A few years ago, when I moved from L.A. to Kansas and began my dizzying transition from grad student to faculty member, I dug out of my closet the stacks and stacks of workshop manuscripts of my early efforts. There they were: fifteen copies of every lousy draft I’d produced, each decorated with marginalia and scribbled endnotes. Sometimes whole paragraphs were blacked out, as if my classmate were an overzealous FBI agent releasing my story under the Freedom of Information Act. Sometimes a poignant protest “No!” would appear to tumble through the white space, alongside a disappointed “You know better!”
Some of these notes were ten years old, but as I looked at them again, the nausea was fresh in my throat. There were hundreds of these, representing my years in an MFA and then a PhD program, contradicting each other in a cacophony of criticism and praise, some written by people whose faces for the life of me I could not remember. It took several trip down two flights of stairs and across a parking lot, but I tossed them all into the apartment complex dumpster. Good-bye to all that.
Still, what made me cringe was not the criticism but my own writing. Was I really that bad? Seven years ago, five, two? What the excavation confirmed was not the casual cruelty of some of my classmates (and actually, I discovered, most were very kind, much kinder than I had remembered) but how much I had grown as a writer through the years. Nausea aside, the workshop system worked.
But how? How had I stitched together from these notes something consistent and constructive? Surely, the rigor of writing to deadline over the years enforced the regular practice of the craft, but the pace of growth outstripped the usual slog of persistence. My one-on-one conferences with a series of wise and patient professors helped, too. But something else, something unconscious, had taken root.
It’s clear to me, now, that being a workshop citizen was key to learning how to write. That is, the weekly task of appraising my classmates’ work, the distillation of criticism to a few concrete suggestions, the consideration in my comments of the elements of fiction (tone, pace, voice, character) rather than a lazy and visceral response cataloguing what I liked or didn’t like—this is what I took with me from workshop, and I took it in my bones. It suddenly occurred to me that the two or three times in a semester when my own work was up for discussion were actually the least important days of the term. It was my participation on all the other days that marked my commitment to writing.
This was a fairly radical revelation. The workshop culture can, adversely, foster a kind of “star for the day” mentality, as a student gets feted or roasted like Don Rickles at the Friars Club. This culture can result in some awkward moments, too. One of my classmates left the room whenever my story was about to be discussed, as if he were going to the bathroom, and strolled back in a respectable forty minutes later; my work was beneath his attention. I had another classmate who went around the room and hugged all the people who gave her good reviews (fortunately I’d offered some criticism, so I was spared the creepy full body contact). The toast-or-roast format can also produce a stratified workshop that pits winners against losers, and it’s particularly hard on young women who are not comfortable issuing bald-faced criticism. I was older and found it easier.
I decided to turn my efforts as a teacher to establishing a collaborative environment in the workshop. No star system. I stressed from day one that the quality and quantity of the students’ critiques of other work would do more for their own writing than the commentary they received. Workshop participation, written and spoken, accounts for a quarter of the grade. I press students to come up with solid ideas for revision: change the point of view, round a character, delete a scene that’s not moving the story forward. Students work together on developing scenes and on “exquisite corpse” projects.
The common knock against workshop is that it’s “writing by committee,” that the very collaborative nature of it squashes individual creativity, that the tyranny of consensus wears down the rough edges of idiosyncratic talent. I understand how any student writer, oppressed by those mercilessly marked-up manuscripts, can come to that conclusion. But frankly I don’t see it. Those unusual students who come to workshop with a jagged, unusual gift are almost always universally admired. Everyone loves a fresh voice. More problematic are the students whose imagination has been blunted by the formulas of television, pop fiction, movies, and video games. For these students, the safety of a collaborative environment can help them tune out the babble of sit-com dialogue and dig deep into their own creative impulses.
Nor is collaboration necessarily synonymous with consensus. I often give my students free-writing prompts that come from someone’s workshop story. Write a biography of the girlfriend in story X, say, or write the crucial confrontation that occurred off-camera in Y’s piece. These exercises help focus our discussions, and also reveal to the author the potential of her own work. I once asked students to describe the room of a grieving young widow from a student’s story, and I told the author she could keep whatever tchotchkes her classmates generated. The object she chose was the framed picture of the widow’s son. “I didn’t even know she had a son!” the author said.
Of course, as I continue to teach, I develop some new collaborative experiments and jettison others. A baby step is having the students submit their critiques electronically. If nothing else, years from now, it will prevent someone else from making fifteen backbreaking trips to the dumpster.
Katherine Karlin’s short story collection, Send Me Work, was published by Northwestern University Press in October 2011. Her stories have appeared in One-Story, North American Review, ZYZZYVA, and other journals, and have been reprinted in The Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South. She is an assistant professor at Kansas State University.