April 6th, 2011 / 12:30 pm

Shop of work, or something like that

So, I’m teaching a grad-level fiction workshop for the first time next fall. I’m excited and nervous. It feels like a big deal. In my pedagogical statements, I write about how many fiction students don’t know how to read. That is, they read like they’re lit majors: they read for analysis and to say something clever about the text. (I was no exception before and during my MFA.)

BUT, but, writers read in a fundamentally different way. We read with our own writing in mind: what works, what doesn’t, what should we take from this writer, what does this writer do that we also do that fails, etc.

My undergrad fiction workshops are always very reading heavy. We read something like 8-10 books. Every book comes with some kind of “craft” lesson. I attempt to teach students how to read as a writer. Mostly, it works.

But grad workshops seem like very different beasts. In many ways, the grad workshops I took didn’t really work for me, even though they were all wildly different pedagogical models. One had us read 6 books and do presentations, plus 2 workshop stories. Two had us read an anthology and do presentations, plus 2 workshop stories. One had us read 0 books and do 0 presentations, plus 7 workshop stories. Arguably, I hated the 7 workshop model most but I got the most “bang for the buck” there. (I know Michael Martone does something similar to this at Bama.) But 7 stories is grueling on both the student and the professor. You submit half-thought stories, unedited and messy.

What was your grad experience? What would you want out of a grad workshop? Would you prefer more stories, half-baked and pumped out, or fewer stories, cleaner and edited? Would you prefer collections/novels or an anthology?

I’m thinking of an anthology (Conjunctions fiction anthology or 30 under 30, even though that’s self-promoting), plus a subscription to two regularly publishing journals/chapbook series (NYer or Harper’s and MLP).

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  1. Frank Tas

      I would most enjoy a writing-intensive course, I think. A draft of a story or at least 1.5k words of a longer piece drafted each week, and maybe an assignment of read whatever book you want with a small essay on why you liked/disliked it as a writer each week. I like the concept of the more you are conditioned to write and be prolific on a difficult schedule, the less excuses you make to not write ten years down the road. And then maybe the last month spent revising whatever mess you end up with at the end.

      Like you ever see the Animaniacs episode where they have a basketball team and their coach makes them practice in clogs because “Imagine how much better you’ll play when you’re not wearing them”?

  2. jtc

      I agree–part of it at least for undergrad workshops is just getting people to write. I didn’t go/haven’t gone to grad school yet.

      But I wanted to add that I think all students, whether focused on lit. or craft, need to be capable of reading from both angles.

  3. Frank Tas

      “But I wanted to add that I think all students, whether focused on lit. or craft, need to be capable of reading from both angles.”

      Of course, but that should be at the very least an inherent capability for a grad student. Shit, it should be an inherent capability for an undergrad, too, as far as I’m concerned.

      I just don’t think a person should go to grad school to have some teacher with his or her own agenda force upon you books that might not be of any help or interest. At that level you should have already established a pretty good idea of what works best for you.

  4. MFBomb

      Actually, can we first begin a movement to eradicate the word “workshop” from the lexicon? Maybe it’s “just a word” to some, but for me, many of the problems with the “workshop” model begin with its name–it implies that the purpose of such a class is to “fix” stories or poems, as if the class were some sort of auto repair shop.

      It’s mind boggling how conservative and safe writers can be when it comes to the teaching of writing, and that this bland, uninteresting, Puritanical model that begin on the prairies of Iowa by a crusty, upper class white man who was extremely close-minded, persists today with little serious challenge.

      I like Martone’s approach that cuts through all of the pragmatic bullshit and forces students to produce like artists. Writing–poetry and/or fiction–is an art. The emphasis–even at the grad level—should be on 1) cultivating a sense of artistry in the students, as we must convince them that writing, even though it’s done with pen, paper, and ink, is a fine art like painting or music (the traditional model often implies the opposite, that writing a story is, in many ways, like writing a paper for an academic course); 2) producing and immersing oneself in the process and avoiding self-censorship as much as possible, the latter of which is often encouraged in the traditional model that attempts to fix stories that are too early in their production to be “fixed”; 3) reading a lot of good stuff, within and outside the student’s genre, as well as engaging with other fine art forms.

