Peter Turchi on the Workshop “Gag Rule”

This is the second of a series of guest posts on teaching creative writing. A while ago I organized a series of posts on race and the creative writing workshop at Gulf Coast. In my essay, “The Reader vs. POC,” I argued for a serious and more direct consideration of who “the reader” is in workshop. I started from the “gag rule” where the writer stays silent while everyone else talks about her work, quoting author and teacher Peter Turchi on the workshop “reflecting the intention of the work back” to the writer. Torch wrote to me about the piece, and I asked if I could share his email here.

If you’re interested in contributing to this series, email me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].

Peter Turchi is the author of A Muse and A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic; Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer; a collection of short stories, Magician; and a novel, The Girls Next Door. He co-edited, with Andrea Barrett, A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft, and The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work; and, with Charles Baxter, Bringing the Devil to his Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. Turchi directed the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College for 15 years and the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University for 5 years. He now teaches at the University of Houston.

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The Value or Not of the “Gag Rule”
I READ YOUR PIECE FOR GULF COAST, which raises significant issues. I just wanted to clarify: I’m not a strong proponent of “the gag rule” (a term that pretty much states the problem), but I do think it can be helpful for a writer–any writer–to hear how the work seems to be speaking to the reader. In a workshop, that may or may not align with the writer’s intention (and often, it seems, writers are still figuring out the intention of the sort of work in progress offered for discussion in workshop). So the implicit question is, Based on the words on the page, what does this manuscript seem to want to say, or be? The answer to that question is likely to be different for every reader, but ideally one or more of those responses will either give the writer the sense that she’s conveying what she wants to convey or that she’s not yet conveying what she wants to convey–or give the writer some new ideas. At some point in every discussion, in the workshops I lead, the writer can ask questions and/or tell us whatever she wants and ask for our response or suggestions.

The value, I feel, is in the writer having the opportunity to hear what the words on the page are conveying/suggesting to those presumably attentive, thoughtful readers; and the goal for those readers is to avoid bringing expectations/desires to the piece (I like my stories realistic; I like my stories elliptical; etc.), but to consider the piece for what it seems to want to be, and do.
But you raise a good point about the relationship of the writer, the intended audience, and the people in the workshop. A common problem–one it sounds like you’ve run into–is when there’s some sort of prevailing aesthetic or expectation and the readers in the room say, This piece is wrong, or This piece fails. That’s why it’s important to try to truly recognize the intention of the work, and not to measure it against something the reader might want it to be. But it’s certainly more difficult if no one in the room represents the intended audience, which you remind us can be the case when a writer of color presents a piece to a group of white writers (or a woman presents a piece to a group of men, or, for that matter, if a writer interested in psychological realism is in a workshop filled with people interested in hypertext).

In any case: I just wanted to clarify that I don’t advocate for gagging the writer, and I agree that, as teachers and writers, we all need to work to be as open as possible to the opportunities and interests of each writer and piece of writing involved in the discussion. That’s one reason teaching never grows dull: it calls for constant attentiveness.
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