Saturday, November 26, 2011

Writing Workshops - For or Against?

I've recently been reading two different (but similar) books about the writing workshop - whether it's an archaic structure or setup that has run its course and does more harm than good, or whether the workshop is still a beneficial thing for writers but perhaps needs to be considered differently these days. I'm going to discuss the books themselves in a week or so, when I've finished reading them, but it did seem a bit strange that both of them have been published in the last year. (They are Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? ed Dianne Donnelly and Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies by Anis Shivani.)

Where I teach, the writing workshop is a staple in our classrooms. Not because we are slavishly following some ideal that was set up in Iowa 60 years ago, but because we think that it has a lot of benefits. And some downsides. The benefits are: students gain a first audience for their work, one that wants to learn as much from commenting on other's work as they do from the feedback they receive; they start to see common weaknesses and through discussion begin to learn how to address these; they build a sense of a writing community; they realise that you can't please all of the people all of the time!

The downsides might include: the writer who becomes defensive and angry and argues with the group; the person who criticizes everyone's work relentlessly and never says anything positive; those who only say what they like or don't like but don't offer anything else; the person who accepts everyone's comments on their own writing but doesn't reciprocate. There are probably more than this! But the downsides for us tend to be limited to individual's problems with the process, and because we're in a classroom it can be easier to work these through. The other thing to be wary of, of course, is creating a situation where you "homogenise" everyone's work, or where writers go for the safe options, especially where a grade at the end is involved. I think we try to avoid that, as much as possible.

I do know of workshop groups where no one ever critiques - they just read out to each, pat each other on the back and then go home. I've also heard of others where one person has managed to destroy the whole group! Outside of a classroom, the writing group has to manage itself and be reasonably democratic. This is harder to achieve than you might think. A willingness to contribute honestly and fairly, to encourage and support as well as critique, and to bring writing for critique regularly, are basic requirements for success.

Some of the issues mentioned so far in the books I'm reading include workshops that discourage experimentation, don't critique critically enough to be useful, and those that operate only as critique groups with no reference to or study of literary texts as a basis for learning. I'm sure there's going to be a lot more! I'll get back to you when I'm done reading and thinking. In the meantime, if you have any comments on workshopping experiences, please do share!


Dee White said...

I think the most I learned from workshopping at uni was how to workshop. Most of the time I didn't find student comments helpful because the students focussed on things like not liking my character's names or what they ate or other fixations that weren't productive. Or they hadn't really read my work properly. The most constructive feedback I received was from teachers.

To me, workshopping works really well when it's done with writers who have the same level of experience and commitment. I have been in workshopping groups where I was the only writer who wrote anything and that wasn't completely productive either because I think we do learn from critiquing other people's work. it helps us identify problems with our own.

Now that I'm critiquing with writers working in the same genre, with the same level of commitment, I'm finding the workshopping a lot more productive.

lib_idol said...

Personally, I've felt that workshopping is the most valuable component of writing courses that I've participated in.

That said, the success of workshopping relies on a number of things. Firstly, there needs to be an excellent facilitator who can set the ground rules, guide the discussion, and intervene if things get too heated.

Also, there needs to be an established rapport between the workshoppers, where they can feel comfortable to be frank and fearless whilst still respectful of each other. I'd prefer to have a draft torn to pieces by peers that I respect, rather than have a published piece bagged by a reviewer who I don't know.

Other curriculum/coursework related to professional writing can be (arguably) taught by anybody, or even read in a book. But it's a quality workshopping program that makes a writing course awesome.

Sherryl said...

True, Dee, unequal experience levels is a problem indeed, as is lack of confidence. We assume everyone should know how to workshop, once it's laid out with guidelines, but people are still reluctant to be honest, dodging the issue by focusing on little picky things instead. I think you grow into workshopping only with practice.

Sherryl said...

Good points, Andrew! A workshop is only as good as its participants and the facilitator.
I do love listening to writers (as teachers) talk about craft, though, as well as their own processes. And I use lots of writing books in my own teaching, so what I love is finding new ideas and then showing them to a class and talking about them. It's all part of creating our community - but there are still many writers who prefer to do it alone!