• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Changing the Gag Rule

Many creative writing courses operate under something called the gag rule. I didn't like it, but didn't know why.

January 6, 2013

My first semester teaching creative writing, I assigned Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and structured the course so it had about 6 weeks of discussion of published stories, focusing on the issues of craft raised in Professor Burroway’s text, with the remaining weeks dedicated to “workshop,” which is where students take turns submitting their stories to the class, after which we read the stories, write critiques of the stories, and finally talk about the stories in class.

I did it this way because my first professor of creative writing did it this way. I thought he was a good teacher, and so I figured it was a pretty good model. It seems like most of our pedagogy comes from this sort of monkey see, monkey do model, not that I’m calling my former professors monkeys.

One of the aspects of workshop I carried over from both undergraduate and graduate studies was the “gag” rule. During the discussion of her story during class, the author is expected to sit silently as her work is discussed, taking notes, but otherwise not participating. The idea is that the text must stand on its own, that in the real world, authors don’t get the benefit of explaining what they “really” meant when a reader is confused or put off. An additional concern is that if the writer is allowed to participate, she may feel compelled to “defend” the story, thus short-circuiting the discussion.

So I used the gag rule, even though as a student, I hated the gag rule. I never wanted to defend my work, but I did want the discussion to focus on the things I was actually trying to do. With the gag rule, the 20-30 minute discussion could focus, quite literally, on trivia, like why a character had a certain name or some line of dialog that had a typo. I remember gnashing my teeth to the enamel, trying to use my psychic powers to get everyone to talk about the stuff I was most interested in, the areas where I craved feedback and needed response and help, often to no avail. The workshop began to seem like some sort of Twilight Zone episode where you’re a ghost walking among the living desperately needing to communicate, but no matter how loud you shout, you remain unheard.

I remember only frustration that had me vowing to give up writing after just about every workshop.

But, the gag rule was called a rule for a reason, so I followed it faithfully for a couple of semesters, even as I grew more and more disenchanted with it, and often spent the class discussion period wondering what the author might be thinking about everything we were talking about.

What was happening as I internally chafed at my own course design is that I was actually developing a pedagogy for myself, thinking about how writing is learned, and where and how those ideas intersected with the methods and means I’m comfortable using as a teacher.

I realized that my goals for the course were incompatible with the gag rule. I wanted the course to be a semester-long conversation about the writing of fictional prose. I wanted us to exchange thoughts and ideas in an open, mildly-structured forum. I’ve never been comfortable with the “profess” part of “professoring,” and I’ve always thought that the lesson taught to oneself lasts longer than anything anyone can tell you. Mom can explain how the stove is hot to infinity, but that doesn’t mean much until you touch it for yourself. I wanted them touching things, rather than waiting for me to tell them what to do.

I realized that silencing one of the people who should be part of the conversation, perhaps the most important person in the conversation in that moment, was actually not in sync with my values. The workshop full of developing writers doesn’t need to model the black box of submitting your stories for editorial consideration. I recognized that I was more comfortable treating the workshop as a place where we go not to necessarily improve the story at hand, but to use that story as a subject for discussion. Everyone in the room should be engaged with the work at hand while also reflecting on their own goals and aesthetic orientations.

I wanted to lift the gag rule, but I didn’t know anyone who operated this way. I emailed my old professor, the one whose class in which I had been first exposed to the gag rule and told him about my discontents. He wrote me back and told me he hadn’t used the gag rule for a couple of years, that one of his graduate students had done some research on creative writing pedagogy, and convinced him to change the practice.

I felt liberated. Using advice from my former professor and his graduate student on how to prepare the students for discussion, I lifted the gag rule the next semester, and I haven’t looked back. Getting rid of the gag rule has allowed me to experiment in other ways, for example, no longer calling the workshop “workshop,” but instead calling it “laboratory,” because to me you take things to a workshop to fix them, while the laboratory is for experiments and learning. I’ve dropped the textbook because the students never read it, and in the introductory course, they didn’t really “get” it anyway until after they’d tried their hands at crafting their own fiction and experienced the struggles. I now assign Writing Fiction on the last day of class.

With these changes, in the evaluations at the end of the semester, I see much more enthusiasm from the students about writing outside of the class structure, more excitement to make writing creatively part of their life practice.

Those responses made me realize that this was my goal all along.


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