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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.

  • Smitheee says...

    Whereas I'm all for questioning the workshop (and everything else, for that matter), I find I disagree with Barden's points. Here are a few: 1) First, following the rules set by Barden, I get to say: "Listen up, Dan." I get to say this because I have two masters degrees, whereas Dan only has one. Both of us have one book published, but I have more degrees. Do you see how ridiculous that sounds? Degrees don't always mean we're better; they just mean we've been around longer. So we may know more about certain things, but not everything. Hopefully students can learn something from us, but certainly there ARE things we can learn from them, too. If you think you can't learn something from someone only because they lack the degrees you have...well, you're a little too in love with your degrees and yourself. 2) Dan, you say that in workshop the student's writing becomes required reading, and that therefore the student has no concept of a world where his/her writing is not required at all. And yet, as a student, I sat through completely antagonistic workshops where, really, I never wanted those readers to look at my work ever again. I would've been happy to be free of that group, a group that had constructed a Platonic ideal of what the short story should be, and any short story that didn't measure up needed to be torn to pieces. Not constructive criticism, no. Destructive criticism. Since there are so many different kinds of writing, writing directly for Michaels (as you did) means you've wholly accepted his aesthetic (and therefore dropped all the others). But imagine Samuel Beckett or Donald Barthelme in a class taught by Raymond Carver or Tom Wolfe! Beckett and Barthelme certainly wouldn't write for Carver or Wolfe. And I rather doubt that Beckett thought of any audience at all. Or, for that matter, take Kafka. What audience was he writing for, again? None. He asked for his manuscripts to be burned. Beckett wrote and wrote with no expectation of being published for quite some time. Beckett and Kafka, then, wrote much less for an audience than any member of a workshop does. In my opinion, the workshop too much teaches that we must write for an audience. So to set up a pyramidal workshop structure is to place the professor's aesthetic, not his/her expertise, at the top of the pyramid to the detriment of anyone in the workshop who may disagree. Dan, you say, "I want what I want when I want it." Sure, but if I'm in your class and I find I never want what you want, then a great big stack of degrees will never make you any better at responding to my work. 3) The best advice I ever got about workshops was this: In any workshop your best hope is to find three good responders, three people who can help you get better. The professor of the class might not be amongst those three. Granted, if a student doesn't write second drafts (or forty-second drafts, for that matter), s/he will never get better. And if the student thinks that the only people who respond well are those who lavish praise on him/her, then that student will never ever get any better. But to think the professor is always the authority is just wrong. The professor should be good at running workshops (making sure the comments remain constructive and that the discussion keeps moving), and the professor should be as good as possible at helping all different kinds of students get better. It's just a fact, though, that certain professors will be better readers of certain types of writing than others. But that's why you have the entire workshop! If it turns out the prof isn't good at reading your writing, hopefully someone else in the class is. As an aside, other than undergrads, I'm not sure who these writers are who won't write second drafts. Perhaps you've just had some really bad luck, Dan. 4) Writing programs are where talented writers go to write more and to get (hopefully) good feedback on their work so they can get better (which includes transforming, I agree with you there). Talent, quite simply, is learning you have an aptitude for writing. For instance, without anyone teaching him, a friend of mine found he was amazing at math. I, on the other hand, found that I could write. My math friend couldn't write very well and still can't, whereas I'm still awful at math. We both tried the other discipline, and we both failed miserably. To debunk your example: Maybe Marilyn Monroe wasn't the prettiest, but she was still damned pretty. No amount of desire could've helped her if she was absolutely hideous. Using another example, since I am short, I could never be a basketball player like Shaq. No amount of desire or practice could make me a basketball player like Shaq. And to use two more examples, scientists have shown that Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong are almost designed for their particular sports. Even if we practiced twice as much as Phelps and Armstrong, you and I, Dan, could never be as good at swimming and cycling as they are. But I would argue that they're not as good at writing as we are, and couldn't get to our level even if they practiced nonstop. However, you do need to practice, even if you're talented. But if no one needed talent, when students applied to your writing program, you'd just accept the ten prospective students off the top of the stack (certainly that would save the time of having to read all those applications). 4) Finally, whores are not democratic. Last I checked, a whore is a person who sets a particular price for sex. If you can't buy the ticket, you can't take the ride. That's capitalistic, sure, but not democratic. Your grad students can show you they know what they're doing, they know what they're talking about by proving they have the capital (talent, skill, knowledge, intelligence). In this way, they may school you every now and then, Dan. But even LeBron James gets schooled, has off days. Don't worry, you'll get back up. You're talented. You're skilled. You've written one book, and I know you'll write another. You have plenty to teach your students, even if they end up teaching you something sometime. And if you ever need any help, you know who to ask. After all, I have two masters degrees.

  • LaLoren says...

