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Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing Classes

3. AND THEN INTO THIS MESS COMES A HALF-BAKED NOTION OF DEMOCRACY

This is a good time to mention a criticism that I’ve received not once, not twice, but several times on teaching evaluations: “The problem with Professor Barden is that he acts like he knows so much more about writing than we do.”

That could be the whole essay right there, don’t you think?

Part of the problem is a populist idea of democracy, a sacred cow in the academy, as elsewhere: We are all equals in our pursuit of literature; everyone has something to offer. One teacher friend of mine whose opinion I solicited on this topic said of his students, “They still teach me as much as I teach them.” What do they teach you, exactly? How to fall in love stupidly or that you should drink a lot of water during a rave?

In one memorable workshop, I spent a fair amount of time teasing out from my students the difference between a “master,” which was the degree that I had, and a “bachelor,” which was the degree that they didn’t yet have. Oddly enough, several students have expressed gratitude for that particular rant.

Unless I strenuously disabuse them of the notion, most students think of a workshop as a democracy. This is not an entirely misguided idea, since most workshop instructors (including me) encourage the feeling that “we’re all in this together.” And, frankly, what else would a workshop be if it weren’t a democracy? Everyone sitting around a table, the instructor soliciting opinions, the attempt to reach consensus? I usually say something like, “This is a democracy, but I always have 51 percent of the vote,” which is just a silly way to describe a process that is, essentially, impossible to articulate. It reminds me of how Churchill described democracy itself: the worst possible system, except for all the others.

Too often, workshops are conducted as though providence will do the magic of improving a student’s writing. There’s an idea, maybe, that the middle way between all the suggestions made in class must be the right way. I’m all in favor of providence, but what happens too often is that workshops become Ouija board games where only the most ham-fisted participants get to spell out their grandmothers’ names. Even in a political system as bizarre as democracy, there still needs to be leaders and followers. Some voices should count more than others. And if you don’t want these leaders to be only the richest or the loudest or the most venal, then you have to build a system that’s less democratic in some places than others. I’m just going to come out and say it: The workshop instructor should be a dictator. Humble and self-effacing, sure, but also absolutely convinced of her expertise. This is so often not the case: The instructor is, rather, an arbiter of disputes, a conveyor, anything but an expert. My own undergraduate students are often shocked to find that I write too (“that’s so cool, Professor Barden”), and if you think the situation is better in grad school, think again: MFA candidates are more likely to know who their instructors hang with than what they actually write (“she’s in that McSweeney’s crowd, I think”).

When I was weathering graduate courses at Columbia University in the late ’80s, a rather undistinguished tour through a war zone of political correctness, I was hammered in one poetry workshop because I wrote angry poems about sex. One young woman said, and I quote verbatim, “It seems to me that the question is not whether this is a good poem, but whether Dan should be allowed to write this kind of poetry.” Now, what was remarkable about that moment in my life was not the bland viciousness of her attack, nor the fact that I seemed to be living in some bizarre cultural revolution in which the word fuck got you sent to the provinces. No, the truly remarkable thing was that when I looked to the head of the table at our workshop leader (I shouldn’t tell you his name, but I’m still pissed—it was the poet Paul Muldoon) and begged him with my eyes to enforce some kind of artistic or intellectual sanity in the room, he just shrugged as if to say, “It’s out of my hands, dude.”

In my life as a teacher, the thing that I’m most afraid of is cynicism. My own, that is. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if my day job consisted of pretending that graduate students actually know what they’re doing. I would feel like a whore—there’s just no other good word for it.

Come to think of it, whores are very democratic. They welcome everyone. But that’s also the problem with whores.

“What happens too often is that workshops become Ouija board games where only the most ham-fisted participants get to spell out their grandmothers’ names.”

Reader Comments

  • haikuowl says...

    I never thought of it that way. I had always believed the importance of writing classes is the encouragement of students and networking. However, I get where you're coming from when you propose that writing, like anything, is more perspiration than anything else. I just recently got my BFA from Brooklyn College and even though my writing was praised there, I am still very insecure about my work. However, I know writing is something I definitely want to do and I am realistic about the whole thing. I don't go out there expecting to be the next Rimbaud. Your article has made me think a little more.

     

  • heavy hedonist says...

    Once I took an advanced fiction workshop with Professor Feldman at UB. Not easy to warm up to, this teacher or his approach. Not given to false kindness. He held the class tight, reining it in whenever it got too gentle, too complacent. He knew who was serious, who wasn't, who was writing to grind some personal axe and who might have a chance at writing for publication.He was fairly brutal, in many ways.There were no corners to hide in, with him at the end of the table, either in your writing or your critique. It was one of the best courses I ever took, an excellent example of what workshops can be but usually aren't.
    As I shift from writing group to writing group now, looking for guts and gashing, people who know how to give useful feedback or even at what point it should be given,I dream of workshops that are more than just "supportive." And after spending 10 years studying CW in two universities, I've seen damn few of them.

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