Who’s at the Center of Workshop and Who Should Be? (Part 4)

center of workshop

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

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In Part 3, I finally got around to the big question: whether the typical workshop actually holds up and encourages the (white, straight, male, etc) power structures in real life, and whether that on its own is a disservice to our students. I’m not sure the answer.

Part of me might even go further. What happens when we make critique and critics the center of how we teach people to create narratives? Stories are so important to who we are, how we think of ourselves and others—that’s why we’re all in this. So what does it mean that we think people should be taught how to create stories by being taught to critique the stories of others?

It sounds too much like building one identity up through the criticism of another. It’s easy to see the dangerous politics there.

And then what becomes even more dangerous is the way the politics get hidden in workshop. We don’t say: Learning to critique, as a group, a single person’s story, might be teaching you a bad lesson about how to live your life, even if you don’t know it. We say that it’s “tough love,” that it’s learning to live with rejection. Some people know enough about how tough love can be, and about rejection, and about the influence of a majority, without pretending that the creative writing classroom is innocent of the rest of our experiences with power.

When we get out into the real world, does the workshop teach us to critique other people’s stories and self-identification? Have you ever had to say, “Don’t workshop my life?” I’ve been in more than a few conversations with writers and other people where it starts to feel like the purpose of conversation has become identifying the problem with the person talking and trying to “improve” him, the way we would with a story or poem in workshop.

Is this the result of being in too many workshops? Is it the result of just how much of our identities are tied up in the stories we tell and which are told about us?

And yet. I still believe in workshopping. I believe in the ability of many minds to foster the growth of one by one by one through a kind of shared empathy. But if we are to use workshops, we need to actively acknowledge and confront the dangers of workshop both to the writing itself—if ever a thing there was—and to our personhoods.

Is there a way to teach workshop with the author in the center, to teach the workshop to resist the very rules it sets itself? It’s likely on the instructor to remake things—and that starts with breaking the old structures down.

Probably the reason a question-based workshop was such a difficult transition for my class was because we didn’t first to do enough of the very necessary work of tearing up the dynamics of the typical workshop. It is hard to go from being the center to centering someone else. We can see this truth every day. It is difficult to give up power. Students have been taught to give up their power when they sit in the author’s seat, so they are willing to do that. They haven’t been taught to give up the power of the majority.

What would a workshop look like if, say, everyone spoke as an author? If there was no one piece up for discussion, but all of them at the same time?

What would a workshop be like if everyone wrote a story from the same very specific prompt, and instead of critique each author led the workshop through why she made her decisions differently from her fellow writers?

What would a workshop be like if instead of workshopping the writing the class workshopped the workshop?

What would a workshop be like if the author submitted a list of decisions she made and the class was split so that half had to defend certain decisions while the other half had to critique them?

What would a workshop be like if the author critiqued her own story and the class was supposed to defend it?

What would a workshop be like if the author made all of the suggestions and everyone discussed only those options?

I’m not sure how any of these models would work. And that’s surely another reason the typical workshop persists. We know it. But if we’re willing to risk ourselves in our writing, we should be willing to risk ourselves in how we teach writing. If we believe in valuing difference and letting people choose their own identities and take ownership of their stories in life, shouldn’t we risk reflecting that in the classroom?

Instructors can afford to risk disempowerment because they (usually) have the most power to give. Maybe we need to teach workshoppers that they have the same privilege and responsibility toward the workshopee.

As always if you have questions or contributions to these creative writing pedagogy posts, you can reach me at m [dot] salesses [gmail etc].

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