  5. Cole Anders

      I agree about “workshop” and fixing stories. I’m offended by the ads for that one low-res MFA where they’ll show a poem by William Carlos Williams or a story by Franz Kafka with their famous lines slightly altered, marred by poor word choices which are circled and commented on, as if these were early drafts getting some much-needed tinkering by workshop attendees. As if.

      How does Michael Martone get a different result? I mean, what does he do, so that people respond to writing other than by looking for ways to fix it? I would be really interested to know about other ways of teaching writing. Is it just that he makes students write seven stories?


      I don’t recognize myself in the description of how writers read. What about pleasure, fascination, surrender? Or time-killing? I’m not a writer-shark, constantly tasting moves and styles and then appropriating or rejecting them.

  6. MFBomb

      What a minute–are you suggesting that some writers actually read for more than “craft” and “nuts & bolts?” Blasphemous!

  7. Cole Anders

      yes. But now I feel like a jerk, for speaking/writing as though LH didn’t know that, doesn’t also read for those other things.

      Why am I all over this blog lately? I’m banning myself.

  8. M. Kitchell

      i think i’ve recently come to the realization that i’m not that keen on anthologies. i mean, i’m ok with short story collections by a single author, i’m cool with lit journals which are basically anthologies but cost less, right? but i mostly use anthologies with the exclusive purpose of finding new authors to read. because of this, i read them in remarkably different ways than i read everything else (as you said, reading as a writer vs reading as a lit major– of course, my reading of anthologies is outside of this). Also, I kind of hate the idea of excerpts. So, I think my preference would be a handful of chapbooks & a couple 100-120 page “novels”/”novellas”/whatever.

      or maybe a hand-picked selection of short stories from the web? (accessible in some way without students having to pay for them is what i’m saying– i hate those fucking $45 photocopied packets, shit is such a rip off)


  9. RM

      Yeah, Martone does something similar to the 7 model. He calls it hypoxic and it’s 12 stories (or however many weeks there are minus the first). So each student gets like 11 minutes on their story and the idea is that you’re exercising your writing muscle. The thing that makes it work, for me anyway, is that he meets with each student for 30 minutes every week. So you might not get what you’re looking for in shop (or you might) but at least he gives you an intense critique (in the Alabama sense) of your work every week… By Alabama sense, I mean that we don’t really give any prescriptive advice here. Instead we talk about what the story is doing for us, the readers, and let the author figure out what to do for themselves (we also talk a lot about themes and what is working). There are no fixes, there is no hard criticism, it’s about the author hearing what the readers are reading; that way, the author can see if they want to leave it (cool, I like these interpretations) or change it (hmmm, I wasn’t going for that) or a little of both. Final thought on the Martone’s model, he won’t kill you if you miss a week or two, which is a must over the course of the semester (even if you don’t skip ever, the fact that you can is great).

  10. Frank Tas

      Yeah, that sounds fucking perfect.

  11. Richard

      I agree with the anthology thing… But I’d go a step further and have them read current literature via online magazines. And print magazines (I feel like I saw a program somewhere that got literary journals into the class room at a cut rate. Anyone?)

  12. John Minichillo

      The argument in my grad workshops was always should they assign two stories or three. I assign two stories and a short-short as kind of a compromise (for undergrad workshop).

      At the grad level I would really resent being given reading assignments. You might occasionally supplement with a story or an essay, but any more than that and 1) you may not have the time to talk about them and 2) grad students are already reading their eyeballs off. You are supposed to be on their side. You should be rooting for their writing time and understanding that it’s a real and very important thing.

      Any readings you assign, half the class may have already read. They will have a reading list for the program. And you should also assume that they LOVE to read and if you just mention some things in class, they will want to read them, and will pick up those books when they get the chance.

