February 18th, 2011 / 5:25 pm

In Defense of the Democratic, Therapeutic Workshop

This is in response to Kyle’s comment on Sean’s post. Or, maybe in reaction. In the comment thread, I responded to part of what Kyle said, but the rest of my response veers pretty far from what Sean was asking, so I’m going to develop it here instead.

I want to take up the ideas of workshop as democracy and workshop as therapy session. What does it mean, really, to say you don’t like those ideas? I should just let Kyle answer that first, but I’m going to say what I make of those terms first.

Workshop as democracy: If I was the one saying that, I would mean that a workshop is a chance to hear from a group of the kind of people who would be your readers. With nobody’s reading being privileged, including the professor’s, who is just one reader. The professor certainly is there to teach how to respond to peer work, how to read and respond sensitively, but hers shouldn’t be the final word. Bruce Covey was telling me last night that he never speaks during the workshops he teaches. Each workshop, a student facilitates. I think this is a wonderful idea. Sure, workshops can work beautifully in other ways, too, but I think this is one good way. This can come down to tiny details. It’s great to know whether 10% or 80% of readers don’t catch a certain reference. To be in control of that, of how obscure the references are. I prefer the perhaps squishy sounding term “focus group” to “democracy” for this function (not the only function, but one function) of a workshop.

Workshop as therapy session: This is thrown around a lot, always negatively. Workshop shouldn’t be therapy. I think there are two problems with this. One, what kind of therapy are we talking about. Substitute “person” in what Kyle says at the end. “…from there, to help a [person] do the thing the [person] really wants to do as powerfully and truly as the [person] can.” That can be (should be?) the goal of therapy, no? When I went to therapy, that’s what I was looking for, and I found it. This happened in many ways and on multiple levels, but I’ll use an example that has to do with writing. Toward the end of my course of therapy, my main problem was that I was behind on my thesis. (After I finished, my therapist said it was time I set new goals or quit therapy. I quit, and we kept in touch.) My therapist said, how about writing five pages a day (I think she said three at first, but I explained I wouldn’t make the deadline that way). I started writing five pages a day. I finished the thesis. I sent the critical component of the thesis–which was never workshopped–to someone I interviewed for it. He wanted me to adapt it for the magazine he edits. Made $1500 for the article. Didn’t pay for my whole course of therapy, but it more than covered the session where she said to just write 5 pages a day. Why shouldn’t a workshop do this?

I still think about a lot of what I learned in therapy, and I readily apply those principles in the classroom. Writing is hard. Undergraduates sometimes don’t know they can do it.┬áThis brings me to my second objection to the anti-therapy statement. There’s this toughen up, can’t stand the heat, do or die idea that a lot of people have about workshops. But it isn’t the case that if you don’t have the confidence to write yet, that you never will. It isn’t the case that if you aren’t disciplined now, you never will be. Especially when it comes to undergraduates, who are stretched really thin, trying to pay for school often, finishing major requirements in a major that they might have lost interest in once they took up writing, applying for post-grad jobs. Who often don’t know what it means to do the work of writing. Whose parents are saying don’t. What is wrong with one function of the workshop to be instilling confidence, and supporting them in more emotional ways. Whence the idea that emotion has no place in the classroom? I find that preposterous. Students aren’t machines to be programmed; they are people with troubles and feelings and insecurities. Teach the people instead of just programming the brain.

I know that is an unpopular idea but I am thankful that my undergraduate writing professor, David Foster Wallace, was really encouraging, though not gratuitously so, in addition to talking to us about POV and prose moves and, yes, grammar. He told our class that certain unnamed individuals sometimes get big grants and have nothing but time and money to write–and they choke. When I asked him how to keep this thing going, and mentioned some ideas I had about jobs and plans, he told me I might get an MFA and not write. He said I might intern at McSweeney’s or work in publishing and not write. Or work part-time and eat ramen and not write. That I might not write anything good till I’m 35, or more. But that I should try all kinds of things. All kinds of modes and lifestyle and jobs and cities, while trying to write. If he hadn’t said those things, I wouldn’t be writing this comment right now. I wouldn’t have kept on. Really. Thank god for the teacher as therapist.

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  1. guest

      thank you

  2. Mmmm

      Thank you for this

  3. Justin Taylor

      Thank you.

