Re-Thinking the Creative Writing Workshop

Author: Tina V. Cabrera

I’ve been thinking about the graduate creative writing workshop more and more these days. This is probably because I’ve been a student of many, and face yet more as a second-semester PhD student in Literature and Creative Writing. My title for this article uses the term “re-thinking” the workshop when it should really be “re-designing,” but in order to re-design you need to first re-think. Besides, having only taught a handful of undergraduate workshops in fiction and poetry myself, I don’t deem myself in a position to demand an overhaul of the entire structure. At this point, you may ask, why tamper with something that seems to work adequately? Many fiction and poetry writers come out of the experience with – at the very least – a couple of revised works that likely would remain drafts without the experience. Some fare even better, making career-long connections with fellow writers whose opinions they value and respect. But I do believe there is such a thing as workshop burnout. Get with the program you’ll say. And I have. Therein lies the problem. I’ve gotten with it without much resistance and have ended up feeling like I’m in a slump. Maybe as a creative writing graduate, you have too, but you’re afraid to vocalize it. You’re afraid you may sound jaded or worst, like a whiner and complainer. But if you question the value of the workshop experience, whether it’s truly helping or hindering your creativity, or blinding you to alternative paths for your writing, then you’re probably experiencing more than an injured ego.  Below, I offer up a description of what I call the over-workshopped person. Directly afterward, I explore some alternate possibilities, the workshop re-imagined if you will, including fascinating ideas offered by a couple of experienced professionals in the field.

Signs That You May Be Experiencing Workshop Burnout

If you’ve already earned your MFA in creative writing like I have and are now enrolled in the PhD of the same, then you’ve probably sat through a good number of fiction and poetry workshops and are set to sit through several more. Nod your head if you find the following description to be true of you:

