Writers Workshop

I only want to start a post–my method of getting something down.  The overall theme of this blog is productive ways of helping students with their writing.  To help them with their writing, writing teachers need to challenge counter-productive strategies.

I’ve never been a fan of the Writer’s Workshop (Iowa’s–thank you, Maja) model, but I lately received from one of my students a reflection that cemented my disaffection.

Most of you probably know the model, but let me paraphrase:  two or three writers distribute their work for each class session.  Participants are to read the stories/poems/essays before hand and be ready with some hard-nose criticism.  I think perhaps one or two critics are to lead the charge.  Caveat: I have not participated in one, so my descriptions are hearsay–and somewhat common knowledge among those of us who have been in the business for a while.

I think that generally, readers are encouraged to be aggressive–not let anyone get away with shit.  The thesis behind the hard-nose criticism is that serious writers need steel-plated egos.  If you want to be a writer, get ready for rejection and ruthless criticism.  So the critics let go with their critiques while the writer has to sit on her hands, forbidden to speak (or defend or explain).  I think there might also be an unacknowledged showmanship at play here, a macho kind of thing–the critics displaying for the teacher (who has weathered the storm) how witty, incisive, and ruthless they can be.

If our purpose as writing teachers is to breed little Phillip Roths, this protocol might serve its purpose.  Weak writers aren’t going to make it.  Only the strong will survive, arguably preserving the high quality of American literature.

And this is a load of crap, reifying a selfish, (Ayn/Paul) Randian genuflect to the capitalist enterprise under the guise of high art–as if art hasn’t always been a means of justifying the status quo while pretending to critique it (with the field of art/literary critics doing their bit as cheerleaders).

I’m not going to argue my claim.  I really have little tolerance of people who like to advertise their aesthetic sensibility.  Their strategies for self-promotion are obvious–and obviously a consequence of an uncritical reading of capitalist culture that has made them pretend to critique what they really promote.

A counter-strategy–and the one I’m obviously promoting in this blog–is to imagine that all (or almost all) people can write things that others should read.  Consequently, our place as teachers is not to collude in sorting people out (in this case, on the basis of their “writing” ability) but rather to bring them in, do what we can to make as many people as we can fully enjoy the act of writing, of being, of communicating fully with others through writing (and more fully communicating with themselves).  We should search out any teaching strategy not predicated on making each person feel good about him or herself and her writing.  Within this kind of soft-minded (yes, and possibly feminist) pedagogy (we all know–the nurturing kind), there is room for helping writers move along, friends speaking to friends, saying something like, this sounds as if you said the same things twice–what would it be like if you cut this out & said it only once?

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