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The Writer’s Workshop Conundrum

September 2, 2009


If and/or when I become a teacher, a professor, I fully intend for my students to think I’m a bitch.

Writers are sensitive, defensive, egomaniacal creatures. We spend our days controlling events, playing puppetmaster, inventing whole universes to manipulate at will.  “Oh, what did I do today? Well, I created life. How about you?” Unfortunately, just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we do it well, and there’s the rub.

There are times when I chafe against the generally accepted workshop doctrine of, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Certain professors are more blunt with their criticism than others, but none of them just flat out say, “I thought it was crap.”

Which is probably a good thing, especially since no one wants to pay tens of thousands of dollars to hear their work is crap, but I’m also not paying tens of thousands of dollars to be coddled. I want to be ripped to shreds so I can improve. Even if my classmates play nice, I want my professors, published authors with years of teaching experience, to really knock me down a peg or two.  Maybe I have a masochistic streak.

I know I’m a snob, particularly when it comes to grammar and punctuation, but all I ever want to do is help other people improve, and learn a few things myself. I don’t want someone to make me cry, but it doesn’t do me a whole lot of good to tell me what I’ve done is brilliant when I know it’s not. Sometimes we just need to hear that what we wrote doesn’t work. It’s bad. It can be so much better, and here’s how.

I had a professor at Riverside who took me to task for my imperfect metaphors. Imperfect metaphors? I thought he was being ridiculous. I love unusual metaphors and similes; so what if they didn’t always work on all levels? Who cared? As the quarter progressed, I cared, and I got better.

This is not to say, of course, that it’s bad when people like my writing. It’s as important to know what works as what doesn’t.  I guess I’m just waiting for the class where I can feel free to express my dislike of something without feeling like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Whoops, that was an imperfect metaphor. Sorry, Reza.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 2, 2009 11:56 am

    When I did the Clarion West workshop, our model was ‘start with something nice, then eviscerate to your heart’s content, and end on a positive note.’ That positivity sandwich can be seen as coddling by some, but I often find it worthwhile to get praise on things that deserve it, as sometimes people praise aspects of the work I either didn’t think were great or didn’t know.

    However, none of this is to say that when things are broken, you shouldn’t call people on it. In a workshop, you’re fellow crafts-people, and if one of your peers is turning our shoddy material, and you count them as a peer, it reflects poorly on you. The higher the level of critiquing, the better everyone gets.

    I hope your workshop experience finds the balance between coddling and soul-eviscerating denigration.

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