Returning the World to the Workshop: Using Theme

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

This is the last 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.


I’ll start with some informal remarks about how theme lends cohesion to my workshops, particularly when the students come with varied layers of skill/talent and experience. I’ll give a couple of examples of theme-based workshops and then end with some questions.

Like many writing instructors, I teach workshops in wildly different contexts. I teach undergraduate writing classes at Stanford, MFA workshops in the U of Alaska Low Residency program, seven- to ten-day workshops at Bread Loaf, Aspen, Port Townsend, et cetera. I’ve also taught creative writing workshops during Fulbrights to India, Tunisia, and Indonesia as well as in shorter visits to Chile, Turkey, Australia, and other places. And for fifteen years I taught workshops in residential MFA programs at Arizona State and the University of Minnesota.

Of course it’s important that we not assume we all have the same students or contexts. Yet in each of these settings—undergraduate or graduate, short-term or long-term, American or international—I have found that theme-based workshops function well.

Perhaps one of my advantages as a teacher is that I never took a creative writing class. After my BA in literature and master’s in journalism from Berkeley, I immediately left the United States for seven years, working as a journalist in Europe, Canada, and Africa. During those early years I joined two writing collectives, both of which produced coauthored books. So I learned to write fiction by reading and reporting as well as by critiquing my work with professional peers with shared tasks heading in a common thematic direction. This has shaped my teaching of creative writing over the decades.

When I was hired at ASU long ago, I worried about my lack of formal CW training. I’ve never understood the workshop model where one “just” reads manuscripts. For me, learning to write was integrally connected to reading published work as well as colleagues’ manuscripts. It involved focusing on particular elements of craft in a rigorous way. Yet many of my friends seemed to teach free-form workshops where the only content was student work.

The reasons for my discomfort became clear one September afternoon at the Minnesota State Fair pig-judging contest. One by one the little porkers wiggled their way forward to be evaluated—height, weight, curl of tail, glint in eye. One by one they were judged against that great pig in the sky. At the end of this loud, fragrant, and amazingly brief competition, the judge duly awarded blue, red, and white ribbons. Ah, I thought, as I walked off in the direction of the goats, that’s what I don’t like about the traditional workshop model. Too often we assume all the writers are homogeneous, pigs or goats or hens. Too often we evaluate against the ideal manuscript in the sky or the great manuscript in the professor’s drawer.

I was more interested in working with a “menagerie” toward common but individual goals. For me this is best accomplished by centering workshop on a theme. While the notion of theme might seem restrictive, I find that it frees the imagination in the same way that choosing a form—villanelle, sonnet, sestina—does in poetry. The framework stimulates new work and offers a shared context for closely exploring elements of craft.

Two theme-based workshops I enjoy are “Spirit of Place” and “Finding the Shapes of Our Stories.” For brevity’s sake I’ll focus on the former, but let me outline the other class first.

In “Finding the Shapes of Our Stories,” students read novels, novellas, short stories, and microfictions that explore narrative forms in provocatively diverse ways. They write short exercises as well as longer manuscripts. The exercises expose them to models such as fairytale, fable, multicultural scriptures, visual art, reportage, and musical composition. The revised writing builds on these experiments. Exploring forms from other arts and literary genres introduces new ways to read and write narrative.

In “Spirit of Place,” I assign texts and writing assignments related to place: Home; Ancestral Place; Foreign Places (distinguishing between visitor, traveler, and refugee experiences). We also look closely at our habits. Do we usually focus description and action inside or outside? If we’re “insiders,” how can we become more observant from the outside? Our tools include memory, imagination, and metaphor as well as research.

We consider the role of narrative time—flashback, flashforward, slow-motion, et cetera—in evoking authentic locale. We investigate the haunting nature of absence. We think about historical place, remember that whether we set our stories in 1812 or 2012, our characters all live in history, affecting and reflecting different times and settings.

By taking a common direction and following individual paths, students not only tackle basic questions about setting but also address language, characterization, point of view, and more. There’s something about the common territory and the specific prompts that offers students a fresh source for story generation and enhances the way they learn from one another.

Place is a verb (“to place”) as well as a noun. Place is what’s happening as well as where it’s happening. In this class we “take place” by studying dialect, music, angles of sunlight, moisture in the air, cultural traditions, whispers of the spirits. Setting is action and being and states of being. Artistic prose is just as musical as poetry, and we attend to the rhythm of one word breathing against another. We listen as we write.

I’m startled anew every time a student forgets setting. An almost pathological focus on the isolated individual’s quest, combined with the “action-packed” nature of film culture, encourages storytellers to deemphasize locale. In reaching for the universal, many young writers flounder in general description. The very particularity of place engages readers. Also, setting is different depending on who is experiencing it (character) and how (plot). The best writers allow themselves to be surprised by complications of place, derailments, astral projections.

How many of us have read these stories? (1) Four pages of dialogue in which the speakers don’t seem to move any body part, except possibly their lips. (Are they laughing in the kitchen? Whispering in the bedroom? Shouting in the backyard?) (2) The long, grim narrative that reveals no geography, no history, no hint about the age or ethnic mix of the people. (3) Lyrical passages in which every flower in a generic garden is sniffed by a disembodied nose.

Some students fret that their places will be too common or too exotic. A graduate student asked me whether she should abandon her collection of New York stories because New York had been done before. “What can I add to Paley, Doctorow, Mailer?” None of these authors, to my knowledge had written from the perspective of a young WASP midwestern woman camping out in Manhattan for a couple of years. Her New York would be a completely different location, perhaps in some ways an infinitely more fascinating city because of her foreignness, just as nonnative speakers of English (Eva Hoffman, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad) often compose our most musical prose, graced with original idioms.

Yes, speech is a primary element of setting. Dialect and vocabulary hint at where our characters have been, where they might be heading. So do the rhythms of conversations, from fast-paced, ever-interrupting exchanges in Greenwich Village to slower, more collaborative conversations in the Big Horn Mountains. Randall Kenan’s exemplary story “Tell Me, Tell Me” opens with a middle-of-the-night telephone conversation between two women. From their vocabulary, we realize they are old white southerners (“grandboy,” “pickaninny”). We gather something about their social status when one of them suggests that the other has had a bad dream: “Probably those oysters you ate at the club. You had oysters that other night, too. Remember? Oysters must just don’t agree with you. They didn’t agree with my mamma either.” Although the story subsequently unfolds in a more traditional mix of dialogue, description, and action, these first four pages of conversation are the key to our understanding of Bella and Ida’s places in Tims Creek, North Carolina, and in American social history.

Finally, our workshops discuss how “writing the familiar” is the trickiest task because we assume too much, don’t look closely enough, and thus the first-draft setting is often overly implicit and vague. Then we do basic archaeology into our neighborhoods—finding maps, photos, news articles, oral histories. Suddenly setting is neither a supernatural gift nor impossible drudgery, but an aesthetic opportunity that opens our stories (and ourselves) to deeper sensual pleasure and emotional power.

Specific assignments and strategies might include inviting a painter to the class to show her work and discuss her engagement of place or sending a group of new MFA students to the farmers’ market to see their new city through the eyes of Hmong and Somali farmers.


I’d like to end with a few questions we address in class:


What are the consequences of losing place through homogenization?

How important is ancestral home to our characters?

How do refugees and immigrants experience travel?

What are the differences between settling in a new place and trespassing on someone else’s territory?