Not as Easy as You Think: Re-evaluating the Workshop Model
Oindrila Mukherjee | February 2015
In his book, Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five Canon Approach, Tom C. Hunley says that the workshop method “functions more as a convenience for the instructors than as a vehicle for meeting the needs of students. The traditional workshop model of teaching undergraduate poetry writing has gone virtually unquestioned for the past seventy years…” (2) He goes on to dismiss the “typical creative writing teacher who simply has students read their drafts aloud and then leads full-class discussions about these student texts.” Hunley assumes that we as teachers never question our methods or the efficacy of the workshop model for different levels of writers, and suggests that we are all lazy instructors who don’t bother with syllabi, grading rubrics, exercises, and so on, a charge that is both false and reductive. However, I do agree with Hunley that not enough attention is paid to teacher training and pedagogical theory in MFA programs. During my time teaching creative writing in various genres at the undergraduate level for the past twelve and a half years, I have encountered a number of challenges that may sound familiar to many instructors. Here I will acknowledge some of the problems that the workshop model can produce in a class of beginning writers, and discuss some solutions I have found in dealing with these. While I have had the good fortune to teach multi-genre introductory classes, as well as fiction, nonfiction and playwriting workshops, in this essay I will focus mainly on fiction-writing classes. However, most of the principles discussed below can easily be transferred to other genres.
Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, says that the workshop model “represents a democratization of both the material for college study and its teaching.” (16) Many of us instructors ask our students to sit in a circle during workshop, to emphasize this democratization by rupturing any hierarchy in the classroom. When I sit in a circle with my students, I’m signaling equality. The students are graded on their class participation, i.e. their oral responses during workshop. This means they offer feedback to the writer as much as, if not more than, I do. I have often had the experience where the writer agrees with some of the students in class who praise her work more or who see something there that I do not. The latter, of course, can be a wonderful moment of discovery for the teacher. On the other hand, when the writers submit revised manuscripts along with self-reflection essays at the end of the semester, they sometimes write that they chose to revise— or not revise— based on the other students’ comments rather than mine. This degree of democratization would be absurd in any other discipline where the feedback cannot be interpreted as being so subjective. It would seem obvious to many that beginning writers lack the experience or the knowledge of craft or the wide expanse of reading to be better critics of each other’s work than I am. Surely, there is a reason I am the instructor, and therefore my opinions should count for more than those of the writer’s peers.
I frontload the semester with lectures on craft. For instance, we spend one or two classes discussing point of view, looking at examples of each point of view, and completing short exercises to practice different points of view. We do the same with setting, dialogue, and other elements of craft. In some classes, depending on the level, I assign a textbook like Burroway’s Writing Fiction to use as a reference tool for the fundamentals of craft. As Hunley says, students must be “armed with an arsenal of invention strategies, conversant about form and structure, capable of identifying and writing in a variety of styles.” (3) It is essential to have a strong familiarity with the elements of craft in a particular genre, with the vocabulary of the genre, and with a variety of published examples. If students come into class having mainly read fantasy and other genre fiction, how can they be expected to provide adequate feedback in a literary fiction workshop? Furthermore, if I spend the first half of the semester trying to create this familiarity, then the next step is to apply the principles to the texts produced by students. This becomes as much a test for the readers in the circle as for the writers.
I also require writers to come up with detailed revision plans (whether or not they are required to produce a revised draft at the end of the semester,) where they must explain and justify their choices. This assignment forces them to think more carefully about their decisions, and also renders irrelevant whom the critiques came from, students or me. The writer must examine her decisions and make a case for them in terms of craft, plot, theme, and intentionality, and in doing so, her focus turns towards the story rather than towards the critics.
Often beginning writers are too polite in workshop and hesitate to be critical. Compared to them I sometimes feel like a monster. Every semester, on the first day of my advanced fiction class, I ask my students what, if anything, frustrated them about the workshop model in previous classes, and someone always says that he did not get enough critical feedback because other students were too nice.
It must be kept in mind that a primary goal of workshops is to enable students to be strong critical readers, not merely kind and supportive ones.