  • Your vision tends to be bifurcated: there is the good workshop and the bad workshop. The determining factor is how you feel when you get home at ten o’clock at night after the three-hour writer’s group therapy session, wherein for nineteen minutes and thirty seconds you sit silently in the community circle of elementary-designed desks while your story is opinionated upon, summarized and paraphrased, mostly inaccurately, forbidden to interject clarification or questions until the last thirty seconds of your twenty-minute time slot, when head professor with an MFA or PhD in English or creative writing or both asks whether you have any questions or concerns, which has the effect of befuddling you into using your last allotted fifteen seconds to say, “No, not really. Thanks for everything,” when what you really want to say is that no one understands what you’re trying to do. Your face burns red and your throat feels strained, even though you haven’t said anything for the last twenty minutes. You take a swig of your water bottle and stare blankly when your professor asks the class what they like about the next story. You don’t yet know how the next scheduled workshop person will fare, and frankly, you don’t really care. This has been bad workshop night for you.
  • When you get home from bad workshop, you stuff the stack of duplicate, scribbled on stories into your special manila folder, all except for the draft with the teacher’s typed notes. You’ve been through this many times before. You know you will set aside your classmates comments for now, for at least two weeks. You will return to them later when in a more objective mood. But you’re dying to see what teacher has to say. After all, his opinion is what really matters. He is the expert, having published two collections of stories that you haven’t read. He starts, of course, with the parts he enjoyed the most. You ignore the last two paragraphs wherein he outlines the parts that left him wondering what to hold onto. You cringe when he wishes you the best of luck on your next draft. Fuck it, you think to yourself. There will be no more drafts because this story stinks. Weeks later, you hesitantly return to your badly work-shopped story (or badly written story – depending on whose view) not the haphazardly or carefully crafted comments typed or handwritten by your creative writing comrades. You insist to yourself that you remember the overall gyst of their opinions. You do return to the notes you took in your steno notebook that night of bad workshop, during which you pretended to take notes, doodling in the margins and making a list for the things you needed to pick up afterward at CVS. You remember how you nodded your head in agreement or doubt as one after another of your classmates had raised their hands for the opportunity to take the floor and sound wise, surmising that your story was indeed entertaining on page 10 in the first full paragraph, but failed to sustain this up to the last full paragraph on page 11.  At that point during bad workshop, you thought to yourself (because you’re not allowed to think it aloud) that the point was not to be entertaining, and that’s why the first full paragraph on page 10 all the way through 11 does not sustain the effect of entertainment. The term “entertainment” made you cringe, but you tried not to show it.
  • There is the good workshop. This one should be a given. Everyone but one (most likely the professor because it is his or her job to be critical, after all) or two exude with praise for how perfectly crafted your story is, how well developed the characters are, and the vivid attention to details on display. You’ve managed to get a couple of laughs to boot, although you’re not exactly certain that that’s what those scenes were supposed to do. Nevertheless, you’re not all that surprised at the reactions this story is earning, as you made sure to choose your best – one that’s even been published with a small press journal or magazine (you made sure not to mention this detail to anyone). You thank everyone for everything, and this time you really mean it. You celebrate afterwards with drinks at the local campus dive bar, where your buddies high-five you.
  • When you get home from good workshop, you come down off your high. You look at the stack of drafts with glowing comments typed or written in the margins, and you wonder how you can top this success story.
  • The next day after good workshop, you begin to wonder whether the glowing comments on your story are genuine, whether your classmates secretly despised your story but didn’t say so since you are all friends. After all, you doubt that your comments on the story after yours were truly honest, as you had been just coming down from your own workshop high. Your story has been published yes – but you recall reading a couple of other stories published in the same issue of the same online journal and how you almost felt embarrassed being published along with such mediocrities.
  • Whether good or bad workshop, you feel shortchanged. You decide to try and see each workshop more neutrally, as something in between. There are, of course, mixed response workshops, where you have some who feed you with praise, and others with actually useful commentary. However, you’re never certain which suggestions to follow and which ones to ignore. You’ve never really been given the tools to decide. What language is best used to address works of art, other than what one likes or what works or doesn’t work about a creative text, or how to cater to elements other than conventional narratives of plot, character, scene, and summary.
  • You decide that the best approach to the graduate creative writing workshop is to continue to accept criticism graciously whether you agree with it or not, and to offer up the same tone and tenor of suggestions to your classmates (after all, no one twisted your arm to enter a doctoral program in fiction or poetry when you already have mastered the fine art of creative writing, according to the degree from three years before hanging on your wall). This despite the nagging doubts you have about the whole construction, how you question whether the “craft” of creative writing can be taught after all.

Re-Thinking the Workshop Format

Whether you find yourself burned out on workshop or not, or close to it, or not at all, it doesn’t hurt to explore alternative possibilities. I asked two professors of creative writing, Lance Olsen and Robert Glick about their current experimentations with the creative writing workshop format in addition to their views. Below are select quotes from my interviews with the two:

Lance Olsen:

I totally understand your concern about workshop format. I have a section in Architectures of Possibility about them, about their assumptions, about trying to think our ways beyond the Iowa model.

I try something a little different every semester, but this what I’m doing in my grad Experimental Forms this semester: [Workshops.] We will bracket the notion of “workshop,” try to imagine productive alternatives to the Iowa model, while interrogating that model’s efficacy, limits, and silences. Instead of calling these events “workshops” (at least initially), we will call them Askings. During an Asking, participants may pose questions (and only questions) to the author of the piece under discussion. The author may answer those questions as directly, intelligently, and illuminatingly as s/he can. S/he may also defer to his/her Advocate, a participant who will have met with the author before the Asking to discuss said piece and will have paid special attention to it; the Advocate will answer any question the author choses to defer to her/him. Please email me the name(s) of seminar participant(s) you would like to act (I choose that last verb carefully) as your Advocate in each of your two Askings. If you don’t have one in mind, I will assign one.

