On Writing Workshops

August 13, 2012, by

Tuesday, August 14th at noon Inprint begins online registration for its Fall 2012 Writers Workshops. All of our writing instructors have been students in a workshop in the past, either at the university level, or in another format. We thought it would be fun to hear what they have to say about writing workshops and why they can be meaningful. Here, Allyn West, who will be teaching a Personal Essay workshop this fall, shares his insights.

Do you want to know the secret to becoming a  writer? The one thing all writers everywhere want to know how to do?

You write.

But—then what? Unless you’re Zadie Smith or Junot Diaz, with major publishing houses clamoring even for your grocery lists, you will have all these pages and nothing to do with them, stumped by your questions about them. Are they any good? And how can I turn them into something—more?

This is, for many of us, where the writing workshop comes in. The workshop as we know it began at the University of Iowa in the 1930s. (It was based on the model of the seminar at Johns Hopkins, used by lecturers to discuss research problems.) Teachers have tinkered with the workshop—I have had professors assign workshop advocates; implement anonymous submissions; demand pages of typed comments—but it hasn’t changed very much. You share your poem or story with everyone else. They read it. (Maybe they read it twice.) You shut up, while everyone else tells you what they think, and you sit there and take it, writing either exhaustive notes or defensive doggerel (to be used to get even in your next poem or story). At the end, your work is returned to you, along with two or three dozen usually contradictory suggestions for revision.

My first workshop went like that, anyway. It was about 10 years ago at Ball State, in Muncie. I wasn’t ready for it. Not only did I fail to concede the possibility that my classmates might be right—one student wrote to me, “This must be real poetry, because I don’t understand it”—and I was emboldened by that!—but I failed to grasp what a workshop really was for. I was approaching it as though it were any other class—I thought I could do just what the professor asked, keep abreast of the syllabus, cram for the exams, scrounge my A, and move on with my life.

That was a mistake. A workshop isn’t any other class—even though it’s listed right there in the course catalog. It should be listed with moral prerequisites: empathy and maturity and generosity; a seriousness of purpose; a willingness; a no-nonsense notion about what it means to be a writer. A workshop, I’ve learned, isn’t about bringing in writing that you’re content about or done with. It’s not about bringing in writing that demonstrates your genius, how you are touched by the muses, etc. Because then you’re not going to want to revise. And you’re going to think everyone else is wrong. You’re going to think they’re trying to ruin it. You’re going to think they’re jealous. And you’ll be wasting their time. And yours.

A workshop’s not like show-and-tell. It’s more like show-and-listen.

A workshop’s not like show-and-tell. It’s more like show-and-listen.

Which can be rough—especially if someone sneaked through without meeting those prerequisites. Some workshops can feel like exploratory surgery in a back alley. You can feel mistreated, mistaken for things you’re not. Oh, and that first night can be awkward. You assume everyone else has an MFA from somewhere prestigious like the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. And if you’re like me you assume they all have more noble breeding and higher self-esteem … and then someone spills a glob of hummus on the first manuscript up for discussion and someone else says something funny and soon everyone is chiming in, talking about the things you all have in common, the things you all came to do, and the awkwardness recedes, and what might have been a hot little crucible of anxiety and retribution starts yielding good conversation, and these people, these strangers, start helping you peel open your work. They see what you’d been unable to see. And—who knows?—you might start adding each other on Facebook and forming writing groups that last years. (It’s no coincidence that MFA programs, where workshops are the primary focus, are nearly as famous for spawning literary careers as they are for happy marriages.)

It doesn’t always go like this. But it can.

Of course, workshops aren’t for everyone. “‘But,’ you may ask, ‘what if it comes natural to me to experiment rather than conform? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?'” Strunk and White ask and then answer this objection in The Elements of Style: “then be one.” Save spots in workshops for the rest of us. “If you write,” Strunk and White go on to say, “you must believe—in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message. No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.” There is no better place to find and learn to respect the reader’s intelligence—if you listen—than the writing workshop.

Speaking of which: if Strunk or White brought in that little paragraph, we’d probably want to tinker with that final sentence. It ends without emphasis. I’d encourage them to play with the syntax, try, “No one can write decently whose attitude is patronizing, who distrusts the reader’s intelligence.”

Anyway. It’s just a suggestion.



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