Portrait of the Young Artist as Failure–or, What Is Wrong with the Workshop Model

I was twenty-seven, in my fifth year of study in an English Ph.D. program, when the director of the program called me into his office.

At the time I had taken a few creative writing classes and written a handful of poems, three or four of which had been published in minor literary magazines. Recently I had been one of two student readers fronting for a featured local poet at an on-campus reading series. The featured poet was my age and had published over four hundred poems. I had no idea how he had managed to do this—either his prolific output of poems or his massive publications. Most of my poems were short surrealist lyrics, much in vogue at the time. Except for a poem about my grandfather’s tiepin, a gift handed down to me by my father, I had not written anything concerning my identity as a Japanese American or the history of my community and my family. At the time I feared such subjects might mark me as a minority writer, would relegate me to a second-class literary status.

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But it wasn’t my meager poetic output for which the head of the English grad program was calling me into his office. It was my scholarly output, which was even more meager. I had by that time racked up incompletes in seven courses. Though I had first drafts of the papers for these courses, I seemed unable to finish them.

I can still remember the face of the director, a balding middle-aged Bellow scholar with black thick lensed glasses. He was wearing a plaid shirt; his corduroy sports coat with leather patched sleeves was draped over the back of his chair. Around us rose shelves of books. Examples of what I myself would never write.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to suspend your teaching assistantship,” he said. “Take the next year off and see if you can finish some of your incompletes.”

I left the office devastated and in despair. How would I support myself without my assistantship? Where would I find time to finish the incompletes? I couldn’t even finish them when I had financial support.

When I entered graduate school I had thought that I would one day become a poet-scholar, teaching at a college campus, like a couple of my professors in undergraduate school. Clearly though I was not going to become either a poet or a scholar. My career had ended even before it began.

 

I’m in the process of writing a book on creative writing.   The principles invoked in the pages of this book come out of my own journey as a writer. I am a poet, a fiction writer, a creative nonfiction writer and memoirist, a playwright and performance artist; the writings here—spanning thirty years–reflect what I’ve learned as a practitioner and teacher of these different genres.

Though I write now in various forms, my start as a writer, as seen in my opening here, was hardly propitious. Like many beginning writers, I suffered early on from a massive writer’s block. It was in solving that block that I came to understand certain crucial aspects of the writing process.

Much of what I learned derived from asking a simple question: What does it mean to be creative?   This seems, in retrospect, an obvious and fundamental question. Yet it was a question absent from my early literary training.

All across the country, over the past few decades, hundreds of writing workshops have sprung up–at universities and colleges, in high schools, at community centers, at arts organization.   In them, the students learn many things, but often the main thing that is stressed is the development of a critical mind, the ability to criticize your own work and the work of others. The student is taught how to tell a good poem from a bad poem, to articulate why a story doesn’t work, to recognize when a character is underdeveloped or the plot of your novel doesn’t click.

As a result of this focus on the critical function, most workshops are designed along the following model: A student hands out a small sample of their writing to the members of the workshop; a week or so later, they proceed to tell the student what is good and bad about her piece. The question of what the student is to do next with her writing—the process of new creation and revision—is then left up to the student.

Given this model, what many workshops teach are critical, not creative, skills.

 

Occasionally, besides the critiques of student work, the teacher will bring in examples of work she finds to be excellent, and students are taught standards—that is, the tradition, who the great writers are–and through this study, presumably, they will learn how to write like these writers. The student learns to be serious with her own work, to measure it against the great works of the past; she understands that the tradition and the standards she has learned place demands on her, and those demands are to be honored.

But when the student sits down at her paper or at her computer screen, when she faces the blank page, all those great writers, all that tradition, all the critical skills she has learned, become a weight upon her shoulders, a tourniquet upon her psyche, a gag for her mouth. Nothing she has to say, nothing she will write, will live up to those standards. And often, not surprisingly, she finds that the most difficult part of her task is simply sitting down to write and continuing to write on a regular basis.