  4. Roxane

      This is a fantastic post, Amy and you touch on some really important things, and particularly that there is a place for emotion in the classroom. Some teachers forget, at times, that students are people too, that they are dealing with things beyond the classroom. Certainly students can be frustrating and they may not prioritize their time and energy as we see fit but it is important to remember their personhood and also that often, and especially for undergraduates, they are young. Workshop fatigue fascinates me from both the teacher and student perspectives. I feel like one of a small handful of writers who had mostly positive workshop experiences both as an undergraduate and graduate student. I even did workshops in high school and have positive memories from all the experiences. Always, I was encouraged. As a teacher I have not yet taught that many workshops but it is something I still enjoy. There are the petty frustrations but they are not unique to the workshop experience. Anyway, great stuff.

  5. MFBomb

      Great post.

      When you think about it, just the word “workshop” is so utterly ridiculous. Also, while there are aspects of the workshop that prepare the writer for a writing career, the model itself is not something established writers practice, which is something people rarely, if ever, discuss: the fact that the actual workshop model is not something most successful (however you want to define that term) actually practice. And, no, having a few close writer-friends, editors, or agents who already admire your work and understand your vision is not the same as a getting feedback in aworkshop; a bad review of a piece that has already been published and stamped by at least one reliable person is not the same as a jackass ripping your early drafts just to be a jackass and soothe his own insecurities.

      Students are rarely presented with this reality and often think that established writers sit around in a circle and “workshop” each other’s work.

  6. MFBomb

      *most successful writers

      **as getting

  7. Lcrelyea

      Thank you.

  8. Kyle Minor

      This was an interesting post, Amy. I enjoyed reading it.

  9. Sean

      Well said. Also I am making the chickpea meal again tonight! This time I will remember the spinach. I hope.

  10. Amy McDaniel

      I’m glad. I still would like to know how you are defining workshop as democracy and workshop as therapy session. I didn’t know what you meant by those things so this was really more of a response to other people who have used those terms in certain ways. I’m really interested in conversations about workshops because they can be so so powerful for the participants in both good and bad ways. I had intense dreams about the first workshop I took as a student and outright nightmares about the first one I taught.

  11. Amy McDaniel

      Thanks, Roxane. I was really curious about your reaction, since I know that like me you taking teaching seriously and not just as a way to pay the bills, and I hope to talk to you more about workshops, which fascinate me, too. I had positive experiences in high school (and middle school come to think of it), undergrad and grad but I was not always encouraged. I believe in the workshop but some people have no business being in charge of one, especially people who have contempt for their students (and write about it in Harper’s or wherever)

  12. Kyle Minor

      I don’t think that in an introductory workshop everyone is equally skilled at speaking helpfully about a piece of writing. I think that there is one simplistic idea of a democratic workshop in which all things spoken are given equal space and weight, and that little instruction is offered in how to be helpful. The result is often a lot of value judgments (I liked or didn’t like this) without any substantive reason for offering them, or a lot of diagnostic talk (I think you should do this or that) that isn’t informed by any knowledge of how a piece of writing is working or what the recommended change would do, mostly because the people offering it are inexperienced readers in addition to being inexperienced writers. I can’t think of another craft in which this would be an advisable situation. And the analogues in other arts produce predictably awful things (I’m thinking here about Blake’s post about the people painting the beach scenes.)

      I don’t think that every workshop ought necessarily attend to the same ends. I know, for example, that the point of some workshops is to serve as a variety of therapy. When I teach workshops, I’m teaching them with the assumption that the people in the class want to become writers who will find readers and whose work will be invested with utmost power. That informs the choices that I make.

      I don’t, either, think that the workshop ought to be set up in a way that encourages crushing people. In introductory classes, I try to teach students to be close readers, to be attentively descriptive about what is going in a piece of writing before talking about anything prescriptive, and to think about a piece of writing in terms of the range of choices available to the writer, and what each would offer or take away from the piece of writing upon revision, rather than to say here is the one thing you must do saith the Lord. And toward that end, there are a lot of people in the room who might have worthwhile things to say.

      But I don’t think that every way of responding to a piece of writing is equally helpful, and that many of them (especially the uninformedly value-judging or prescriptive) are more likely to shut down discussion and shut down the possibility of learning something than they are to be in any way helpful. Sometimes there is a person in the room who wants to be resistant to this idea and steamroll the fellow students destructively. In these kinds of cases, I think the teacher is wise to assert her authority and be very clear about how the time, which is always too brief, can be better used.

