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Writing Workshop as Garden of Forking Paths
June 25, 2008 - 4:47pm

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Responding to yet another kerfluffle over whether writing workshops are good or evil, good friend of The Education of Oronte Churm Dinty Moore writes:

…it finally hit me, like a soft mallet to the head, that I don’t teach a writing workshop—I’m not sure many of us in the academic creative writing field actually do—I teach an editing workshop.

Here’s what I mean:

A good workshop assists a young writer in seeing how a reader might encounter and experience their manuscript (with the help of some artificial readers—the workshop members.) Then, with the help of a prodding and encouraging teacher, the student is helped to see how to take what she has learned and re-vision what she has already written….

If it were truly a writing workshop, those of us who teach would be standing over our students’ shoulders as they attempted their first drafts, and goodness knows I don’t do that.

So let’s call them poetry editing workshops, or creative nonfiction editing workshops, and do away with the perennial and pointless question: “Can writing be taught?”

True, and I’d add that there’s a Socratic method to a good workshop, by which I mean, of course, my shop. We question first the story or essay: What do we see? What makes us say that? What’s it saying about those people, places and things? Is its view of what’s shown the same as what it pretends it is? If not, is this irony or merely misfire? Ultimately, what’s it want to be about?

Sometimes after the piece has been workshopped, we’ll talk with the author: How did you mean for us to take that scene where the foreign students in the dorm are represented by the text itself—not through some character—as merely smelly? Or: Is there something inherently hilarious about the word “booger” (see pages 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, and 12), or is it possibly a writer’s tic?

I believe that when we write—especially as apprentices—we simultaneously build brick walls that prevent our egos from being hurt by seeing what’s actually in our little self-created gardens of delight. Few really believe their writing is bad. But Eden must be breached, and the workshop helps knock little chunks off the concealing wall so we can compare ideal to reality.

It’s not just pointing out rot in the apples, of course—it’s also about possibilities. I sometimes describe to students their writing as gardens of forking paths. One of my many jobs is to show them how large each branching path looks to readers new to the garden: I’d say there’s a 56% chance that Grandma does not run off with the biker at the end of the story; a 22% chance that she does but the nursing home never finds out; and there are two small footpaths of interpretation that indicate either she was dead before the story ever started, or the whole thing is a metaphor for dropping acid. The percentages thing is ridiculous, but it helps students understand potential in their work and helps with their complaints of contradictory comments by readers, which they say prevent them from knowing how to revise. We revise by shaping the piece to be as fully present, in its best potential version, as possible.

Years ago I took a couple of workshops at Ragdale with novelist Carol Anshaw, a sensitive and helpful reader. (How are you, Carol?) There was an older, excitable lady who’d written a love story of near-Hallmark sweetness. Now, there’s nothing better than true love, “except for a nice MLT, a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They're so perky, I love that.” But I hate Pollyanna-ism in writing—it’s yet another lie—and longed for sweet wonderful lovely Anne Sexton to come along and stick her knife in it, the way she does with other fairy tales:

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

In reality, the woman’s short story was trying to be better than she knew. The couple was interracial—inconsequential in her draft—and their first date in some restaurant in the deep South subjected them to aggressive stares from other diners and platefuls of “shrimp like little pink baby fingers.” It’s a disturbing, even grotesque image, but she fought our reading angrily because she wanted only sweetness.

In my shop, the author always owns her own work and can tell us all to go to hell. I wish more would do so. But I never trusted the way people throw around Wordsworth’s idea that writing is never finished, only abandoned. It’s too often an excuse for laziness, a license to be muddleheaded. Sometimes it’s worthwhile listening to readers, even if you eventually make other choices.

Norman Mailer says he writes like an old mechanic tinkering with a prose engine, muttering to himself and trying one fix after another. I find it more like that all the time. But who or what is doing the tinkering, especially if potentialities appear that we didn’t know we’d written? A couple of posts ago I described a thousand inner critics who sometimes change back what they just fixed. Reading well certainly helps create those necessary critics, as does encountering your own writing self as often as possible in its good, bad, and indifferent moods. And, for some people, workshops can provide a few more critical voices. I can’t say if we’re able to choose which ones we internalize—smart or stupid—so you might want to find a good workshop, not one of those bad ones.

 

 

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