Who’s at the Center of Workshop and Who Should Be?

This is part of a very interesting series of posts by writer Matthew Salesses on trying to change the standard MFA workshop. Salesses recounts his attempts to focus the workshop more on the author, on the author’s perspective, intentions, and goals, rather than the reactions of readers, many of whom may not understand the author’s view as well as they think.

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.

Salesses points out that the standard workshop de-emphasises the writer, the person being workshopped, in favour of the other students, the readers. Because the writer of the piece is silenced during their workshop, the other students (and teacher) necessarily spend a lot of time proposing what the piece meant, or what a particularly part of it was intended to do.

Salesses argues (convincingly) that for someone accustomed to being at the centre of things, someone accustomed to having their point of view and aspirations validated, such an experience can potentially be an enjoyable change in perspective, and artistically useful, even if bracing and intense in the actual moment of being critiqued.

But, he suggests, for someone who doesn’t have that life experience, someone who does not have the general feeling that the world validates their goals and aspirations — a writer who is female, say, or transgendered, or of colour — being de-centred in the workshop merely repeats their general experience of the world, and puts the work of explaining their story in the hands of people who may have little empathy or understanding of it.

Salesses, therefore, set out to create a different kind of workshop, one framed around the gathering of information from the writer, rather than an attempt to deduce that information from the submitted text. The series is not yet complete, but initially, he reports that the shift has not been easy.

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.

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 applaud the intentions described here, to widen the value of workshops for a broader range of students, and am left wondering how friendly I have been, as a teacher, to work that I am personally distant in experience from. It’s worth reading the whole series from the start.

I also feel sympathy for the trouble Salesses encountered as he attempted to re-focus his class. Many instructors of creative writing have remarked on the uncanny popularity of workshops, so much so that it can be genuinely hard to interest students in variant forms of teaching. The air in the room shifts when the workshop begins and ends. There’s a kind of blood magic in the ritual, whether or not it is empowering or artistically useful.

Students, I suspect, relish the chance to speak and be listened to. It may well be a rare opportunity in their undergraduate degree. And for many workshopees, the experience of being read and discussed is a powerful one, a potent intensity of being important enough to be talked about. Perhaps, as Salesses seems to be suggesting (in the last paragraph I quoted), the workshop allows students to perform, in a controlled, relatively safe environment, the helpless being-judged-ness that they have to absorb and suffer through in the actual world. As he points out, while such an experience may seem “natural,” this does necessarily not make it good or useful.

I’m looking forward to the fourth part of the series.

I wonder, though, if part of the trouble Salesses describes above comes from student-writers being genuinely unable to discuss their work in the detail Salesses’s format requires. It may be hard for a young writer to do so, harder than a published, experienced writer can imagine.

I’ve seen student work with very distinct and remarkable traits (a tone of narration, for instance) which the student herself seemed unaware of. The language choice, or plot twist, or point of view came into the piece powerfully, and appeared on the page in coherent form, but the actual writer was not fully aware of what she was doing, and could not really discuss it, especially not on the spot, with the class’s eye fixed on her. It may be that the student would not be able to answer such questions, in detail, even with preparation.

It takes time to understand oneself fully as an author, just as it takes time to build a picture of a reader responding to one’s work. In a student’s mind, she may have consciously seen the choice made on the page simply as “writing,” as “getting the story out,” rather than making a particular artistic choice.

This seems reasonable: writing narrative fiction and nonfiction is extremely demanding, and it takes years of practice before one can detect the finer points of what one is doing.

Perhaps there are ways to train students to see their own work, some form of preparatory training. But such training may take longer than the instructor has time with the students, so the problem is a tricky one.

What do you think?

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