      I like the idea of teaching among a cohort of teachers who each have a different approach to the workshop, and even who have competing ideas about the workshop or about writing and literature in general. It has been very helpful to me to have access to competing and even contradictory ideas about writing, and to hold them in tension, or to choose one and then the other, or to operate out of one and then the other, or to try to do the opposite of something I think I believe is good and helpful. I don’t think there’s a single way to any of it.

      So I don’t know if I’ve answered your question at all. I think that be decent and do no harm are good things to strive toward when dealing with other people, but I also think that anything goes doesn’t often lead to good learning.

  13. Amy McDaniel

      I don’t disagree with much of what you are saying. My guess is, we’ve had different kinds of bad workshop experiences and different kinds of good ones. My bad experience was with a professor who had everyone go around and say their piece, and then gave the final word, in a kind of, “Well actually, this piece IS done” kind of way. And everyone just listened to that and revised according to that. Which meant the rest of the workshop was a charade. My good experiences were with teachers who didn’t see themselves as a better reader than their students, just a different reader. Who at times revised their own reactions once they heard other points of view. You can’t pick your readers. But these same teachers were actually the ones who taught me to be a better reader, because they modeled it, and guided us through practice of it. Thus my belief that students often learn more from responding to each other than to hearing responses to their own work. I know I did. But never did I feel that “anything goes.” But it was often the students instead of the teacher who countered the unhelpful value-judging and prescriptive comments. If anything, “anything goes” applied more to the teacher-as-ultimate-authority model since the students could say pretty much anything and it wouldn’t matter to the writer. And I think the onus for that is entirely on the teacher.

      I would go a bit further than “be decent” and “do no harm.” At least, Wallace went further than that, not in a touchy-feely way, but definitely in a way that actually did really resemble my real experience in therapy, with a therapist who challenged me and was trying to help me find the best within myself.

      I agree that it is great to have access to these different ideas, and that there is no single way. It is good for students to take different kinds of workshops. But I will say that I think Wallace was right to take us more seriously as readers and thinkers than we probably deserved. Nothing compares to the experience of trying to be the writer/reader/thinker that someone you wildly respect already thinks you are.

  14. Roxane

      There are definite flaws in certain workshop approaches and who leads workshops. It always troubles me when teachers demonstrate such open contempt for their students while clearly, clearly forgetting once they were students too. It also troubles me when students demonstrate contempt for their fellow students. I get where it comes from and lord knows there are days when my students make me want to write an insane diatribe. I too believe in the workshop. I think it is important to the development of the writer, I do. I also think there’s room for the workshop approach to improve.

  15. Kyle Minor

      I think that you have to make adjustments for different classroom settings. I didn’t go to Pomona College, where you studied with Wallace, but I would imagine that an undergraduate class there would be crammed full of super-smart people who had particularly strong high school educations. If that weren’t true, it would be difficult for them to get into Pomona. Plus, I think it’s a school for which students self-select in that direction.

      Some of those things are the function of privilege. I often teach introductory workshops in a setting where there are not many sophisticated readers, and in which, in fact, many of the students have not read much if any literature at all. One upside to this is that many of the pieces of writing are very visceral and engaged with varieties of hair-raising trouble which would hold anyone’s attention.

      After students take that introductory workshop, they are often better equipped to be good readers for one another, and one function of the teacher is to notice that when it is happening, and begin to lay off a little and let the class become more strongly self-directed. When that happens over time, it is a great joy. It would be ideal to have a class full of writers who are operating in community at a level in which many of the readings might be more helpful than the instructor’s.

      The other thing I wanted to say about another comment: It’s true that some writers are teachers because they need the money. It’s also true that sometimes it is frustrating when you encounter a cohort of students who aren’t really interested in doing much besides biding time. That happens less often where I teach than it used to, because over time an excitement and seriousness about writing has been developing. It’s increasingly pleasurable to teach because of it. I think that I helped to cultivate it. I didn’t do it by being a shitty teacher. I did it by being an attentive teacher, even when I was operating out of frustration. I try to do a good job and be very helpful and supportive. At the same time, I wish I could do less teaching and spend more of that time on my own work. I don’t think those two notions — being a dedicated teacher and being frustrated at spending so much time teaching rather than writing — are mutually exclusive.

