Matt Weinkam on Revising Antonya Nelson’s Revision Course
This is the latest in a series of posts on revision. It’s actually a rethinking of Antonya Nelson’s great post about teaching creative writing by walking her students through how she writes a story (link is in the essay below). Matt Weinkam revises Nelson’s revision model, building on its great potential. As always, if you’re interested in contributing to this series, email me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].
Matt Weinkam just finished a Teaching Fellowship at Northern Michigan University where he was Managing Editor of Passages North. He is a founding editor of Threadcount, an online journal of hybrid prose, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, New South, Sonora Review, and DIAGRAM.
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Revision Workshop: Revising The Antonya Nelson Method
In her essay in the Tin House Writer’s Notebook II Antonya Nelson describes her frustration with the traditional workshop model:
“In most workshops, students are charged with creating two or three short stories in the course of fifteen weeks. But I myself have never written three short stories in a semester—at least, not since graduate school, when I was in a workshop that demanded it of me. I don’t know many writers for whom three stories in fifteen weeks is a habit, but somehow in workshops it’s become the procedure. The fact that that doesn’t replicate my own process seemed sort of weird after a while.”
Instead she creates a workshop modeled on her own writing process where students spend an entire semester taking a story “from inception through stages of revision to its eventual polished ending.”
It’s worth reading her essay in full (available free at the Tin House Blog), but the condensed version of her workshop plan goes something like this: Students begin by writing a “five-hundred-word piece about an event that actually happened to them and that they understood was a story.” Then for the rest of the semester students rewrite that story again and again, focusing on new elements each time. They change to the perspective of a different character, they add a “clock” to the story, they focus on detail, they consider age as a source of conflict, they add an external world event, they fit the story to Fryetag’s Pyramid, and they try something crazy. At the end of the semester students turn in a final draft of their story that has been revised and rewritten at least ten times. This attention to the story is key for Nelson. She says, “What my students took away from that experience is what I hope you take away from this report on it: the work you’re writing is worth your attention and it really is in revision that you’re going to find something meaningful and useful.”
There’s a lot to like about this workshop model when compared to the traditional 3-story format. Nelson’s method focuses on revision and sticking with a story past the exploratory phase. Too often we bind ourselves to the first draft and forget that we can make radical changes to improve the story. Too often we don’t stick with a story for longer than two or three drafts at most. In Nelson’s class students are required to make those radical changes and stay with the story long enough to discover all the possibilities that story contains. Nelson’s class also emphasizes different craft elements and encourages students to think about how shifting time or perspective or age can change the meaning and effect of the story. It’s like teaching applied story physics rather than just having students complete craft exercises in a vacuum.
I’ve used a modified version of Nelson’s method in a six-week online narrative writing course and have seen how much more effective it can be than the traditional model. Students enjoy looking back on their first draft and seeing how far they’ve come. And their understanding of craft comes from hard-earned experience rather than text books or stand-alone exercises. There is an obvious benefit to working on one story for six weeks rather than speeding through three stories in the same amount of time, and Nelson is right that the same holds true for a 15-week course as well. Students don’t just finish the course with better writing, they leave with a practiced understanding of the entire writing process.
But I think there is room to improve on Nelson’s method. With the right emphasis this workshop model can provide an opportunity to rethink the writing process, to revise peer feedback assumptions, to encourage difference rather than sameness, and to question the norms of literary fiction. I’ll take those one by one.
Rethink the writing process
In her Tin House essay Nelson talks through an example story of hers and how it might proceed through each of the steps in her class. Because she is an experienced and thoughtful writer, Nelson is able to explain how her intuition guides her towards the story she wants to tell. “For the clock in my story, I asked myself, Do I want to write about the day of the tornado itself? Or am I interested in something other than that? Writing about the actual tornado reminded me of that not-as-fascinating-as-it-might-sound conflict: man vs. nature, and while the dramatic business of being tossed around in the car was fascinating, it doesn’t really lead me, here and now, to a story I’d be likely to write. I would be more inclined to dwell in the aftermath.” It’s hard to disagree with her logic, but what I like about her explanation is that it leaves room for a different writer to make a different choice if they think that choice is more effective. Instead of an instructor or a workshop guiding a student towards what they see as the ideal version of that student’s story, Nelson’s method shifts the power more towards the author.
Still, I wonder if there a drawback to assuming the writing process must lead a writer towards an ideal version of their story. For one thing it keeps the emphasis on the destination rather than on the journey. Students worry about “wasting” a draft by trying something new because it might lead them down a dead end. There is an anxiety to “getting the story right” that narrows the writer’s vision and prevents them from seeing other (often more unique) possibilities. Plus, in my experience, even when you tell students that they can choose what point of view or what structure they think is most effective, they still want you to tell them what works best. In other words, the instructor is still the assumed audience.
