A Writing Workshop, By Any Other Name

May 30, 2008 § 4 Comments

And speaking of The Kenyon Review, the KR Blog makes note of yet another “withering attack” on the concept of writing workshops. The attacks just seem to come without end, from people who very often have little idea what they are talking about. Hanif Kureishi is certainly one of them.

wkshopBut this latest stupid attack did force to me to reflect some on my pedagogy, and it finally hit me, like a soft mallet to the head, that I don’t teach a writing workshop – I’m not sure many of us in the academic creative writing field actually do – I teach an editing workshop.

Here’s what I mean:

A good workshop assists a young writer in seeing how a reader might encounter and experience their manuscript (with the help of some artificial readers – the workshop members.) Then, with the help of a prodding and encouraging teacher, the student is helped to see how to take what she has learned and re-vision what she has already written.

She learns how to take a muddy scene and make it clear. How to take a soggy bit of language and make it crisp. How to take a limp narrative arc and find some spine. How to take an undifferentiated character and create, well, character.

She learns, too, how voice can be altered, and how small changes can make a difference in point-of-view. This is editing that is being taught, and more specifically, self-editing. A student who learns the rigors and wonders of self-editing, before launching her work into the world, has learned quite a bit, and has greatly increased her chances of finding a publisher/audience.

We should call it an editing workshop, then, or a revision workshop, since that’s what we are teaching and modeling. If it were truly a writing workshop, those of us who teach would be standing over our students’ shoulders as they attempted their first drafts, and goodness knows I don’t do that.

So let’s call them poetry editing workshops, or creative nonfiction editing workshops, and do away with the perennial and pointless question: “Can writing be taught?”

– Dinty

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§ 4 Responses to A Writing Workshop, By Any Other Name

  • Grover says:

    Dinty, in our last “workshop” you had us do all kinds of writing exercises that forced us to create new work, to create new ways of creating new work. And for me that resulted in a publication, so I’m definitely satisfied. Keep up the good work(shopping).

  • Bradley says:

    It seems to me that Kureishi is operating under the assumption that undergrads in writing workshops are all interested in becoming writers; I hardly think that’s the case. Most, I think, are happy enough to be in a smaller class, reading interesting stuff, and flexing their creative muscles a bit in a way they really don’t get to in most of their other classes. Sure, a few suffer from the delusion that they’re going to become fabulously successful writers, but I’ve also had students who suffered from the delusion that a 2.0 GPA wouldn’t hurt them when they applied to medical school. Despite Kureishi’s insistence to the contrary, such students are quickly “disabused” of such fantasies.

    The only other thing I would add in defense of the creative writing workshop is that I think our students become not only better editors, but also more reflective and observant people as a result of taking our classes. Or, at least, the ones who get a B or better do. This is particularly true in the creative nonfiction workshop, I think, where students usually arrive convinced that there’s absolutely nothing interesting or worth writing about in their own lives, but find themselves compelled to analyze their environments and their relationshipss more carefully and more critically than they had before, in order to explain themselves, their ideas, and their experiences to an audience of their peers.

  • elhajj says:

    The best thing about a writing workshop is getting to interact with peers who take the business of writing seriously. I’ve gotten some excellent help, but I’ve also received some really bad suggestions. It’s all part of the game. What you won’t find in any other classes are people who care one way or another about the mood of a particular essay, the characterization of the people in the stories, or the stakes the plot introduces.

  • “A good workshop assists a young writer” — Sorry I am just catching up. A good workshop assists *any* writer, including a writer who might be as old or older than even the very, very, very old teacher leading it.

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