  16. Luke

      I teach Intro to Creative Writing at a university in the Midwest with a pretty open-door admissions policy. As I prepped for the course for the first time, I imagined myself giving substantial lectures illuminating the nuances and craft of professional and student work each day, but the way things have turned out, there’s a lot more time dedicated to goofy writing exercises and the like and less (though some) of my windbag “art of fiction” instruction. A lot my students didn’t even know exactly what “creative writing” means when they signed up for the course; when I encouraged certain students to take the class, they asked me how many essays they’d be required to write. Not to oversimplify it, but I feel like just getting them to read and write a ton and to think seriously about what they’re doing is huge. There is a little workshopping in my class, but it’s mostly just there to introduce them to the process.

      I don’t want to sound like I’m condescending to my students, or that I’m too lazy or selfish to offer them my (very) limited wisdom, or that I’ve lowered my expectations. On the contrary, I ask a lot of work of my students and they’ve been up to the task, and frankly I’ve been amazed at the candor and openness and natural creativity they’ve demonstrated. (They’re already a lot farther along in regards to not being deeply insecure, egocentric jerks than I was when I took CW classes and workshops at their age.)

  17. christopher.

      I’m giving thumbs up to my screen, Amy. Good words.

  18. Amy McDaniel

      I appreciate the differences of different settings, absolutely. And yes, Pomona is a special place. But really: as privileged as we might have been, we 20-year-old intro fiction students were by no means the intellectual equals of Professor Wallace in any sense, yet he treated us that way. I’m trying to say that that was powerful. I can’t be convinced that a teacher should, as the old chestnut goes, meet students where they are. I think students should be met above where they are (or seem to be). What “above” means is relative, of course, to where the students are to begin with. My first years of teaching were not at a college like Pomona at all, so I get that. But if I didn’t expect much of them, they didn’t give much. I learn so much from my students all the time. My less “sophisticated” first-year lit students often notice something in a text that I haven’t, and in first-year classes I don’t choose particularly challenging texts.

      Perhaps something more pertinent to your last paragraph would be Wallace’s privilege, rather than his students’. He taught one class, held once a week. I’m sure that, along with a lot of experience, allowed him to give a lot more to running a workshop than most of us can, to be able to guide us and help us read and respond better while also taking our ideas seriously. That requires time, no doubt. The point of this post was emphatically NOT to say that every workshop should be like this no matter what the environment. I am saying that the democratic and/or therapeutic model is workable in the right circumstances, which I was lucky enough to experience, and is not just a flat-out wrong-headed idea. It’s probably more applicable to grad school; I used an undergrad example because it was the one that affected me the most, and also probably because Pomona workshops probably are more like grad workshops in some ways.

  19. Kyle Minor

      Well said. I’m happy to have a conversation like this. It’s worth thinking about all of the things you’ve said. I agree with many of them, and others I’ve not thought about in the way you’ve framed them.

  20. Trdr


  21. MFBomb

      I also teach undergrad creative writing. Sometimes, I feel like my most important job is convincing students that fiction writing is a fine art. At first, they have a hard time understanding this because “writing” is something they do for their other classes with paper, ink, and deadlines. Every semester, I have at least two-three intro students refer to their stories as “papers.”

      How does the traditional workshop model–the one originally designed for advanced grad students–begin to address this issue? I’m starting to think that intro classes should just be forms and reading classes, with mostly exercises that culminate in a final story project at the end of the semester.

  22. sm

      The tough part, I think, is to balance their goals with your goals. Their goals are: become famous novelists. Your goals are: make them write as much as they can possibly stand (and help them establish one or two good writing habits now, though that’s secondary). They want to see a product, you want to help them establish a process. These two goals are often at odds in the class because they want to workshop their already-finished novel and learn how to write a query letter to an agent and you just want them to try using the 3rd person objective, just once. That is, in my classes, the writers who want to be famous novelists often resist the democratic workshop. They want me to be a tyrant and tell them exactly how to “fix” their writing. Sometimes I work with them on this, but I truly do not believe in diagnosing and prescribing by the author. It’s like some of them want me to say: “Okay, now that you’ve improved your dialogue, you are officially a Writer.” I understand this impulse but I also resist it and encourage them to resist it.

  23. jackie wang

      i did a 6 hour experimental sound workshop today and processing emotions or other things we struggle with as artists was a huge component. i think it’s the main reason why i felt like i had an artistic breakthrough today. getting personal is a necessary part of ripping through all the baggage attached to the classroom space, making it a little freer. and then you take that energy and bring it to your personal art making space.