The End of Writerly Silence: On a New (to Me) Workshop Model

August 27, 2020 § 14 Comments

headshot_mccordBy Kailyn McCord

I grew up in what I’d call a traditional workshop. Non-genre specific, usually involving between six and twelve people, this model will be familiar to any in the capital-C capital-W Creative Writing world. In it, the writer under critique listens, verboten from speaking, while peers and professor discuss their work. The conversation usually begins with strengths, then progresses to problems. The function of the writer’s silence is two-fold: first as mechanism so that they might listen more thoroughly, and second, so that the group might elucidate the work before them without clues as to the intentions behind it. Silence bears enlightenment; via their role as witness, the writer comes to see, somewhat miraculously, the true meaning of their own work.

My experiences with this model (years in an MFA, a smattering of conferences) weren’t bad, but they did breed a familiar pattern. When in the hot seat, critique would leave me in one of two places. If the group mostly liked the piece, I was often more or less exactly where I started: alone with my work, unsure of what next steps to take. If the group didn’t like the piece – if they employed the kind of cutting-down to which I’d become accustomed – I was still alone, but this time tasked with parsing individual criticisms into a cohesive plan. Knowing myself to be ever the idiot when it came to what my essays were “actually doing,” the group had handed down its meaning, and now my job was to bring it forth.

As critic, I did as had been done to me, offering my classmates a gentle barrage at best, a borderline combative litany of their failings at worst. Certainly, my criticism was craft-based; certainly, I wasn’t mean. But in my mind, I was supposed to return a favor, to show my peers where they’d gone wrong, and what they might do to right themselves. A strange sort of esteem began to build, a conflation of my critiquing abilities and my image of myself as a Good Writer. So that I might display genius (and reassure myself of its existence), there need be problems in the work of my peers, faults on which to proffer my cutthroat analyses. It amounted to a fragile success, contingent on the failures of my classmates, as were theirs on mine.

Until a month ago, I thought this was just the way of things.

A few weeks prior to my participation in a recent conference, I received an email from my workshop leader. Amidst various specific instructions was a bold-faced paragraph informing us that she did not run silent workshops, that of course the writer should aim to stay out the driver’s seat, but that should they think it necessary, were more than welcome to speak. Perhaps more shocking than this invitation, the bolded paragraph instructed us that, when critiquing, we should explicitly challenge any assumed authority over the work in front of us. Constructive criticism was encouraged, but we were to operate by the maxim that the writer knew more about their work than we did.

I balked. Surely, I thought, this model was designed for pandering, to coddle weak-minded writers who couldn’t stomach the true stuff of critique. Surely, a writer invited to speak would become mean, petty, defensive, provoking battles between intention and observation, writer and peer critic. Surely, I would walk away from this workshop with word documents full of saccharine compliments, or shyly hedged notes. When imagining my own feedback, I dreaded what I’d offer, sure I’d couch my every ‘real’ thought in fluffy, soft-handed language.

To say that I was off base would be an understatement. I was in the outfield. I was in the stands. I was the guy selling cotton candy in the parking lot.

First of all, we fought no battles. Instead, if a writer spoke, they were usually brief re-directs, and helpful for us in avoiding red herrings. Conversations that, in the old model, would have harped on (for example) inconsistent POV instead turned to how the POV was working, and what effect it rendered. Real critique still materialized (that the POV was confusing), but because we’d assumed their expertise, the writer got to see reactions to choices they’d already made, rather than our theories about ones they should have made, and hadn’t yet. This lens – one that takes a barely fledged idea and parses it out as if already complete and purposeful – is golden stuff, a rare longview, and to my experience, the very most difficult perspective to come by when drafting. There it was, in easy reach, born of the new model we found ourselves in.

I’m terrible at large-scale structure. I’ll sit in a line all day, or work the acceleration of a paragraph until it sings, but ask me about plot, and I’m lost. In this workshop, there was one writer’s piece in particular I’d had trouble with; the line-level wasn’t where it should be, I thought, even for a workshop setting. I explained patiently in my comments about showing and telling. I was sure the author was inexperienced. But come workshop time, I found them sharp, wise, and committed to every piece we addressed. I was blown away. How could someone who said those things write something like that? After the workshop, I read the piece again. I watched the beats move. I tracked character motivation and exposition. Yes, the line level wasn’t to my taste, but this writer’s command of pacing was exceptional.

Had I read this piece in the old model, I would have hung my hat on its flaws and considered my job finished. In the new model, because I was reading for intentionality, I wasn’t only seeing what the writer was doing, I was learning from it.

Comments on my own work proved honest, straightforward, and devoid of dismissiveness. Their aim wasn’t to correct, but rather to bolster what vision I’d offered. Rather than finding myself swamped by a sea of contradictory commentary, I felt empowered to take or leave what I thought was best for my work. It was surprisingly easy, in part because I knew what the group was rooting for: not their vision, and not an instructor’s edict, but my own intentions.

My favorite aspect of the new model is what I can only call genuine community. Not only is this basically nice, but it serves as real balance for moments where the ego falters. The longer I write, the surer I am that doubt will always return, dark and gnarly, a seemingly unconquerable force. What better antidote than a group of smart, dedicated people who not only believes what in moments of doubt I cannot, but who are willing to help me find my way again? What better gratitude to offer them in return than the pledge that I will do the same?

So, I’m officially ditching the hard road. Writing is hard enough, and the traditional model, for me, isn’t worth the price of asking. Instead, I’m choosing community, voice, and a new path toward the next draft. I dare you to set down your ego, and join me.

Kailyn McCord writes fiction and nonfiction in Oakland, California, her hometown by way of Oregon, Alaska, and New Orleans. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Brevity, The Believer, The Cincinnati Review, The Master’s Review, and The Rumpus, among others. She holds a BA from Reed College and an MFA from the University of New Orleans, where she was the editor of Bayou Magazine. Kailyn has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Ucross Foundation, Montana’s Open AIR, and the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. When not writing, Kailyn likes a good camping trip.

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