When I hit my extensive e-mail list to ask my friends and colleagues
for their opinions on the state of the creative writing workshop, the
general response seemed evasive and troubled. And it was often the
creative writing professionals themselves who seemed the most evasive
and the most troubled. Some of them seemed uncomfortable with the idea
that I intended to rag on the workshop, yet no one offered much
endorsement of it beyond comments like, “I’ve never had a bad
experience teaching creative writing on the graduate level,” which
sounds to me like, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Or, worse, like,
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” One quite famous
I’m really tired...of hearing the writing workshop itself bashed. What is so offensive or suspect about a group of people, with the guidance of an experienced writer, discussing their work, discussing literature as writers, and functioning as both a community and board of editors for one another? If they want to read and write among others who want to read and write, should they be paying for tanning booths or vacations to Majorca instead? And if we want to bash something, how about mountaintop mining, or the genocide in Darfur?
This is such a persuasive response, and in some ways the best of what I received, yet also emblematic of the faint praise the workshop received. If the strongest case we can make about workshops is that they are more significant than tanning booths, that they don’t deserve to be bashed as much as genocide, what are we really saying?
The most meaningful note I got was from a recent MFA grad and adjunct professor at my own university. I suspect he missed the memo about how we should all close ranks around the workshop. After reflecting quite powerfully on how most young people are not prepared for the serious study of writing, he spoke to what I think has to be the crucial question in any effective workshop:
Do the writers in the workshop want to improve their writing or do they just want to hear that they’re already doing well? Many people, it seems to me, lack the negative capability Keats talked about to admit that they don’t know many things, that they aren’t good at many things, and that this is a wonderful situation to be in.
Ah, Negative Capability, my old friend. How long has it been since you heard anything as cracked as a creative writing student admitting his own incompetence? And this bozo, this writing instructor, thinks that’s a “wonderful situation to be in?”
Here’s what I think: Workshops shouldn’t be about improving a student’s writing. That just gets her better comments in class and a better quality of rejection letter. Workshops should be about transforming her writing. Or, better put, about transforming her relationship to her writing.
After everything, I am a romantic about the possibilities of creative writing. I want my courses to be about Dr. Seuss realizing that the thumpy, annoying music of the boat engine was not an impediment to his writing a book, it was the rhythm of his book. I want them to be about Flaubert, who, after boring his friends with his first book, thought, “Why don’t I write something simple? Maybe a story about this woman in the newspaper here?” I want them to be about Tom Wolfe drafting a letter to his editor saying that he was incapable of writing a story about Southern California car culture and then recognizing that the letter itself was the story. Have you noticed what all of these examples have in common? Failure. Probably terror, too. Forces that are both, of course, the foundation for all insight and progress.