Catching One’s Breath: Longevity, Endurance, Interval Training, and the Hypoxic Workshop

Monday, April 16, 2012

This is the first in a series of four essays adapted for TriQuarterly Online from the panel On Reinvigorating the Creative Writing Workshop: Four Bold New Approaches,” originally presented at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference on March 3rd, 2012.


Here is my brief on the traditional workshop.

1. It is a form that is a creature of the GI Bill, mostly developed by veterans of the recent war (World War II), young men who had, under fire, become expert in fixing things, in improvisational problem solving, but whose larger goals (winning the battle, surviving the battle) were fixed and narrowly defined. The thinking in combat was mainly tactical and not strategic. A hill to be captured. A story to be written. There are obstacles for each enterprise, and there are workarounds to be employed, various feints and movements. But the goal is clear. A hill is a hill. A story is a story. And the traditional workshop is designed for attack with a clear objective to produce not just writing but “great” writing.

2. This tactical approach creates a classroom that places the work under fire—again I apologize for the militaristic conceit, but part of my point is that the drama of combat was written into the DNA of the form. It sorts. There are winners and losers. The writer creates a scenario (a story) that in the workshop is then “gamed.” The classroom becomes a simulation of the imagined hostile environment of the larger world. The work succeeds or fails on its own merits, and the writer remains silent once the attack has been launched. The work for the writer takes place before the workshop. The traditional workshop regards the written work as one product always already complete and finished. The environment is hostile by definition, and the gag rule that seeks to defuse tension actually forces the writer to anticipate and confront all possible criticism before he or she even gets to the workshop. Ironically, workshop, though the term connotes working on a work in progress, actually produces for its consideration a finished product.

3. The tactical workshop finds itself housed in an ancient critical scientific fiduciary institution, the university classroom. The university treats knowledge as a trust. Its classrooms are set up to transfer knowledge you don’t know but need to know. Knowledge that is good for you. Take the heart, for instance. I was not born with any idea as to how the heart works—its chemical electric wiring, its biomechanics, its diseases and remedies. I must go to a place where knowledge of these matters is held in trust and there transferred to me, an empty vessel, who receives said knowledge. I then can be tested upon the success of the transfer and elevated by degree into the position of fiduciary. I contend the knowledge to write about the human heart, to express emotion, to make art about the heart is not the same kind of knowledge. But in the context of the university classroom the bias remains. What the student knows is not what the student needs to know.

4. Time. Given that the university’s point of view is fiduciary, that it is involved in the transfer of knowledge from a bank to an empty vessel, it imagines that there are optimum time intervals for that to take place. Classes are three hours. Semester’s sixteen weeks. The typical class of twelve writers is broken up into four groups of three writers whose work is discussed for forty-five minutes each. The yield if you are a writer is that you have three stories considered by semester’s end. The rest of the time you are asked to operate as a critic. I contend that what the traditional workshop trains most successfully is the critical mind, and it does so at the expense of the creative one. It asks its participants to be present as critics the vast majority of the time in attempts to identify what is good and bad with a story and suggest how one makes it better. The consequence is that the writer trained as a critic is trained then to anticipate criticism when he or she is writing, instead of simply writing. The current time management also assumes that the creation of art and the creation of the writer who creates the art are incremental, progressive, schedulable, and predictable. Under these conditions, what the traditional workshop most efficiently identifies and produces is a failed story, and it defines a writer who cannot write by definition. It efficiently weeds out.

My response has been the hypoxic workshop. Hypoxic means to go breathless and is borrowed from athletic training, swimming, running: to train with intervals of breathless exertion, endurance by resetting the point of exhaustion.

The hypoxic workshop looks at all twelve stories each session, and each story is discussed in eight- to ten-minute intervals (I use a Michael Graves–designed egg timer to keep time; the bell dings, we move on), with the writer of the story under discussion participating in the discussion. At the end of the semester the writer has produced fourteen or fifteen prose pieces instead of the more typical two or three. The critique under these conditions is curious, responsive, descriptive, and collaborative, and it does not focus on what is good or bad or what euphemistically “works” or “doesn’t work.” The writer speaks as a writer, not a critic of writing, and often identifies the writer’s own intent, the problems and challenges posed for the writer him- or herself, and some attempted solutions. The critique is led by the writer under discussion and uses the other writers in the room collaboratively to better understand where the writer and the story want to go. The critique is not interested in norming, fixing, or making something better or even good. As the teacher, I do not know what is good for you. That is to say, I do not know what is good for you to do, nor do I know what you yourself think is “good.” I am not in the business here of policing, protecting standards, or enforcing rigor. I hope to create an environment in which the students will do things they want to do. Control means “roll against.” My idea is to roll with. Students who come into this workshop do so saying they want to write, so they write. I don’t even see it as my business to get them to write or create art in the way I think they should. I roll with. It is their time to waste. It is their choice to make. I try to help them do what is already important and interesting to them and not necessarily to me. I try not to care in a careful way.

The hypoxic workshop is strategic instead of tactical. It is interested in process more than product. And it seeks to develop and inculcate the habits of writing that are sustainable over the lifetime of the writer. Writing should be as natural as breathing. And this does not become unconsciously natural when it is practiced in an environment that privileges judgment, improvement, and success in narrowly defined metrics or binary distinctions of good and bad. Quantity has a quality all its own. The hypoxic workshop seeks to explore the quality of quantitative production of writing, derailing the hierarchical, critical, and narrow desire for quality alone, and does so in conditions that encourage production and full participation by muting the distinction between writer and critic, writer and reader. It seeks to train the writer for a long-term sustained lifetime participation in the act of creating art.