      At one of my grad programs there were lit. classes for writers, taught by the writing profs. It was a brilliant idea and the writing students really loved it. Takes the pressure off assigning readings in workshops, allows you to actually spend the time talking about readings, and also allows you to assign hefty chunks of material. The approach was critical but nuts-n-bolts approach, writer’s POV, i.e. what can we learn as writers? how was this put together? Meanwhile, our regular lit. classes focused mostly on writing papers. Yes, we had papers in the lit for writers classes, but the understanding was that there was more lattitude with papers, presentations, etc. The goal was to learn as writers, not to become professional critics.

  13. Nick Mamatas

      One would hope that grad students already read widely.

      I know, I know—I crack myself up too.

      Just make the little monsters write.

  14. KKB

      Hey talk more about how you’re teaching reading, in a fiction-making sort of way . . .

      When I was in grad school, my classmates were the fanciest and the smartest of all time – – but a lot of them didn’t “trust the story” when they read it, and I wonder if this is what you mean? I’d love to hear some ideas on how to subvert that.

  15. NLY

      Simply, I would work undergrads to the bone with reading, and grads to the bone with writing.

  16. sm

      I don’t know, I had a reading-intensive workshop in grad school (a book a week) that introduced me to a lot of innovative and really interesting work I wouldn’t have read otherwise/didn’t know about. Sure grad students love to read, but many (I suspect I am not the only one) read along their pre-established taste lines. One of the best things that grad school has done for me is to introduce me to new works and new kinds of works and to teach me that there are new and evolving canons that I had no idea about. This has been extremely valuable. In that same workshop we also did a short creative response to every book we read, which made me engage with the reading in a writerly way.

  17. MFBomb

      One way to approach reading at the grad level would be to use a sort of mini-comps method; in other word, as with many comp exam formats these days, have students create their own list of texts to read over the course of the semester, culminating in an oral presentation during exam week in which they discuss how the texts they chose inform or speak to their own aesthetic and vision.

  18. mark leidner

      the most generous teachers told me my writing was lazy or dull and explained why

  19. lauren

      Have to agree with the above idea from MFBomb–I like it. If they are self-motivated enough to be in your class in the first place, having one of their first tasks be choosing a path doesn’t sound bad at all. Also, I fall into the ‘not a fan’ category with anthologies too. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind my work going into one (ha ha), but as an instructor, I always feel that I cherry-pick one or two pieces that are not completely blah, then use online mags and individual titles for the vast majority of assigned reading because you can expose students to so many rich paths and places that you hope they’ll keep up on in the future: mags, publishing houses, etc. Lit mags also have the distinct advantage of being *like* an anthology, but a hell of a lot shorter if some things are boring…

  20. MFBomb

      You know what, since many of us are venting here, I’ll add that I’m sick-and-tired of the workshop bias toward “craft.” Craft, or technique, is obviously important, but so is inspiration, and people who scoff at teachers who work hard to inspire their students really bug me. Many of these folks like to cast “inspiration” in the classroom as sappy “therapy,” but the reality is that craft is meaningless if the student doesn’t feel inspired to be in the game for the long haul. Memorizing a bunch of techniques won’t amount to a hill of beans if the writer isn’t inspired, and the idea that people in their 20’s should be left to inspire themselves completely on their own is a sign cowardly and lazy teaching.

      Many students have little to no support from their families or friends to write, are living away from home for the first time, and face various cultural and class barriers against a writing career. A teacher is not doing his or her job if he or she doesn’t find a way to integrate “inspiration” into the “workshop,” or by teaching “craft” exclusively–at the expense of inspiration.

  21. alanrossi

      in my first grad workshop, with stephen graham jones, he assigned a book to read every week, four to five stories through the course of semester, and by the end of the semester, we had to have written a novel of around 150 pages. the novel could seriously suck, he told us, or it could be seriously awesome, he didn’t care; we had to write it, though, or we didn’t pass the class. that was probably the coolest and most stressful and most intense semester of my “education” life and i couldn’t be more grateful to him. he talked about every novel on the last day of class for a few minutes.

