This is the second 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.
After a quarter of a century of teaching creative writing, I think I’m a good workshop leader. I’m attentive, respectful, and honest, and I try to create a workshop that doesn’t enervate the writer but energizes her or him and makes her want to tackle another draft rather than give up writing forever. Still, in my experience there are too many problems with the workshop as it’s generally configured.
- The workshop is often dominated by a few voices. The loud students talk and the shy ones stay silent, but this doesn’t mean the shy ones are without opinions. You can devise ways around this, for example by going around the room and asking everyone’s opinion in turn, but this often turns out to be a rather grim exercise, or repetitive: “I agree with what Tim said.” “Yes, me too.”
- Someone starts brainstorming wildly, going further and further away from the story at hand. “I think it would be good if Rosalie developed cancer and if a baseball came flying through the window at the moment she was telling her children she loved them, and she died from a concussion instead.”
- The students haven’t all read the story or essay at hand. “I didn’t have time to read the story, but from what everyone else is saying, I think that the character of Rosalie needs to be more developed.”
- The students form a kind of club, the aim of which is to flatter one another. “I had Tim in my last workshop, and this is, for lack of a better word, Tim-esque. It displays his own very unique style.”
- Sometimes a tone can be set in a workshop, either by the instructor or by a student, and it can be difficult to shift away from it, whether it’s a positive or negative tone.
Those are a few of the problems that I’ve had to deal with over the years, and while they’re all repairable, I’d rather not have to deal with them at all. So several years ago, I decided to enter the twenty-first century in terms of workshop techniques, and I developed a system for critiquing that for me solved all these problems and more.
At the University of Iowa, each course is given a virtual space on a program called ICON. If you’re not familiar with this program, you might know about Blackboard, but I much prefer ICON. The system I devised, at any rate, fully utilizes this virtual classroom. Each week we do a kind of pre-workshop on ICON. Let’s say the course meets once a week on Tuesdays. The stories or essays that are to be critiqued during the next class session are passed out, and I give students approximately five days to read and critique one another’s work. I tell them they need to post their comments on the essay or story at hand by the following Sunday, but with this added caveat: they should not look at anyone else’s comments until after they have posted their own comments. It’s quite important that they follow this rule, and it’s something I stress in class. I follow the rule as well—I don’t look at any of their remarks until after I’ve posted, as a kind of reward.
In one fell swoop, this eliminates almost all the problems I’ve encountered in typical workshops. First, students can’t pretend they have read the story—if they haven’t read the story or essay, it’s obvious. This method also puts everyone on the same footing. If you don’t know what everyone else is saying about the work at hand, it sobers you a bit and makes you more mindful of your opinions and their impact. Likewise, everyone gets their say. The shy students have as much of a voice as the loud students, and no one is able to dominate this initial discussion. And the author, too, gets to see where everyone stands before workshop. You have two days to consider these initial opinions, and this eliminates the surprise factor of walking into a workshop terrified, not knowing how people feel about your work. This way, you know beforehand and can consider the various opinions on your own before workshop.
Two or three days after the pieces are posted, the face-to-face workshop tends to be much more productive and efficient than the traditional workshop, where there’s often a lot of throat clearing. Everyone knows where everyone else stands. Everyone has read the work and has written a considered and thoughtful opinion, and so the conversation tends to be more focused. I generally ask students first to identify some of the trends in the discussion on ICON, and I write these down on the chalkboard or whiteboard. I’m not trying to form a consensus here, because I don’t think a story should be written by committee—another potential problem in the traditional workshop . We’re simply pointing out areas of discussion and trying to consider what these convergences or divergences of opinion can tell us and the writer of the story.
One possible criticism of such a method is that it is likely to solidify opinion and discourage give-and-take, but the opposite is actually true, in my experience. After reading the comments of students, I often change my mind about my reading of a particular piece, and my students likewise have a chance to revise their opinions of a piece with the reflection afforded by the two-day lag time between posting their opinions and the actual class. A blatant misreading of an essay also becomes evident when it’s posted on ICON—it’s certainly not my goal to embarrass anyone, either writer or critic, but simply that we approach one another’s work with humility and the understanding that even critics are fallible.
I myself had a moment of embarrassment several years ago when I confused the authors of two essays I was reading. I thought I was reading a piece by a particular male student. In the essay, the narrator ducks into a bathroom to apply lipstick and eye shadow, and I was rather mystified. I thought, “I didn’t know David was a cross-dresser!" I realized my mistake before I posted my comments, but in my post to him I mentioned my misreading and how funny I found it to imagine him applying makeup. Two weeks later, he posted a wonderful essay about cross-dressing, my mistake having turned out to be the truth. The essay, called “The Dressing Room,” was later published in Fourth Genre, and it remains one of my favorites of his. Though such gaffes are rare, it’s good for the instructor to be humbled as well from time to time.
Just the other day, I learned that one of my students from a past workshop regularly goes back to the comments on her work on ICON, even two years later.
This semester I’m using this method for the first time with a group of undergraduates, and the verdict is still out on its effectiveness, but so far I think it’s gone well. These are highly motivated students in our creative writing track, and so they haven’t so far balked at the extra work. The only blip thus far was a student’s post explaining that he had written the attached story while “drowning in malt liquor.” Perhaps it wasn’t the wisest admission, as some of the other students remarked in a slightly chiding tone that the story suffered somewhat as a result.
Recently, when I had to find a substitute to teach my class, he remarked afterward on how talkative the group was and how well-informed they seemed about the stories being discussed, so I have high hopes for this method’s effectiveness for undergrads.
I should add that this form of critique eliminates for the most part the kinds of meaningless qualitative remarks that begin a lot of workshops: the “I really love this story” and “This isn’t my cup of tea” remarks. My method forces a pretty deep engagement with the work, and of course I give the students guidelines, asking them to specifically indicate what in the story works for them and why, as well as what feels incomplete. Rewrites get posted online as well, and this allows all of us to compare the versions and serves as a chance for the writer to remark on what advice he or she found most helpful.
I’m sure I’ll continue to refine these workshops further. One modification I’m considering is to ask students to write down at the beginning of the class how their opinions of the story or essay were modified in response to their classmates’ comments, if at all, as well as what questions they still have for the writer. The point of this method, after all, is to not to pin down one’s opinion but to keep modifying it as new information is received.