In my own class I tried to reframe the drafts as experiments rather than as steps meant to lead towards a specific destination. Rather than telling students to choose the most “effective” point of view, for example, I encouraged them to go where the energy was, to follow their own excitement. If each draft was an opportunity to try something new then 1) students could explore the interests and quirks that make them unique writers, and 2) the stakes were lower which meant they could loosen up and have more fun (which often made their writing more interesting).
But if drafts are just experiments and there is no pressure or expectation to lead students toward an effective final draft, what is the purpose of workshop? How do you critique?
Revise peer feedback assumptions
Too often workshops are build around a normalizing kind of critique. Students internalize and then regurgitate the instructor’s assumptions about genre and form, about what a story is supposed to do, and for whom it is written. They also catch on to the praise-then-critique format quite quickly and apply it to every story equally. At worst the workshop steers everyone towards writing a certain kind of story for a certain audience and finds elements within that story to praise and critique no matter if the story is perfect or garbage. This is because in a traditional workshop the assumption is the writer brings in the best draft they can write on their own (though it is more often the first draft) and it is the job of the class to point out what is “wrong” in order to help the author “fix” their draft.
The advantage of the Nelson workshop model is that by encouraging multiple drafts and experiments with craft we shift the focus of feedback away from normalizing critique and towards possibility and difference. The assumption is that this story is a work in progress and that the writer is looking for new ways to experiment with the next draft. In that case the job of the class isn’t to fix the story but to offer new ideas or directions, to see different opportunities within the story itself. Is there a new perspective to try? A new place to begin or end? A new structure? A new voice or tone? A new genre? Audience? Purpose? Our goal is to think about what hasn’t been done before rather than what has. I have students join a new workshop group each week so that they get fresh feedback on their new draft. As a class we can see more options than the author can on his or her own. Better yet, there isn’t one right answer. There isn’t one way to experiment with the next draft that is better than any other. The goal is for the writer to leave the workshop excited by all the possibilities, sparked by an idea that hadn’t occurred to them before but which sets their mind racing.
Encourage difference rather than sameness
It’s easier to encourage aesthetic differences, but it’s harder to encourage different genres, audiences, and goals. Part of this has to do with the steps of Nelson’s prescriptive workshop model which assumes students are writing a particular kind of literary fiction (AKA the kind Nelson writes). As Nelson points out in her essay, “I dictated the stages, it’s true, but I am the teacher, and that’s my prerogative.” In my own class I dictated the stages as well. I modified Nelson’s draft assignments to fit a six-week model and focused on the craft elements I found most useful.
But what if we don’t have to dictate the stages? A simple example: what if students didn’t have to begin with a true story? Some of us start from real-life experience, it’s true. But some of us begin from a craft experiment, some from language or style, some from character or conflict, some from an abstract idea, some from a single sentence, some from a constraint, some from thought experiment, some from overheard dialogue, some from image, some from music. Why demand that everyone begin in the same way with the same kind of material?
Or more broadly: why dictate any of the stages? What would happen if we opened up the discussion to the class? In a lower-level workshop we could put other options on the board besides the ones Nelson provides and choose which ones we could try as a class. In an upper-level workshop students could propose their own stages, give themselves or each other experiment assignments for the next draft. These stages or draft prompts could open up towards things besides just craft. What if students experimented with writing in a different genre for a particular draft (fantasy, sci-fi, western, mystery)? What if they wrote for a different audience (another culture, another time period, a specific person)? What if they wrote for a different purpose (entertain, play with language, subvert expectation, destroy the patriarchy)?
Prompts like these can do more than just encourage students to write with a new formal trick like second person POV, they can challenge us to question the norms of the workshop, of how we’re supposed to write, who we’re supposed to write for, of why we write stories in the first place.
Question the norms of literary fiction
And this might be the greatest benefit to building on Nelson’s workshop model. When focus more on the process of experimentation than on the destination of an effective draft, when we shift workshop peer review from critiquing what isn’t working to looking for new possibilities, when we actively seek to encourage difference and uniqueness and strangeness then we can question our individual and cultural assumptions and the norms of literary fiction. The workshop could explicitly discuss and challenge the conventions of workshops. We could identify our own assumptions and where they come from. We could acknowledge the cultural and institutional forces that empower certain writers and stories while marginalizing others. Such a workshop could do more than teach craft or a writing process or a way of providing feedback, it could teach us to rewrite the system.
I’m still new to teaching the Antonya Nelson revision model, and while I know it is more effective than the traditional workshop I worry about balancing freedom and constraint. On the one hand I don’t want to impose my own subjective assumptions about what stories are supposed to do. On the other hand I don’t want to leave students adrift without clear direction or guidance. If you’ve taught a course focused on writing and revising a single story over the course of 15 weeks I’d love to hear from you. What guidance did you give? How did you scaffold the writing process? What were your expectations for peer review feedback or workshopping? How did it go?