  22. alanrossi

      oh damn, i meant we had to write four to five stories throughout the course of the semester as well as the novel….

  23. Frank Tas

      Students as in undergraduate or graduate?

  24. MFBomb

      Actually, both, since the age demographic in MFA programs is getting younger and younger these days.

  25. shoehorn

      this is dead-on

  26. lily hoang

      At the grad level, I wouldn’t teach “craft,” but at the grad level, one doesn’t necessarily need to “teach.”

      To me, “workshop” (at the grad level) is more about developing a more nuanced (maybe sophisticated?) way of speaking about fiction. Also: to write. A lot.

      I’m leaning less towards an anthology and more towards a few subscriptions, plus students must write a few book reviews (good practice, plus an entry into publication and criticism).

      BUT, another question: should a workshop teach craft? At the undergrad level, I’m conservative enough to say yes. Students should know “elements” of fiction, esp before “experimenting.” I mean, how do you play with and manipulate a form you don’t even know? At the grad level, no. (In fact, I’d even toyed with the idea of teaching non-creative writing based texts, e.g. architecture and philosophy, for workshop. The best class I took in grad school was in History & Philosophy of Science. It had nothing to do with CW, but the intensely focused knowledge I gained from that class outside of the discipline formed nearly 1/3 of my first book. So…)

  27. deadgod

      [Lit majors] read for analysis and to say something clever about the text. [… W]riters read in a fundamentally different way […]: what works, what doesn’t, what should we take from this writer, what does this writer do that we also do that fails, etc.

      Amateur’s question: what’s the difference between “analysis” and “what works, what doesn’t”??

  28. lily hoang

      Analysis, to me, is what something “means.” What works & what doesn’t has more to do with style, mechanics, aesthetics, etc. They are similar but not interchangeable. To me, reading something in order to write an analytical academic paper on it is VERY different than the way we should read a book for workshop.

      Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my brain is too simple.

  29. deadgod

      Here’s what I mean by my being a ‘writing education’ amateur: I think teachers – not students – should choose readings, then lead the discussions on them, i.e. ‘teach, teacher’; I think anthologies are useful and enjoyable packages (though an unofficial antho assembled by the teacher and almost for free would be very cool); I think “craft” discussions are “inspiring” and don’t know what a teacher could do to be “inspiring” about writing other than – as opposed to ‘alongside’ – talking about what’s ‘beautiful’ about beautiful writing.

  30. MFBomb

      “another question: should a workshop teach craft? At the undergrad level, I’m conservative enough to say yes. ”


      Yes, but the problem is that so many of the classes teach craft the same way, so that undergrads take, say, the same class (even if taught by diff. professors) 2-4 times. What’s the point in that? I think students start to tune out after the first workshop. You’re longer engaging students actively when you approach craft like diagramming sentences on a chalkboard.

      In an ideal world, undergrads would take one basic workshop, and then enroll in special topics fiction/poetry writing seminars designed by professors of various stripes/aesthetic backgrounds/tastes, though I realize this is a bit unrealistic at the undergrad level. Maybe it’s more realistic to suggest that undergrads will hopefully survive and have the opportunity to take such courses at the MFA level. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m under the impression that Alabama designs its MFA workshops along the lines of “special topics” courses.

  31. Nvbp8
  32. MFBomb

      *You’re no longer

  33. MFBomb

      I agree with you that “craft” discussions can be “inspiring,” but that doesn’t mean that any craft discussion is, by itself, “inspiring.” It all depends on how the teacher discusses craft (or frames the discussions).

  34. lily hoang

      Hi MFBomb: When I teach “craft,” I don’t think I approach it the way many workshop teachers do. I don’t have “lessons,” per se. When I want to talk about dialogue, we read a graphic novel. No where is dialogue as distilled as a graphic novel: talk about constraint! Or when I want to talk about temporality, we’ll read Carole Maso’s AVA. Or when I want to talk about POV, we read Lance Olsen’s Nietzsche’s Kisses. I don’t teach a “lesson.” We read a book together and focus on how one text uses an element of fiction, aka craft.

