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.