I teach in a unique writing department at Grand Valley, which is not part of English or any other discipline. The curriculum combines creative and professional writing courses, which include the usual workshops for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. But it also offers a Consulting with Writers class and a Working with Manuscripts class. The university’s Writing Center hires writing consultants from among our majors. For any kind of consulting work with writers or any kind of editorial work, it is important for students to learn to be honest and insightful readers. Also, reading other people’s texts and identifying common problems therein is very helpful in figuring out weaknesses in one’s own text, thereby making workshop usually more useful for the readers than for the writer.
Teaching creative writing to beginning students is one of the most challenging tasks in all of pedagogy because of the subjectivity that most students think the discipline involves. They often arrive in introductory creative writing classes expecting to:
a. Have fun, because the class is “creative,” which means minimum effort and maximum experimentation and talent.
b. Receive an easy A because they have been writing for years and their high school teachers and friends have told them they are good at it.
Beginning writers are even more fragile than the rest of us— if that were possible!— and can get easily discouraged by criticism and overwhelmed by feedback. We have all had that experience of walking out of a workshop in a daze, not wanting to ever write another word. This process can be brutal and bruising to the young writer’s psyche. I vehemently deny the idea therefore that the workshop experience can be “easy” for beginning writers. On the contrary it can clearly be traumatic. In Writing Fiction, Burroway says “The atmosphere in such a group (the college workshop) is intense and personal in a way that other college classes are not; it must be so since a major text of the course is also the raw efforts of its participants.” (16)
Anna Leahy points out in her essay “Creativity, Caring, and the Easy A: Rethinking the Self-Esteem in Creative Writing Pedagogy” that “self esteem (is) a hidden guiding principle in our pedagogy.” (56) Negotiating this issue of self esteem has been the hardest challenge for me personally as a teacher. When we first transition from our own graduate workshops to teaching undergraduate classes, many of us are in MFA or Ph.D mode, which means we tend to overwhelm writers with overzealous feedback about every single weakness in the text.
Frank Conroy says in his essay “The Writer’s Workshop,” (80) that he warns all his students at Iowa at the beginning of workshopping that he “will search out every weakness in the prose that (he) can…” and “(he) will tear the prose apart until (he gets) prose sufficiently strong that it does not tear.” This approach does not work with most beginning writers and can lead to not only completely alienating them from writing but also to poor course evaluations and a corresponding lack of self esteem for the instructor.
I always highlight the strengths of each text or each writer – sometimes a particular draft may be really poor and have no strengths but the writer may have some pattern that is commendable. This could be a single image, or an idea that’s nascent in the story, or the writer’s self-deprecating sense of humor in conversations, which could be put to use in his writing, and so on. If nothing else, I try to analyze the intentionality and comment on the complexity of the situation or the dramatic possibility in the backstory. There is always something good that could come out of this draft. Once I understand this, it is my task to make the other students understand it. Their letters to the author and discussions must begin with applause too. Speaking of letters, I ask students not to use the first person when writing them. They cannot say “I liked” or “I think.” This makes the tone less personal and more objective.
I also end each workshop by asking readers to make three specific suggestions for revision, to try and sum up the entire discussion and provide some definite direction to the writer.
And finally, I always allow the writer to use one redirection during workshop where she can steer the conversation toward or away from a particular topic. The idea is to create the impression that we are all trying to help her, not be punitive, that this is all ultimately for her benefit, and that we are at her service.
Leahy quotes Jane Smiley: “…every teacher in every creative writing class has to spend a fair amount of time, sometimes most of her time, showing students how to become teachable, that is how to listen to what others are saying about their stories and how not to resist but to receive.” (59) This may be, ultimately, the most valuable lesson that any creative writing class can impart. To this end, it may even be useful to assign readings such as the essay Hunley mentions in his Introduction, “Criticism – The Art of Give and Take,” by Phyllis Gebauer, where she discusses how to handle workshop feedback. But while Hunley seems to believe that the workshop model does not “merit all of this stressful preparation,” I see no reason why some of this preparation cannot be a constructive element in a workshop-style class.
There are often too many students in undergraduate classes, as many as 25, a fact that makes workshops unwieldy and rushed. No matter how much time is devoted to discussing a single story, it seldom seems to be enough, with students wanting to talk more. I have at times had a class spend as much as forty minutes on one story, and at the end a few students were left disappointed at not having their full say. The conversation can feel compressed or superficial or simply overwhelming because of the breakneck speed at which all the feedback is coming at the writer.