      Maybe I’m just as boring or bore inducing as other workshop teachers, but I’d like to think I offer something semi-unique.

      Where I will be teaching, we have “Form & Technique” courses, which are kinda like Special Topics.

  35. lily hoang

      I agree that teachers need to teach more, yes.

  36. MFBomb

      Actually, I don’t think many teachers have “lessons.” However, I think many teachers teach “craft” like editors; they pick stories apart for the “craft” points like an editor would do in a conversation with a writer who is already advanced and secure in his or her vision. I find this approach–one that is pretty common–stifling and disengaged with the age and level of most students. They need to see those craft points within larger contexts, whereas many teachers teach as if the entire world exists within “the workshop.” An entire discourse is thus wielded onto students that is too insular for the students’ needs.

      As for the grad level, this same approach presents a new problem: the teacher-as-editor edits his or her own tastes onto student work, work that is often written by advanced writers, even though in the “real world,” an actual editor-writer relationship only exists after the editor has agreed to publish the writer’s work. There is a serious disconnect here, then, and the grad student’s time is wasted and his or her confidence has the confidence of being unnecessarily crushed.

      Finally, I realize that most grad programs have forms classes, but I think more grad workshops should be taught like forms classes; or, that the forms classes are more beneficial than the workshops, which is probably a sign that the workshop isn’t all its cracked up to be.

  37. MFBomb

      *has the potential of being unnecessarily crushed.

  38. lily hoang

      I guess that’s kind of my BIG question here. When I was in school, workshops didn’t “work” for me. I *think* the workshops I’ve led have “worked” for my students. Or, at least, that’s what the evaluations have said, but undergrad and grad are very different. What makes a workshop “work”? If workshops aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – and I agree with you that for the most part, they aren’t – what would make them better? What would you have wanted/want/will want in a workshop in an ideal world?

  39. lily hoang

      Please forgive the grammar in that last sentence. Whew. It’s been a night.

  40. MFBomb

      Honestly, this might sound too simplistic, but it’s the best answer I can give: I think workshops work best when teachers teach, rather than edit. It seems like too many writing teachers are just editors, rather than teachers.

  41. mark leidner

      passionate and critically rigorous engagement with craft is the most inspiring thing there is

  42. MFBomb

      Yes, it can be, but often, it’s not. You don’t get let off the hook just because you engage with craft. Craft is also nothing but an arbitrary term used to categorize a set of ideas.

  43. deadgod

      Ha ha; yes, I should have said ‘”craft” discussions can (and should) be inspiring’, rather than that they “are”.

      As I say, I can’t think of what else a teacher – or anybody – can talk about in the way of ‘what’s “good” in good writing’ outside of “craft” categories or facets or priorities. “Thumbs up to this gem, pupils!” would just sound lazy – or patronizing – to a group of even young adults, eh? Worksheet after worksheet of exercises sounds deadly, especially considering the ‘graduate’ identity of the students, but I think a teacher should have enough personality to be able to communicate details about potentially boring stuff like ‘setting’ or ‘nth-person narration’ without losing the group.

  44. MFBomb

      Yes, obviously it all comes back to “craft,” but don’t you think there is a particular kind of workshop language that foregrounds many craft discussions? I don’t think anyone would argue that “craft” (however you want to define this category) is a bad thing, more than they would argue that many workshops impact or limit discussions of craft in ways that are troubling. Wouldn’t you agree?

  45. Anonymous
  46. deadgod

      ‘A particular language that foregrounds discussions’ – I’m not sure what you mean.

      Dogmatism is always destructive (except in the case of anti-dogmatism ha ha). Do you mean ‘this week we talk only about nth-person narration; next week we’ll look at how imagery causes “character”‘? Or ‘I don’t want to hear any support of _____, period’? Or something more generally restrictive: ‘the only way to talk about fiction is _____’? I’d stay away from any of that.

      It’s definitely so that malicious, power-abusive teachers are wildly de-inspiring – contagious with despair – to most learners. — but I don’t get how a shitty personality or trip in life is down, in its effectuality, to even an obsession with – much less a healthy interest in – “craft”.

