as a process, not a product.”

 

More of my discontent with CW workshops

My greatest frustration is the requirement to provide critical practical feedback for fellow students. Most of the time, I found I had little interest in what others had written, and I found myself in a double bind: my wish to help others with useful feedback would be tempered by my feeling that they knew what they were doing and “Who am I to help them improve their writing? I’m required to do it, but I can’t do it” is what I think most of the time.

My frustration had exacerbated when I realized I was falling behind, that what I had brought to the workshop was hardly worthy of being called literary, or even creative, writing. Certainly, I don’t fault instructors and classmates who had the courage to tell me the truth about the failures of my writing. I noticed how many workshop critique sessions (especially my drafts) involved about 10 percent of the time on strengths and the remainder on weaknesses.

I’ve been told my writing is academic, journalistic, unemotional. And all of that is true.

One of my workshop instructors handed me a page of typed feedback on a personal essay draft. Typically starting with a noted strength, the feedback included a series of criticisms, one of which suggested I should consider changing the chronology to a non-linear structure. Another comment proposed I needed to use more imagistic language, to display to the reader an agile mind at work. But it’s hard to believe a mind can grow more agile with practise.

My take on all this was to face the truth, which is that I am simply not a proficient literary or creative writer. Another failure I could add to my list. I am certainly not the only one to come to this conclusion while a student in a creative writing program. And besides, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I would rather instructors (and everyone) be honest with me.

One problem with workshops at the upper levels is that most students probably have a good idea of who has talent and who has less talent. When I started to see myself as a writer lacking in talent, my desire to give others constructive feedback dropped to zero. And as far as feedback from others, all that mattered to me was the feedback from my instructor. After all, my grade is determined only by my instructor, and my instructor is the only established literary writer in the room. I couldn’t find a benefit in heeding feedback from any other source, whether good or bad. If it hadn’t come from the instructor, it was, as far as I was concerned, unreliable and without authority.

So often I would sit and listen to a critique session where weaknesses were discussed that contradicted each other. Other times, students got into debates about the content of the piece from a political or veracity perspective. All irrelevant in my mind.

And on more than one occasion (including one or two involving my draft) I’d witnessed a negative comment about a classmate’s draft send many in the group into frenzied, prolonged, harsh criticism. (Even worse is the realization I might have participated myself in such a frenzy.) I wonder if the requirement to score participation points, even if it involves heaping abuse on a fellow classmate, makes some students lose any sense of sympathy or compassion for their peers. Others may be ambitious, and eager to show off their elevated critiquing skills and superior knowledge. I prefer collaboration to competition.

I’ve found that I cannot write with the workshop group as audience. Although a few workshop readers over the years have given me honest, useful, tactful feedback, I’ve found most of the group do not have the mindset or worldview or interest in reading what I am interested in writing. Since my audience is almost exclusively my instructor, whose feedback I respect as authoritative, and who determines my grade, I have no interest at all in finding out what other students have to say about my work.

This practical habit had been cemented by my experience seeing contradictory feedback from students. Students are required to give feedback, so they give feedback. There is nothing to suggest any of it is carefully thought out or even sincere. And feedback about matters of taste or feedback from ignorance of the world due to immaturity is not helpful either.

 

Improvements?

My sense is that abolishing the workshop is a utopian dream, so I offer suggestions for improvement.

Why not blend fiction with nonfiction? After all, CNF uses techniques of fiction to make factual writing more engaging. Fiction writers could benefit from the techniques of veracity and the research for concrete details that are the mainstays of the nonfiction writer, while nonfiction writers could benefit from the imagistic storytelling techniques so integral to fiction.

Early in my CW education, a smart grad student let on that if I wanted good grades I’d have to see instructors during office hours. Makes sense. Why not make individual (conference) time an integral component of the workshop? Maybe allocate two to three hours of one-on-one time between instructor and student. Students who felt they do not need the help could waive the meeting. And the idea of starting a workshop critique session with strengths and ending with weaknesses seems to me a misguided application of child psychology. We remember most what we hear last. Why not end all critique sessions with a brief summation of ways the draft could be improved, followed always at the very end by a recap of the strengths and a positive note to encourage the student?

I think that talented writers must love the workshop. They receive a great deal of often well-deserved positive feedback. Great for the self-image of an aspiring writer. But those who are not talented writers (and I’m sure everybody knows who’s who) feel more and more uncomfortable, something not alleviated when instructors tell the whole group, as they do, that we are all writers. Not everyone in the group will succeed in a literary career.

Why not revisit degree requirements, reconsider the BA and BFA options? Is it still appropriate to require the workshop path to graduation for all CW students? Why not have two paths to the BA degree – the workshop path and the workshop is optional path? I wonder what would happen to enrolment numbers. Seems to me, though, if you have compulsory workshops only because you know if they were not compulsory enrolment numbers would make them prohibitive financially, then maybe you are forcing something on people they don’t really want to do. Is that the current state of the workshop as CW method?

 

Final thoughts

Wallace Stegner was right. Only those with talent who are willing to work hard will succeed. For the rest of us, there are, nonetheless, still benefits. I have become a better reader, and I have certainly developed a greater appreciation for the CW craft. I doubt I will publish anything as literary, creative, or artistic writing.

It’s also possible that I am at a stage of development where I need to put in a great deal more effort and time before I achieve artistic proficiency. On the other hand, I feel like the kid who loves high school basketball who knows he isn’t good enough for a university scholarship. Relegated to playing in local house leagues or outdoor pick-up games. Good exercise and enjoyable. But not quite good enough.

I’m grateful. I’ve encountered writers I love to read, writers I would not have discovered on my own. I’ve met a few instructors I admire as people, as writers, and as brilliant thinkers. And I’ve admired the writing of some of my peers, and even noticed the year-over-year artistic development in their pursuit of their craft. The few who have real talent leave me in awe, almost like the awe I have for the works of Didion and Orlean and Wallace and Snyder and so many others.