How to Use Creative Writing Workshops

This summer, thousands of ambitious writers will move to new towns and cities in order to pursue their MFAs. Others will start (mostly) online programs in the fall. All of them will be subjected to workshops. These are two strategies that they can use to make those workshops spaces for creative growth and to resist homogenization, as well as some thoughts about what those of us who teach creative writing can do to encourage such approaches.

It’s better to give than to receive.

Focus more on what you have to say to your co-learners about their work than on what they have to say to you. I am not advocating this approach out of an idealistic notions about community, cooperation, or sacrifice. Commenting on peers’ work forces you to formulate and state your own poetics. Done right, it forces you examine and interrogate your poetics. Do not be satisfied with saying that a line sounds or does not sound musical; figure out why. When you find a part of a piece that departs from craft standards, or that you otherwise dislike, consider whether what seems to be a flaw has a function in the work. Examine, also, the politics and ideas of the piece. How are they connected to technique? If you cannot answer these questions on your own, ask other students what they think.

The easy way for teachers to encourage students to focus more on the feedback they give is to increase how important that work is for students’ overall grades. Evaluation should reflect the importance of different aspects of the course, but creating this kind of external motivation is not enough. Teachers need to model the sort of feedback we want to see, as Paisley Rekdal describes doing:

I broke the poem down, slowly, line by line, image by image, asking the class to discuss the issues of race and writing: what was this language really doing in the poem? What it was hoping to achieve, what—to an audience full of people that might not be in this workshop at this time—might it sound like?  I went on like this for ten minutes, being respectful but pointed about the arguments about race that the poem was making through its aesthetic choices.

There also needs to be space for the generation of fully considered critiques. Students need time to spend with each others’ work before being required to come up with responses. I like to have students write a few formal responses as part of this process and to add hybrid elements to in-person classes that allow students to discuss work at any time. Finally, asking students at the end of the term to reflect on what they learned from commenting on others’ work encourages them to see giving feedback as an act that benefits them.

Be a contrarian.

When you receive feedback on your work, no matter how well-considered it is, you have to decide what to do with it. Your choices are not limited to following or ignoring advice. More often than not, as a student, I decided to do more of whatever my peers disliked. If they thought a poem should have a more conservative structure, I splattered it across the page. If they objected to specific words, I made them end-words in a sestina. I didn’t just do this because I was a rebellious little cuss, though at barely 5′, I was and am that. Rather, I saw that the things that struck others as wrong were my only chance at having a distinctive voice. By definition, these were things that others were not doing, so I wanted to figure out how to make them work.

Contemporary wabi-sabi tea bowl

Contemporary wabi-sabi tea bowl (Photo credit: ottmarliebert.com)

Now I subscribe to the notion that perfect craft and perfect poems are inherently impossible and would be boring anyway if they could be achieved. What interests me is creating fascinating flaws in my work—imperfections that make the work part of the world. Wabi-sabi aesthetics have influenced this pursuit.

Teachers can encourage this kind of resistance in responding to feedback as well. Simply stating that it is a possibility can have an effect. We can also ask students to write a piece that goes against the feedback that they have received, or generate prompts that go against popular attitudes expressed in comments.

How have you used creative writing workshops?

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2 comments for “How to Use Creative Writing Workshops

  1. June 17, 2013 at 10:50 am

    I used to get so frustrated when participating in workshops where I had to make 15 or more photocopies of a story, only to get most of them handed back with little to no comments written in the margin. I suppose now, it is more common to use the comments and track changes feature of word. As both a writing teaching and as a writing student, I’ve often had success with writing reader response letters. It can be a great way to focus feedback. It’s so true that workshop isn’t so much about what the writer can take away from it, but what they can give to those who participate. Critiquing others is the best practice for understanding one’s process and what they value as a reader and writer.

    • ekswitaj
      June 18, 2013 at 11:21 am

      When I was an undergrad, one of my profs had use put our work in binders in open reserve (no photocopying!) and then write two formal response letters for each assignment, and it worked a lot better than marginal comments. (We didn’t have LMSes then, which is what I would probably use for a similar practice now.)

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