      Maybe a specific case (or cases) would enable me to grasp the general point that you’re making.

  47. Hegelian Backwash
  48. mark leidner

      everything is nothing but an arbitrary term used to categorize a set of ideas

      you can’t get let off the hook just because you passionately rail against ‘craft’

      craft isn’t a conservative idea, it’s not regressive to analyze how things work and why

      it’s a detriment to all writers who emerge from grad programs with little critical awareness of their form and tons of inspiration

      the only good writers i’ve ever known inspired “themselves completely on their own”

      any writing class you pay for whose teacher doesn’t help you understand technique is a scam

      though that still might be worth it to you, if you purchase creative writing education like an apple product or a piece of clothing — accoutrement to prove to yourself your youthful, artistic self-image is true — which has little to do with writing

      pound said “technique is the test of sincerity. if a thing isn’t worth getting the technique to say, it is of inferior value” — which i used to hate, but now it seems incredibly wise

      maybe the further away you get from your mfa, you understand it better, what it was good for, what it could have been that it wasn’t, the fool you were then, the different fool you are now

  49. MFBomb

      We’re talking in circles here; I agree with most of your points about “craft”. I was working under the assumption that most of the posters here have workshop experiences (as students), since this is a thread about the workshop model. Don’t you think that many of the criticisms of the traditional workshop model are related to the way that model “teaches” craft? Again, I was assuming that others would see the relationship between the traditional workshop model and craft, given the title of the thread, but perhaps I should’ve made the connection clearer in my own posts.

  50. MFBomb

      See my response to Mark Leidner about the relationship between the traditional workshop model and the teaching of craft.

      I’m not anti-“craft.”

  51. MFBomb

      “it’s a detriment to all writers who emerge from grad programs with little critical awareness of their form and tons of inspiration

      the only good writers i’ve ever known inspired “themselves completely on their own”


      Thanks for misrepresenting my points about craft vs. inspiration.

      Also, props to you for having such precocious friends. I guess I didn’t come from a place where teenagers and early twenty-somethings had it all figured out and decided to become writers one day without anyone every encouraging them or cultivating their confidence.

      Are you a teacher? Perhaps I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who teaches and sees his or her job as existing beyond the margins of the page. Sure, you can argue that the page itself is “inspirational,” but that doesn’t mean that all discussions should begin and end with the page itself.

      The idea that all the matters are the “ideas in things”–the one dictated by upper class modernists of the 20’s who–has been proven over time to have certain cultural and social biases and is one reason why people from non-privileged backgrounds don’t always trust arguments that position the teaching of writing entirely around aesthetics and craft because any philosophy that pretends that all can be contained within aesthetics and craft is simply disingenuous and disengaged with the social.

      However, I’ll assume that you don’t mean to imply such an engagement in your posts and that by “engaging passionately with craft,” you mean to do so transgressively and flexibly.

  52. MFBomb

      *The idea that all the matters are the “ideas in things”–the one dictated by upper class modernists of the 20’s–has been proven over time to have certain cultural and social biases…

  53. mark leidner

      sorry, i had to misrepresent your position in order to get your attention since you hadn’t read the initial comment carefully:

      “passionate and critically rigorous engagement with craft is the most inspiring thing there is”

      which you bow to in the last paragraph – thank you for acknowledging the first four words of what i said

      not sure if i’m a teacher or not, have you learned anything?

  54. MFBomb

      “i had to misrepresent your position in order to get your attention since you hadn’t read the initial comment carefully”


      Oh okay–thanks for agreeing with my initial points. The tone in your initial post suggested otherwise, that you were disagreeing with my points about “craft.” Now, I see that, all along, you were “passionately” agreeing with my points, and were critically engaged with them to boot. Touche.

  55. DK

      Inspiring students is a big part of my MFA program, and I can draw upon firsthand experience to say that it works really well. It helps that many of the professors in my program have other artistic pursuits beyond writing, so they have more to draw from as teachers.