Instructors should consider restricting discussion to specific points, which may be predetermined before the class period, or introduced during workshop. It is advisable to follow a clear structure, and to stop after a specified time period, no matter what. Every assignment does not have to be work-shopped. It’s better to have one complete workshop for each student than multiple rushed ones. Other submissions can be work-shopped in small groups, or discussed in individual conferences with the instructor, or critiqued online as Hunley suggests.
In conclusion, I want to point out that Hunley’s allegation that workshops are “too easy” for instructors is irrelevant for the following reasons. First, it takes considerable skill to direct a workshop well, to ensure a. that everyone gets an equal opportunity to participate, b. that all important elements of the text are addressed, c. that the tone is constructive, not cruel. It is important for the instructor to participate enough but not too much, and to be a good facilitator. Second, the really important question is whether or not workshops are effective. I do not have any problem with an instructor taking the “easiest” way out if that also happens to be the best way to make students better writers.
However, I do agree that the “traditional” workshop method, which, according to Hunley’s definition is a class where the writers merely talk about the submission with no supplementary tools or readings or lesson, is extremely limited in its usefulness for beginning writers. I am a firm believer in combining workshops with other methods in creative writing courses for undergraduates. To this end I prefer calling them classes or courses rather than workshops. Sometimes, I have had students complain about “not workshopping yet” in week three of the semester, because the class is called a workshop and that’s what they expected or wanted. There is a problem with over-reliance on workshops. Also, from my own experience in graduate programs, whether MFA or PhD, I know that workshops are not always helpful. Therefore, I do a few things to make them more useful and also less monotonous.
Beginning students are in need of prompts to get their creative juices flowing, invention exercises to generate ideas for stories/plays/essays/poems. Indeed, across all levels of undergraduate classes, I have found that students enjoy and want these prompts for brief in-class writing exercises. They also require lessons on craft, combined with selected readings that illustrate the craft elements. They need lectures and advice on how to use those elements. Workshops can be effective only if they follow these other methods.
I myself am a very active participant in workshops. I like to insert a few prompts and lectures on craft, as well as discussions of published readings into my workshops. Here are a few methods I’ve employed to make the workshop more useful for beginning writers:
Elements to Use in Combination with Workshop
- Assign a craft essay (I use many essays from The Writer’s Chronicle archives) and ask students to apply it in the workshop. E.g. Ask students to read “Odds on Ends” by Molly Giles (The Writer’s Chronicle, February 2010), an essay on how to end short stories, and ask them to apply what they have learned from the reading to the student stories under discussion.
- Deliver a brief lecture (with examples) on specific craft elements that recur either in all stories being workshopped on a particular day or frequently over the semester. E.g. Lecture on how the use of the first person can limit writers from “showing” us the character fully. This may be supplemented with a reading such as “Too Much of Moi” by Chris Mazza (The Writer’s Chronicle, October/November 2009).
- Make connections between published stories that were assigned earlier in the semester and the student stories being workshopped.
- Give writing prompts based on the stories submitted to workshop. Here are some examples of prompts that can be used during workshop as a brief writing break:
- Write a new first line for the story. It could come from elsewhere in the story itself or be a new sentence, but it should introduce the central conflict sooner, cut unnecessary exposition, and be a stronger hook for the reader.
- Write a new last paragraph for the story, to make the ending more complicated, less “easy,” not happy but bittersweet at best.
- Write a paragraph anywhere in the story from the point of view of a different character.
- Convert a summary into a one-page scene.
- Rewrite a page of existing dialogue between two characters using subtext so that the characters never say what they mean.
- Create backstory for a minor character to make him more complex and interesting.
Oindrila Mukherjee teaches creative writing at Grand Valley State University. She has a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of stories. @oinkness
- Burroway, Janet, Stuckey-French, Elizabeth and Stuckey-French, Ned. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, 8th ed: New York: Longman, 2011.
- Conroy, Frank. “The Writer’s Workshop.” In On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey, pp 80 - 89. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Hunley, Tom C. Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five Canon Approach. Cleveland: Multilingual Matters Limited, 2007.
- Leahy, Anne. “Creativity, Caring, and The Easy “A”: Rethinking the Role of Self-Esteem in Creative Writing Pedagogy.” In Can It Really Be Taught? Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, edited by Ritter Kelly and Vanderslice Stephanie, pp 55 – 66. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2007.