Lance Olsen has written 20 books of and about innovative prose, including Head in Flames (Chiasmus, 2009), Anxious Pleasures (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007), Nietzsche’s Kisses (FC2, 2006), and Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Fiction Writing (Cambrian, 1998). His latest novel, Calendar of Regrets, appeared from FC2 in the fall of 2010. He teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah and serve as Chair of the Board of Directors at Fiction Collective Two and fiction editor at Western Humanities Review.

Robert Glick:

The notion of the workshop as a place for “finished” pieces discourages us from uncertainty, vulnerability, from the possibility of experimentation, or even of incompleteness, and encourages us to set ourselves within a competitive framework – kind of like at the State Fair, where all the farmers set their cabbages on the table, and one gets a shiny ribbon. In this type of workshop, students may consider it their duty to be unduly harsh and unspecific, since, after all, they may be competing with you for economic resources, the love of a teacher (and the rec letter that goes with it), or the attentions of a visiting agent.

For better or worse, here’s what I think about when I think about the Iowa Model (fiction):
• Craft is prioritized over art
• Completion is prioritized over incompletion
• Safety is prioritized over experimentation
• Competence, through an economic structure, is prioritized over fascination
• Competition is encouraged through that same economic structure
• There is a paradigmatic short story that has fairly strict codes about subject matter, temporal relationships, and structure
• The workshop does not include or deprioritizes exercises, prompts, and external and/or critical readings
• A vocabulary of “working” and not “working” lends to a primary metaphor of story as machine (and not in the Deleuzian sense)
• Product (publishing) is prioritized over process
• Student work, and only student work, is prioritized over external stories, critical works, or exercises / prompts / expansions of the writing toolbox
• Holds to a 19th / early 20th century model of the psychology of the self, with its attendant traumas and epiphanies
• Does not take into account the digital, or strategies of multiple reading (such as Cortazar’s Hopscotch, or any web page)

 

The irony, of course, is that a workshop doesn’t have to be like this at all:

The workshop should, in my opinion:

• be a place where experimentation and incompleteness are welcomed.
• be flexible enough different kinds of critical readings (questions, interpretations).
• prioritize fascination over competence.
• embrace community over competition.

We may find, in the future, that there are different kinds of workshops. Some, as with Michael Martone’s hypoxic workshops, emphasize the quick generation of work and first critical impressions. Others might hold closer to an Iowa framework, where workshop deals primarily with “completed” works. Some might stress particular types of readings, such as Lance’s “askings,” while others focus heavily on craft – as in, perhaps, undergraduate workshops. As for me, I teach students to look for opportunities – to go deeper, to give more detail, etc.

If I have a problem with the workshop per se, it is that students do not also read outside the other student stories. How can creative writing have a distinct canon from American literature? How can we expect graduate students to thrive without a better historical background in literatures considered traditional and innovative? Simply the expansion of reading, I think, would help students out of their “bad critical habits,” because they would soon realize how many different kinds of writing there are.

As for me, and especially because I am teaching undergraduates, I do tend to start them with the “traditional” – Chekhov, O’Connor, Carver, Munro. But in each class, I spend some time making it clear that a) what we consider “traditional” is fairly arbitrary, b) what we consider “traditional” is also profoundly strange (cf Quixote, or Moby Dick, or Kafka), and c) that the definition of a story is much more open than we might imagine. Which is to say that if I were to make one change in the CW workshop, it would be to have more reading of outside work.

Robert Glick holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah and is currently assistant professor in English/ Creative Writing at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology). This year, he is teaching Intro to Creative Writing, Intro to Fiction, Advanced Fiction Workshop (all undergrad), and a course on zombies in literature, film, and video games. Next year, he’ll be teaching RIT’s first class in the History of Digital Literature.

 

You probably have your own ideas brewing on how to re-structure the workshop in a way that would most benefit us as writers and students of writing, even if it’s simply tweaking the current format. Share them with your colleagues and use them in the courses you are already teaching. This topic isn’t new, but the way we think about it could use some novelty, a sense of urgency as the time we spend in graduate school is limited yet highly defining of our selves as artists and of our chosen career paths.