For such a writer, the workshop model has created or increased her writer’s block, not solved it.

34 thoughts on “Portrait of the Young Artist as Failure–or, What Is Wrong with the Workshop Model

  1. Oh David, you have written the words that have been locked in my mind for so many years. The description at the end of your essay was exactly my experience and why, from the age of 25-35, I wrote and published very little. It was Carolyn Forche who freed me: in an attempt to rid herself of writer’s block after the wild success of her first two books, she took to cutting up poems, making poems physical. In a class at Split Rock Arts Center in Duluth, we ripped apart, literally, those failed poems, and imbedded them in paper we made from lint collected at the laundromat; we glued our words on boxes, rearranged them in strange new orders that deconstructed our intended, forced meanings and allowed us to discover new pathways to poetry.

    It was this method of generating work wildly that I took then into my creative writing classrooms. Yes, we do critiques in my classes, but with structure and only after months of generating work. In the generation of teaching that has occurred since we were in graduate school, the pedagogical approach to creative writing has become more focused on process. I hope the story you tell here is not repeating itself. I await your other responses.

  2. I’m a 25-year-old undergraduate Creative Writing major–my 7th and last year now–and I don’t think that the judgment made in this post is fair. I’ve come to the realization for some time that the workshop members probably won’t really teach you anything DIRECTLY–not even the teacher–because they usually don’t have time to focus on the lives of other students. I feel that the point of a workshop is to have you reflect on the writing choices you will come to make, providing advice for what can done, what is interesting, and what is effective. I’ve encountered some unfortunate writing in my workshops, but it was my experience that my written responses to them could end up furthering what I have available when I write (i.e. my mind).

    (I’m Korean-American, in case that’s relevant).

  3. There are a lot of problems with the workshop model and a lot of problems with Creative Writing programs. I co-run the first creative writing program (for undergraduates) in China right now, and I have to say that these questions/issues come up everyday. Ultimately, I think we have to find methods within the time of the creative writing class to switch from critical to creative and back again. It’s extremely important to be critical, it’s also extremely important to see models of works that have come before yours. One thing I try and stress with my students is that they should be a reader before they call themselves a writer. At times I encounter whole groups of students who are unwilling to engage in the works of others (not their peers, but works in the literary world) and the workshop becomes a circle-jerk of criticism within the class (like New Criticism, never leaving the page). So what can we do? Be innovative ourselves – first.

    I also want to say that the self-consciousness regarding identity and writing is extremely common and a difficult thing to understand. I was once asked in workshop if I could “write something that wasn’t Mexican” and I do write those pieces, but after that comment I made it a point to bring as much ethnicity into that class. Damn.

  4. So well said! I use the book Walking on Water as inspiration for my creative writing classes which are all about reconnecting with the creative spark. I teach the class I needed when I was “ruined” by critiques….thanks for being part of the unworkshopping of creative writing!

  5. Looks like you learned a lot and kept moving on and upwards. I can’t wait to see what the future brings to you. Thanks for sharing your creative writing and thoughts.

  6. Workshops can help a writer if she knows how to approach it for herself, but I agree that workshops teach critical skills and not creative skills.

    Ultimately, all the teachings/advice a writer will ever receive goes down as “references” instead of rules. It’s difficult though to enter into any kind of group or community and NOT feel pressured to meet various standards and expectations of that community. Sometimes this pressure mutates references into rules, and that severely damages writers and their creativity.

    Workshops aren’t detailed enough to develop writers. They’re more like a self-check process, where you can verify/deny various expected reader responses to your writing.

    I think I’d shrink the class size considerably, to maybe twelve individuals at the very most, and then involve a lot more discussion in favor of simple “read and report” critique. Discussing a single work should take the entire period if necessary; emphasize intellectual connectivity rather than simple knowledge aggregation and “liked this, disliked that.”

    This requires a lot of comfort in discussing one’s own work, and that comfort would stand as the requisite requirement for entering such a writing class/workshop.

