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Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing Classes

1. LEPRECHAUNS, DRAGONS, AND ME

“Hey, can you really teach creative writing?” It’s a question that’s nearly bathetic in its longing for a simpler world, in which there was such a thing as talent and genius and wastebaskets full of crumpled pages. As silly and discredited as this question seems to be (considering there are over three hundred creative writing programs in the United States and more popping up each year), it persists, in one form or another, hidden in our conversations about literature like asbestos is hidden in the walls of our homes—too expensive to remove, so we deny its existence.

And yet, for those of us who actually teach writing, and therefore must regard ourselves as mythical creatures, like leprechauns or dragons, this question is a Superfund site waiting to be discovered every day of our working lives. The notion of writing as some inborn skill, like double-jointedness or the ability to guess the number of pennies in a cracker barrel, is at the heart of many difficult questions I face every day. Why don’t any of my students write second drafts? Why do I increasingly feel like my own skills are not only misunderstood but invisible? Why are my classes packed with students who wouldn’t know the proper use of a comma if one invited them upstairs and started playing Frank Sinatra albums to them? Students seem to think that there’s nothing for them to learn about creative writing. And yet, here I am, both leprechaun and dragon, teaching it.

The root of the problem—and I want to put this as glibly as possible because it’s a glib problem—is that the way we teach creative writing, in my experience, suggests that there is no way to teach creative writing. To put it another way: The problem is workshops.

It’s such a nice word, compounded of two words that couldn’t be lovelier, and yet in their unholy wedlock they mean, depending on whose frustration you’re addressing, “torture chamber” or “no one here really gives a shit” or “clueless coalition of cutups.”

These definitions are unfair, of course (especially that alliterative finale), but I must say with the determined certainty of a battle-scarred veteran that a workshop is anything but a shop where writers work.

As a product of creative writing workshops—and a guy who makes an almost middle-class living teaching them—my argument may seem akin to the rich heroin dealer yearning for God and a legal business. But, hey: Who can speak the truth about crime better than a criminal?

My truth, though, is not the one you’ve heard before. Creative writing workshops don’t, in my experience, churn out the same kind of writing. Nor do they encourage a personality cult centered on the instructor (on my weaker days, I wish). And they don’t destroy tender creative spirits. There’s no writer worth her salt who needs any help with self-destruction.

Rather, my primary objection to creative writing workshops is that they don’t work. Not, mind you, because they can’t work—it’s that they don’t work. There’s something rotten at the core of most of them, which makes them extremely unlikely to work.

2. A GOOD IDEA THAT BECAME A BAD IDEA

The writing workshop is the ugly stepchild of the seminar. The seminar, in which students work independently under one professor and then exchange their results through discussion, is, in some ways, the glory of our civilization. The idea behind it is, anyway: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts—a version of democracy, you might call it. This is probably the only thing I learned in college, but it was worth every penny, every day, every hangover.

The whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. This speaks to the spiritual dimension of the educational process, the way that human beings collectively can be better than human beings alone. A seminar is more than a collection of ideas volleyed around the room with the badminton racquets of intellect; a seminar is the replicating and transforming DNA of human thought. It’s an evolution. One day, you’re a tree monkey—the next day, you’re a Truffaut-quoting barista at a café (not a Starbucks).

But something goes awry when applying this model of learning to creative writing. Specifically, the workshop promotes the idea to young writers that their writing is required reading, that an audience is guaranteed. When really, postworkshop, no one will ever be forced to look at their work again.

It’s the first thing I tell my students: If you could understand, really understand, that no one needs to read your work, then your writing would improve vastly by the time we meet in this classroom again.

Also, that’s the difference between a seminar and a workshop. In my junior honors seminar at Berkeley, we read Paradise Lost because Paradise Lost demands to be read. We may not have known that when we walked in the door, but we sure as hell knew it by June. You could bury that poem for ten thousand years, let it be dug up by a culture that has forgotten our language, and within a decade people would be reading Milton again.

What happened, I think, on the road from seminar to workshop, was that we lost sight of the fact that we must write for an audience—an audience that is us (the people sitting around the table) but also not us (people who are sitting everywhere but at that table).

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.

  • Dreamer 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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