Pure Craft Is a Lie (Part 4)

So the time has come to try to put forth some ways to approach these deficits in the workshop. I have a few ideas, but I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface, and maybe not scratching hard enough. I’d love to hear comments from people who talk about the cultural values in the workshop and how to offset the deficit certain writers have to what we call “craft” because of their cultural backgrounds, whether because of their identity or whether they prefer high fantasy or whether they are from our hypothetical q-world.

  1. The first way I try to foreground and address these issues is through making the discussion of who the reader is something we need to talk about. It’s an obvious thing to do in a nonfiction workshop, when audience is already one of the primary concerns of rhetoric, but it’s equally important in other workshops where the “audience” is talked about as “the reader,” as if the reader is the same for all writers. I’ve written about that here. Identifying who the reader actually is for a particular writer and critiquing the story by imagining oneself in the shoes of that reader can help, if it is combined with diverse readings and discussions of craft as cultural. It doesn’t help the writer writing outside of the dominant culture to have people read her work as if she’s writing inside the dominant culture. Often the result of those workshops is to push the writer to write to the dominant culture instead.

  2. Letting the writer talk. Sometimes we need to let the writer speak in workshop, and speak early. One of the things I have taken to doing is, if a discussion of a story’s main theme seems important, for example, having the workshop discuss and then having the writer respond right away, before the end of the workshop comes up and we’ve spent the rest of the class talking about it incorrectly. I think the argument against this is that the writer can learn what the theme is “on the page,” and might want to redirect her efforts to making that the main theme, but then we’re relying on an often not-so-diverse group of people to say what the main theme “really” is, and also relying on the idea that the writer would want to change it. If it’s important for the writer to know she’s on the wrong track, then that’s a very brief discussion, which the writer can then follow up on, and the discussion can then go on from there to how to help the writer reach her goal (if she doesn’t want to change it). The same works for audience. The writer can quickly say whom she intends as her audience, either before or after a brief discussion. The author can speak up to talk about the culture that might inform her choices, or to dispute the colonization, or so on. Fears of the writer taking over the workshop–we do we fear this so much? Let’s think about why.

  3. I’ve heard people talk about letting the writer redirect the conversation, but what about asking the writer if the workshop is effectively talking about the story. “Is this a helpful conversation?” “Is talking through a suggestion to move the beginning action into the middle a useful discussion?” “Is our conversation about defamiliarization something we need to save for more general discussion rather than your particular story?” And so forth.

  4. I should have put this a lot higher, but acknowledging the culture behind the craft is really what all of these posts are about. It’s trying to hide that that makes it so hard for the writer of color to sort through the comments. Acknowledge the culture all the time, including in the bias of the workshop, the makeup of the workshop (usually out of the instructor’s hands), etc., and talk about how that affects the ability of the workshop to talk about a particular piece of writing. I like the idea of writing it into your syllabus.

  5. More diversity in the readings (obviously). And talking about how they are diverse and why, and how one writer approaches italics versus another, etc. Maybe try choosing some of the readings during the class, not before. I’ve been running some of my workshops where I choose the reading after I get the workshop story. A quick read that night and an email out to the class with readings relevant to that particular story. Or letting the students choose the stories, talk about the cultural values to the craft in each of them, etc. Teaching them to be cognizant of the diversity and cultural implications of their choices.

  6. This semester I’m teaching a workshop where, in the second half, when we workshop revisions, we are workshopping only by asking questions and asking the author to respond in class. This then lets the author think through her process and her choices, her intents and the culture that goes into them or is maybe imposed upon them. I started doing this from a conversation with Lily Hoang and Matt Bell, as I started to think about how to workshop revisions in a way that was different from the earlier drafts. (It feels less helpful to me to workshop them both the same way, though who knows.) Questions focus on the author’s intentions, culture, and intended audience. What we want for conscious thought for why one does what she does–that’s craft that’s not hidden.

  7. I think it can help to encourage both the idea that the workshop leader and participants have particular views (cultural views) of what craft is, and to always remember that, and the idea that students should be able to challenge those views and ask why they exist.

  8. Sometimes it can help to talk about cultural failures in the example readings as well as successes. We can read a great story and talk about the culture in which it is great, but also the ways in which it fails when maybe it talks about certain things without considering its own cultural position.

  9. One of the things I’d like to try with grading is having the grades be based on self-analysis of how the writer engaged with elements such as plot or structure or showing vs. telling or POV or etc. Let the student talk about her own use of craft and evaluate based on the articulation of why those decisions were made, personally and culturally.

  10. Letting the writer lead the workshop, or offer rules for the workshop. What about switching the classroom so that the writer leads and the instructor fills the imaginary spot of the writer? (I don’t know if this would work and have never tried it.) There are plenty of ways to rethink things.

I feel like I am leaving a ton out and haven’t thought of nearly enough. But this is a start, I hope. Thanks to those who’ve tuned in and read and shared. Comments below. Get at me with guest posts on creative writing pedagogy at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.]

Photo: Flickr/Global Justice Now

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