  7. The truth of the matter is everyone has a story to tell and we feel they are so interesting. But in fact they are not. They are important to us but our not really relevant to the other person who has their own desires to be heard.

  8. Well put! There are some problems lying in the current literary industry, including the workshops, the magazines, and the education methods. As a Chinese-American writer, I can relate to your writing. But it doesn’t mean that being Chinese (or Japanese in your case) will put me at a disadvantage. One of my favorite writers, Nam Le, is Vietnamese-Australian, and he incorporates his cultural background of growing up in Vietnam and immigrating to Australia in his writing. And he makes it more than the cheesy ethnicity genre. Personally, I have a western writing style, but readers can trace the tangible Chinese cultural elements in my stories – what makes me different from other writers. I do agree with you on the workshop idea, where we are put to fit in the “traditional” writing value. But it takes unimaginable effort to change the situation.

    http://naiwentian.wordpress.com/

  9. I have always been interested in creative writing. I never understood though, the “bad” vs. “Good” philosophy of art. Its blatantly judgmental and can be condescending. By doing that, you are not recognizing or appreciating the efforts, choices, or background that the writer comes from. For example, currently the writing trend I feel is more towards non rhyme prose than rhyme. But at one time rhyming was considered good. The preferences of the culture can be biased ways of determining the “quality” of a piece.

    I don’t think in terms of good or bad, but of interest and/or relevance. I can dismiss a piece of work but without degrading the work, by appreciating it for its own style and form, while recognizing that it might not fit into my idea of resonating work.

    So I agree that your observation about the good and bad is harmful to a student’s writing process. Perhaps it is simply the wrong time in the young writer’s path to introduce such strict viewpoints.

  10. This is why I like to blog! I can write whatever I want without someone looking down on me saying it’s wrong. I can bust out a post faster than I can most college papers because I am free of worries and whether or not someone is going to like it.

  11. Good points. Instructors might consider sticking to some very general principles. If the writer is presenting a story, does the piece have a beginning, middle and end? Can the readers find some sort of relevant change as they are moved along from beginning to end? Is there tension between the destructive and constructive urges of the characters? Does the end result evoke some form of catharsis? Answers to questions like these can lead to constructive debate and stimulating intellectual exchange, and provide writers additional prisms for viewing their works.

  12. For such a writer, the workshop model has created or increased her writer’s block, not solved it.

    I see what you’re saying, but I disagree. It isn’t the workshop, it’s the insecurity of the writer. This writer would likely feel the same way regardless, but is projecting onto the workshop.

    If you are secure in your art, nothing should deter you from it.

  13. Of course writers come into a workshop with insecurities. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t have insecurities (okay, maybe Joyce Carol Oates). But should we treat the insecurities of a Philip Roth–who was wounded by a bad review by John Updike–the same as the insecurities of a sophomore in a creative writing workshop? Moreover the amount of insecurities an individual writer deals with is not an indicator of their talent; instead, their insecurities have a lot more to do with their personal history and circumstances. The question is, Can the instructor help the beginning writer to get over his or her insecurities and write more, which is the only way that individual is going to get better as a writer? One way to help is to teach the beginning writer about the process of creativity and how to apply an understanding of that process to the way the beginning writer approaches his or her writing. This is how I got over my writer’s block. But I didn’t learn about the process of creativity in workshop. I had to learn that on my own. That was a long, wayward and serendipitous process. I’d like to help other writers overcome their writer’s block in a more efficient manner, to save them wasted time.

  14. I experienced much the same in the visual arts! Regular assignments were stimulating. But in the end, nothing taught or demonstrated about how to nurture and guide creativity as an activity!

  15. Thank you for writing honestly about writing. I believe there is a certain amount of truth to the adage, “Write what you know.” I find that once I accept the fact that I am a Chinese person born in Canada where sometimes, some people still pigeon-hole me as a foreigner, writer’s block is less of a problem. The new problem then is being pigeon-holed as an ethnic writer or a Chinese Canadian writer, as though ethnicity is a genre. The bottom line is that some of my characters are of Chinese descent, some not. Q.E.D.

