Friday, May 29, 2009

Workshopping or Does the Emperor Have Any Clothes?

Okay, for this post I'm going out on a limb, but, hey, blogs are suppostabe controversial, right? So, here it is. When did workshopping become the accepted model for teaching writing? Who invented this idea of classmates commenting on each other's work while the instructor serves as guide or first among equals, and does anyone ever question if it really works?

As a naive new writer about 8 years ago, taking my first writing class before I'd become inured to this notion of workshopping, I remember thinking I'd just had the bad luck to get a very lazy instructor who wanted the class to do the teaching for him. It never occurred to me that every class I would take after that, be it college level or online, whether it cost hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars, whether led by an established writer or Norm Nobody, would all employ the same model.

Am I the only one who sees this as something akin to lunatics running the asylum? I mean, what is the point in having an established writer leading the workshop when most of the feedback is coming from people who have no more clue about writing than I do (and sometimes less)?

I admit to being an old fogey from the days of the red pen, and I hated that red pen, but looking back I have to admit it taught me a lot. Besides, if someone in the room is going to rip my work apart––and someone always does––I'd rather it be the person who has published several stories in top-tier journals and has a contract with Knopf than the guy next to me who's on the same level as I am and happened to be able to afford the airfare to get there.

At the risk of answering my own question––yes, there are those who wonder if the model works and some of them teach creative writing––here's a quote from an article in P&W by Dan Barden

Specifically, the workshop promotes the idea to young writers that their writing is required reading, that an audience is guaranteed. When really, postworkshop, no one will ever be forced to look at their work again.

It’s the first thing I tell my students: If you could understand, really understand, that no one needs to read your work, then your writing would improve vastly by the time we meet in this classroom again.

That's an interesting take and one that should be considered seriously. Thinking back on the many workshops I've participated in, there has always been much focus on the writing of the story––the voice, word choice, POV––but never any comment on the story itself as in, why did you write this? Was your breakup with your boyfriend really so different from everyone else's that we need to read about it? Did I tell you that I fell asleep reading this last night because it is so lo-o-ong and absolutely nothing happens?

Which brings me to the main issue I question. Does workshopping really improve a person's writing overall? Certainly, on a very basic level workshopping can improve a particular story, in the sense that the writer might be encouraged to drop character B or develop character A more fully. They might make an ending stronger or an introduction shorter. But will a writer who only scrapes the surface of his characters really learn to dig deeper? Will clunky dialogue improve?

I don't have the experience of an MFA program, but I have taken part in weeks-long workshops where the majority of participants ended the week writing the same way they began it. A couple of participants (one being me, natch), attempted to incorporate tips from the instructor. The rest either couldn't or wouldn't make any changes.

So there's my rant about workshopping. I'd like to say I've had enough, but there are other advantages to workshops than the feedback, like the pressure to produce and the exercises that force you to come up with something new. And I still keep looking for that instructor who will defy convention and take over the class.

Maybe someday.


Lady Glamis said...

I never thought about this much, but now that I do, yes, we ALWAYS workshopped in my college courses. And it always made me break out into a sweat. What woud I say to my classmates about their writing? What would they say about mine? In the end, I think what workshopping did for me was teach me how to share my work publicly. It didn't make me a better writer, though. And I don't think every class needs to have workshopping. We can learn to share our work in other ways, too.

Workshopping once in awhile is fine, I think, but not all the time. If it's excessive, that's when it really gets obvious that the instructor is just being lazy.

CashewElliott said...

To be frank, I agree with you, completely, I think.

Workshopping, at least at the undergraduate level, has been an exercise in screening out completely worthless comments from poor writers, begging the good writers to actually read my story and offer their thoughts, and generally, in the end, came down to me taking away perhaps 1 thing that was mentioned and integrating it into the story. Not that the draft was complete; no, generally my workshop drafts have been rough, but I know that, and I know what I need to do for future revisions.

That 1 comment, almost ALWAYS, has come from the professor.

Meeting in-office for 10 minutes would have, and does, offer the same result.

CashewElliott said...

Perhaps reading other students work was helpful, but mostly it was painful.


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