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Workshop classes: a blessing or a curse?

by Dougpaul Case / Beacon Staff • March 17, 2011

In about two months I will graduate with a degree in writing, literature, and publishing. I can analyze texts, line edit, and design a mean book jacket. The problem: I have no idea if I’m a good writer.

I blame this confusion on writing workshops. Like many WLP majors, I’ve taken a dizzying number of them — nine — during my four years at Emerson. You might say I’ve got them down to a science: By the second class, I know which students’ work I’ll admire and which students’ comments I’ll largely ignore.

The purpose of the workshop is to share your ‘shitty first drafts’ with a class that will give you tips to improve it. But this setup has a few major flaws.

First, some drafts are shittier than others. Some of the work I’ve read has been so revoltingly lazy that I’ve considered crossing entire pieces out with red ink, tearing up manuscripts, and dropping courses. Reading work by students who don’t care enough to even read their pieces aloud before making copies is a waste of my time and tuition.

We students can sometimes be quite vicious in our critiques, as if pointing out each flaw in another’s work will make ours stronger — or impress the instructor. Very few of us have been published, still fewer in literary journals of recognizable stature, yet we dismantle stories as if we were veterans who knew exactly what editors wanted.

Often we say “this is bad” without giving ideas about how to make improvements, and that doesn’t help anyone. For every student who carefully makes suggestions in the margins days before the workshop, there are three reading frantically before the instructor arrives.

Workshop participants read every story ‘blind,’ without knowledge of the author’s intentions or ambitions. While there’s certainly value in learning how an uninformed reader would react to your work, more important in a classroom setting is learning how to write well, how to find your voice. This is difficult in an environment where writers aren’t allowed to share their goals.

There is no standard way to grade creative writing courses. I’ve had instructors grade the quality of the writing, improvement of the writing, in-class comments, and so on — but all of this is subjective. The grades students receive at the end of each semester are often a surprise.

Finally, the workshop does little to teach students how to be a writer. In just about every writers’ manual I’ve read — Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird chief among them — full-time authors recommend establishing daily writing routines and continuously jotting down ideas for stories, all but impossible tasks in the collegiate setting.

And there is little professors can do to encourage students to write on their own, when grading necessitates a schedule for students to turn in new work. Grades are a motivation writers cannot depend on after graduation; they must find their own inspiration.

Many of these problems could be solved if workshops were deconstructed, made to model the romanticized vision of the writers’ group. I’m primarily thinking of Gertrude Stein’s expatriate Parisian salons. When they gathered, did Sherwood Anderson and Ezra Pound take turns tearing Ernest Hemingway’s latest apart?

It is far more likely they used their time to discuss art, politics, and literary trends; far more likely they used each other as a support system. I’m not suggesting that Emerson abandon critiquing students’ writing, but a greater emphasis on how to think about the world around us and how to be writers, would better prepare students to enter that life.

And I’ve had engaging professors who’ve tried to update the workshop — Peter Shippy had us write ekphrasis poetry from paintings, Ben Brooks did away with due dates, and Pamela Painter continually reminded us to revise and resubmit — but there’s only so much they can do under the rigid formula Emerson, like many writing programs, has adopted.

I don’t regret taking as many workshops as I have because I’ve certainly learned a great deal. But if the pressure was ever taken off grades — off being an editor instead of a writer — more time could be spent being, you know, creative.