Who’s at the Center of Workshop and Who Should Be? (Part 3)

center of workshop

This is the third in a series of posts on rethinking critique in the workshop. The first post is here. The second is here. The fourth is here.

* * *

In part 2, I started to discuss how the workshop has some interesting similarities to the minority experience of real life, wherein a person is forced to listen to other people define for her what her story is.

Ostensibly this decentering can be a way of prioritizing audience. That is often a goal in the creative writing workshop. But we need to think about whether and when we should be trying to empower the author—especially in a climate that seems to increasingly disempower authors and has long disempowered authors of certain identities.

Furthermore, the workshop does not always reflect the author’s audience in the real world. This is party because the workshop does not often reflect the real world. Maybe this is changing, I don’t know. My academic workshops were mostly white, mostly straight, even somehow mostly male. The readings were largely by white male authors. And yet we know—by the power of statistics—that most readers are women and that college-educated black women read the most books per person. We also know that the kind of “literary fiction” prized by the workshop audience is far less captivating to a real life audience. All of this is further compounded—a point I keep belaboring because it keeps coming up over and over again—when we talk about “the reader” as if this is a neutral thing, when not identifying the reader specifically makes male and white the default.

For some people in the workshop, the decentering that goes on when their piece is talked about is countered by the rest of the world. A straight cis able (etc) white male who leaves the workshop feeling disempowered in terms of his fiction writing usually finds the rest of his American life more than willing to empower him again. Someone whose life enjoys fewer privileges leaves a disempowering workshop and faces more of the same—and this further disempowering can reinforce the idea that the marginalized writer should be writing toward the workshop and power.

Anyway decentering the author works best if the workshoppers are able to imaginatively recreate the author at the center. That is, the workshop is supposed to read with the author in mind. This act of empathy is surely important, but it means that for writers in the minority, it’s more empathy for the majority, again a reinforcement of the power structures in real life.

In other words, many aspects of the workshop work to empower those in power even when they are working most effectively, so that the decentering that happens in the workshop might come as a novel and helpful situation for a straight white male, but much less so as one enjoys fewer privileges not only in real life but in the workshop.

So why is it that we cling to this model, even as many creative writing instructors try to innovate and move away from the “Iowa” workshop?

When I asked my class to workshop the author solely through asking questions, it was my intent to change the center of the workshop from the workshoppers back to the author. I thought that my students would embrace this wholeheartedly, and I think that they wanted to. But when it came down to classtime, there was actually a lot of resistance. People found it very difficult to center the author, to ask questions about the story rather than make assumptions, to ask the author what she thought about potential issues rather than make suggestions for “fixing” those issues. I had to stop the workshop several times and try to refocus our efforts.

To some extent, I had anticipated some difficulty with reversing the workshop model. I had built in a week beforehand where we looked at an early draft of one of my own stories and also the finished, published draft that appeared in Glimmer Train. I was very hesitant to bring my own work into the classroom, and I considered workshopping someone else’s draft and standing in for the author, but in the end I felt that the class would most benefit from an author talking about his own story—and specifically their instructor doing this—in the way that my students would then have to. I’m still not sure this was the right thing to do, but I did think it would prepare them for this very different kind of workshop.

Instead I found that, especially for the more talkative members of the workshop, they found it a difficult model to follow. Even more surprisingly, one student said it made her very uncomfortable to have to answer questions about her own story, rather than sit back and listen. The large majority of the class was used to workshop where they felt some kind of ownership over the conversation as workshoppers. But more than that, I think, they had all gone through many years of school where the person who talks most benefits most from the classroom and we are taught to discuss literature by interpreting it, not by asking questions of the author but by using the text to answer questions of our own. Maybe this is even more true for folks who were taught during the time when New Criticism was the dominant mode of reading literature, where the author and the author’s context was less important than what was “on the page,” ignoring that we bring much of how we read the page with us.

Regardless of what the right way to talk about literature is in a literature course, though, translating this to the classroom where we read a work-in-progress and have a live author in front of us, and yet talk about the story by imagining what it will be as a finished product and largely ignoring the live author in front of us, seems somewhat to be “doing it wrong.” Or at least not taking advantage of what the workshop offers us—that is, process.

I meant, through asking my workshop to ask only questions, to interrogate the author’s process, and to let the author work out for herself what to do about her story in a way that gave her power and didn’t give a kind of very persuasive power to other people’s readings, especially of a work in progress, unfinished, still more off the page than on.

I wonder if we cling to the model where the workshoppers talk precisely because it mimics the real-world power situation. Because the majority holds power, and because we read the workshop majority as the “audience.” Maybe that makes it feel natural. It is hard to give this model up, if you have it in real life. And I wonder, too, whether the workshop actually encourages writers to think this model is the way life should be—that the person who should benefit most from speaking is the person who has the most power to speak. I wonder whether we shortchange our students, no matter the benefit of the workshop to their writing or not, in terms of their real-world empathy, to run a workshop that decenters the singular and instead centers the majority.


I’ll continue these posts in Part 4, where I’ll go further into what the greater implications might be of putting critique at the center of how we teach writing/story-making, and what might be required of us as teachers and students if we wanted to turn the workshop around, and why we might want to do that.

Photo Flickr/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Comments are closed.