    Finally someone questioning the workshop! I cannot tell you how many high- and low-level, expensive and inexpensive classes I have signed up for hoping beyond hope that the instructor, for once, would take the reigns and try to teach us something. There is always much discussion of what the writer is saying and how, but never "Why did you write this and why would anyone who didn't have to want to read it?"

  • madelynfair says...

    What an excellent perspective. I know I still hear the voice of my fiction writing instructor from colllege, Ehud Havazelet, who exclaimed (maybe not yelled, but I deserved it), "You sling words around! Pick the right word for the job!" Still today I have that problem. I say it in 100 words when it could be said in 10. Having taught high school and middle school students creative writing for years, I can attest to the need to nurture both effort and talent, especially "the golden line" that occasionally erupts unbidden from student work before the age of 18. Youth need a special blend of understanding, especially since you don't know what they're hearing at home. You may be the first person to ever nurture or encourage them. However, effort should be praised most, and that over-affirmed population that we're discussing here is alive and well in every tier of our educational system. Carol Dweck, I believe, is the Stanford researcher showing through her studies that children do worse when praised for innate intelligence or ability rather than effort. If a student is constantly told s/he is talented, s/he learns nothing about effort and struggle. Learning usually occurs with a good dose of frustration; an obstacle appears and in asking yourself how you surmount it, you learn tenfold more than sticking with what you already know how to do well. The challenge for us as writers working alone without a workshop is to cultivate a balance of Dan Barden's voice pushing us to do better and a voice of self-acceptance. (Here's where I'm at with my writing; how do I move out of this pit?) Barden sounds as if he would be a great instructor for all of us, whether writers appreciate it or not. One last thing not discussed here: Good teaching is an art and a science, and every writing instructor should study the practice. People aren't born with the teaching gene. Merely telling students with great honesty that their work is lacking isn't enough. Students come with different needs, and so when you have a student who slings words around, what technique is going to get him/her to understand what you want? S/he may have the will but can't see the way out of the tunnel. That student should be immediately in Hemingway and Carver, not Tom Wolfe or Dickens, and forced to imitate the formers' styles. That student should be forced to write flash fiction. You get the idea. Differentiated instruction is possible in the assignments an instructor gives, and not every writing workshop needs to be a round-table seminar where one person is "on deck." There are so many creative ways to get a group of writers to work together and to get each individual to progress at his or her pace, learning style, and readiness level. I see a workshop session like a dance with varying movements and stages. That's what excites me about teaching and I hope Barden still finds joy in that challenge, despite all the whiny recalcitrance he sees too often.

  • labanhill says...

    As a parent and writer, I can attest to a real shift in our culture toward unthinking affirmation. No matter what your child or someone else's child does, they are affirmed for it. By the time these kids reach college, they expect to be affirmed and are higly skilled in affirming others as well as being critical without being confrontational, challenging or meaningful. Though the notion of inclusiveness is wonderful, one of the most important ways that we grow and learn is through conflict and opposition. These kids don't have these skills. When challenged by them, they often fold, become hostile or shut down. Another aspect that informs how a workshop functions is what are the goals of a workshop and how much do the students understand those goals. In my mind, the goal of a workshop participant is to become a better writer. The way that is done is by honing one's critical skills on other student writing and by learning how to revise. If a student doesn't have a clear sense of their strategy for revision (which might be putting it on the shelf and moving onto a new piece of writing) after having a piece discussed in class, then the workshop was a failure, not just for that student, but for everyone in the class, including the instructor. I say the instructor because it means that he/she doesn't have a sense of clarity and self-awareness about the writing process. This means that the instructor isn't up to the task. In a sense, the writing instructor is not the dictator in the class, but the rather the adult. And like all good parents or mentoring adults, the instructor needs to be in charge while at the same time giving the students the illusion of self-governance, i.e. democracy and equality in the classroom. How many parents really have the ability to manage these complexities? Not many. And the same goes for writing instructors. I would argue that that is the case more often than not. Truly skilled, talented, and challenging writing teachers are extremely rare. I would additionally argue that most workshops are a waste of time because they're no good, except when they are.

  • glimmerkind says...

    I am delighted with the article by Dan Barden. I am a neophyte writer and always have the temptation to equate a sudden effusion of words with a masterpiece. I have fired off articles and poems at times without a cold-eyed follow-up review, probably to prevent a nauseating "I wrote that??!" moment. The result is usually garbage out, nothing in. Good writing is work. Starting in grade school, our kids are pampered with unearned kudos to make them feel like achievers, a "No Child Left Unpraised" program. If they are told everything and anything they do is wonderful, there is no struggle. Maybe it helps them then, but if you learn to swim in the Salt Sea, you will likely drown in the pond. We need the slings and arrows in the real world. Thank you for presenting the facts. I would like to be in such a course as yours, but at 73 years, I may have to settle for what I am.

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