    Writing workshops are good, sort of like practicing the scales for a piano player, but there is a point where you simply go ahead and just write, much like the piano player who performs at a concert with no thought of his scales, just reflexes. As regard to reading the classics, I am all for that. I love Jane Austen, not because I hope to write like her, but she gives me insight into how Chinese people of a certain generation might sound like her 19th century English characters, in a different language, but the contours of and motivations behind their speech are quite similar.

    Listening to children helps too. My young niece tells great stories about her adventures with friends and family, how a friend ordered a short stack of pan cakes before barfing into his sister’s purse. But her best lesson to me is when she watched me typing away at the computer, and said, “Ai Bak (Uncle), may I suggest something? Show, don’t tell.” She was still in elementary school at the time. Keep writing, thank you for the blog.

  16. Great post. Sometimes writers like me feel not attending any formal education on writing places you on the back foot. I’m glad your post has given me another perspective on writing courses

  17. Okay, the problem here is comparison. Everyone is comparing themselves to something outside of themselves to find their intrinsic value. It’s the standard college paradigm. Vomit.
    I know of what I speak; I sat through those torturous creative writing workshops as an undergrad. About a dozen frightened, hesitant minds were arranged in a semicircle of desks around a professor just bursting with his own insecurity from not being able to found a career solely on writing. Every week was an exercise in our codependent belief in his superiority (he was published!) and his runaway narcissistic personality disorder. Did I mention he was married to a Pulitzer Prize winner? Shrunken penis, anyone?
    You could feel his wet eyes on you, feeding on your fear as you read off sentence after sentence of proof that you could “write about what you know.” The sensation was exactly like the one you feel the moment the doctor pulls your paper gown down in front to listen to your heartbeat and intimate things get exposed. Listening to people’s short stories was voyeuristic for this prof, it was all over his body language, the corduroy-wearing bastard.
    When you were done reading, everyone lunged forward in critique like a pack of hyenas. A pack of trained hyenas. The only way to survive the course was to parrot back whatever Professor Viagra wanted to hear. Creativity was okay as long as you didn’t surpass him. The three of us that did became friends after the class and laughed a lot–the tired, disillusioned laugh of soldiers returning from war. It would be decades before I realized that a rock-hard, indestructible belief in one’s own worth is all it takes to succeed at pretty much anything in life. Comparison, by contrast, kills.

  18. I took creative writing for a year at university and found the workshop model totally unappealing, so I definitely get where you’re coming from. The very first thing I was told by my tutor was that it was not OK to write speculative fiction, which immediately stymied my creativity. I wanted to be taken seriously, but I also loved writing speculative fiction, and apparently I could not do both. This set me back for years, until I realised that the best and only thing I could do as a writer was to write what I wanted, and not what other people told me I ought to write.

    Faith in yourself and your own ideas is the one thing you must have in order to be a writer. Constructive criticism is useful, but constant comparison can chip away at that faith until doubt is all that remains.

  19. Spectacularly written. As a young, struggling-to-find-her-voice, underappreciated writer with daily insecurities and writing blocks, I couldn’t agree more.

    I operate on a very simple principle to keep myself going: one must write a ton of crap before one can produce an ounce of gold. 99/100 of my pieces are crap, but it’s worth the work to get the 1 good piece at the end.

    You, sir, earned yourself a follower!

  20. My own experience of workshops is that the other students on them can neither write nor offer any meaningful critique of my work, so they have been an utter waste of my time and money and I refuse to attend any more of them. Just one example, I spent four thousand pounds on an elective masterclass for which students had to have submitted a story and an essay on their intentions and inspirations, and yet the writers on it were unable to string together cogent sentences, had no knowledge of simple concepts such as what a conjunction is, and two of them could not even write in English. The course was essentially a fraud. I demanded a refund and left after two weeks. My advice is that writers should learn to be their own sternest critic and plow a furrow of their own, a lonely furrow if necessary.

  21. Thanks for sharing. Sadly, things don’t become very much easier post-doctoral…as I am now discovering! Best wishes.

  22. The problem with teaching somebody to be creative is, it is not exactly something that can be taught. It is internal, you can show them works of others who brought a thought or a feeling to light in a way that enlightened, or left an impression. but those works are just examples of people that have been able to transcend generations and still are capable of expressing emotions, and setting a mood that somebody felt 1,000 years ago. The stories teach our history, they teach us about the times, the author’s experiences still ring true. There isn’t a right or wrong way to express an emotion or experience. There is just a few that somehow stick, and stand out. The only way to find that something is to just write, write often and about whatever you feel. The way I see it, you can have 1,000 journals of personal experience over a lifetime, and out of 1,000,000 words there has to be something to your experiences that will be important. maybe to you, maybe to your family, or maybe to the world, so you do it. You do the work, irregardless to what everybody else thinks because it is not for them. Do you do it for acceptance, to teach, or to learn? you cannot teach motive. Therefore you cannot teach writing. It is a practice.The only thing you can maybe teach is how to better communicate. Thus philosophy, critical thinking, and self reflection are more important than teaching to write in the classical sense.

  23. Kari, I don’t disagree with most of what you say here. But I do think there are at least two things one can teach–first, one can teach students about the principles of the creative process which are, as I’ve suggested in my recent blog, different from the principles that makes one successful in standard academic courses; two, one can teach technique. In future blogs I go over some of the techniques students can be taught, including those about the principles of story and narrative structure–the tools those early storytellers were using long ago.

  24. I recognize the symptoms of post-workshop block because I have them myself after finishing grad school. My observation about the workshop model is that it is always the product (finished draft) that is discussed, never the process that went into it. The workshop model assumes that like readers, only what’s on the page is of interest in a writer’s workshop. More helpful would be to discuss the writer’s choices, such as why this point of view and not that, why this not that voice, what process was used to develop the characters, and any number of other factors. I believe that, although more demanding, a process model would provide deeper insight into the challenges and difficulties of the creative itself rather than locked away in some mystical realm.

  25. inkandpages–I very much agree with what you’re saying. The workshop isn’t designed to deal with process. I like to do much more one on one in my teaching because there’s room in one on one’s to talk about issues of process. There’s also often personal issues that are tangled up with the writing–particularly psychological blocks or aesthetic assumptions–and generally I as a teacher can’t get at that in the public forum of the workshop. My latest blog post, “Make It New”: Creativity and the Workshop Model” deals with some ideas similar to the ones you’re expressing here.

  26. I might be the opposite because my ethnicity is my strength.It is what sets me apart.I write African issues even my prose is mixed with Luganda words.I do find problems sometimes within a workshop or creative writing class because people find it hard to critique but I see that as a positive because it makes my writing intriguing.

  27. If you can begin with even a thread of an idea and then give it a small purpose, add some details and maybe what its made of and you’ve got a good start on a story. Everyone would like to become a published author, but can’t we write to please ourselves and maybe those close to us? My mother is my biggest fan. She loves to read things that I’ve written…it really doesn’t have to be anything big, but it gives her joy. Hey, it works for me.
    By the way, I have taken years of classes and workshops. I’ve spoken to an editor or two, but they didn’t inspire me to play their games of endless editing to polish what I already like.
    I say write for yourself first and if you want to share it…do so.

  28. David: Excellent deconstruction of creative writing workshops! Writers do not become writers as a result of attending workshops. They become writers because writing, to them, is as essential as breathing. They are driven to write, and as such, already creative. Workshops can address the mechanics of penning a grammatically correct sentence, but creativity, as I experience it, cannot be taught. I am a Swiss-born American. My native language is French, which I love for poetry, but I prefer to write essays and articles in English. I have never had the slightest desire to attend a “creative writing” workshop!

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