I remember well my first class in graduate school, now 10 years ago, because I was only somewhat prepared for it. My pencil pouch held a full canister of lead, but, when our creative writing professor asked us to go around the octagonal seminar table to sign up for our workshop dates, I had to ask, “What’s a workshop?”
“Well,” the guy next to me said, “you sit in the middle here, blindfolded, and we all take turns -- ” He held up his fist as if to throw a punch.
There is a kernel of truth in his humor: the cloth covers not your eyes but your mouth. On the days you “are workshopped,” as it is said, the class discusses the merits and faults of the writing you submitted the week before, and you’re not allowed to talk during this discussion. It’s called the gag rule. The main reason for this rule is that ungagged authors are too compelled to defend their writing -- but a workshop is not a defense. There is no passing or not passing the workshop. You simply gather feedback, take what you’d like and disregard the rest.
The stakes couldn’t be lower, in other words, so why is it commonly such a bruising experience?
“It’s just … not … good,” a student said in my second class, the first workshop of the semester. Ouch. The most infamous comment I heard in my years in graduate school was, “When I read something like this I think, ‘Oh, he must be writing in his underwear.’” I’m not sure what he meant, exactly, but we all caught the drift.
There’s another kernel of truth in my classmate’s comment: there’s something about a workshop that allows fists to fly, and I’m not above reproach. I regret once saying a page of dialogue was “like a soap opera script.” Another time, when I was workshopped, a classmate said, “I don’t see the point of reading this.” Afterward he came over to me and said, “That came off way more antagonistic than I meant it to.” I said bitterly, “You’re not a good reader.”
Is this how one becomes a master of fine arts?
Many say we can do better, for reasons personal (flying fists) and pedagogical (lack of evaluation of what students actually learn -- and tacit permission of flying fists). Sum it up in the title of a book by writers and teachers Carol Bly and Cynthea Loveland that came out in 2006, Against Workshopping Manuscripts: A Plea for Justice to Student Writers.
After graduating, I began to teach creative writing classes, and, resolved to do justice, I tried alternatives to the workshop. I taught forms and principles and assigned exercises. I modeled how to write like a good reader -- which is to say, how I imitate writing I admire (and try to conceal this imitation). We studied “how to write” books -- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, and On Writing Well by Howard Zinsser. I wanted to scrutinize the methods and techniques of producing writing, rather than student writing itself. The closest we got to workshops were small groups in which students shared their work -- with no gag rule.
It was OK. Not great. The students seemed to like the class, but as a teacher, I felt like I was trying to cook on a feeble campfire, the water never getting to a full boil.
There is something valuable, I’ve since realized, in turning up the heat on students. In other classes, this heat comes in a term paper or a final exam, a culminating moment that tests student mettle, that makes students do the best they possibly can. In a creative writing class, this heat comes in a workshop.
Meanwhile, something else occupied my teaching life: I began teaching some of my classes online. My classes are asynchronous, meaning that while there are deadlines, there is no live interaction. The weekly conversation between students and myself happens on the discussion board, on which students respond to prompts I give them and comment on each other’s ideas. In my first-year composition class, they also review and edit fellow students’ drafts.
I love the discussion board as a teaching tool for several reasons, including how I can manage the occasional flying fist. The weekly, graded discussion board assignment asks students to give thoughtful feedback -- in agreement or disagreement -- and a nasty comment almost always stands in place of thoughtfulness. So, if a student writes something offhanded, snarky or just plain mean, I can get ’em where it counts: I take off points.
For doing so, in my anonymous student evaluations I once took a jab myself: “Taking off points for something the teacher took personally is crap.” I’m all but certain I know who wrote this, and it delights me to mention that, after my reprimand earlier in the semester, his discussion board participation was excellent, not to mention civil, and he got an A in the class.
As for his parting shot, well, I suppose I did take it personally: no one is going to be mean in my class.
With this capability, I’ve now returned to teaching creative writing workshops -- this time online. After a few weeks of preliminary exercises, much like I did in the classes I taught after graduate school, students spend the rest of the semester workshopping each other’s poetry, fiction and personal essays on the discussion boards. Students get full scrutiny of their peers -- the heat is up -- and when the time comes to administer student justice, I’m ready.
I’m surprised to say I’ve even instituted the gag rule, something I loathed as a student in workshops myself. It’s valuable for authors to see how little they control their readers, so long as I can control the readers from doing their worst. I have also been surprised to realize that, as it is often said of online education, students are welcome to come to class -- and write -- in their underwear.
Brian Goedde has an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and teaches writing at the Community College of Philadelphia.
Ah, spring, season of starlings nesting under our eaves, season of mud, season of literary readings.
I generally try to avoid any event whose title ends in “fest,” but a few years ago I made an exception when a friend invited me to participate with him in a poetry reading at what the sponsoring local historical society was calling Eaglefest. Because the college where I was teaching at the time emphasized community service, this seemed -- after I confirmed I wouldn’t have to perform on the edge of a rocky precipice -- like a pleasant and practical way to spend a weekend afternoon. And the fact that Eaglefest would take place on the last day of April made it seem like a perfect ending for Poetry Month.
In the days before my scheduled reading, I assembled a set of poems about nature (my own, along with works by W. S. Merwin, Mary Oliver and others) and polished an essay I had written about the great blue heron who strode around my backyard, foraging for goldfish in the tiny pond.
Deciding how to dress for the occasion was far more difficult than choosing what to read. What to wear to an event called Eaglefest? I finally settled on what my daughters call my art skirt, because it looks like one of Mondrian’s Composition paintings; a T-shirt in my default color (black); and my poet earrings (long, dangling, silver). So I was ready and feeling pretty cheerful as I walked in to register.
The first ominous note came when the woman behind the desk told me that at the last minute there had been another event scheduled for the same time: a repeat performance of “Meet the Birds” would be held in the large auditorium where the first session was currently running. The receptionist then summoned one of the organizers, who, if she could not allay my anxiety about the scheduling, did put to rest any lingering questions I might have had about the dress code.
She had removed her feathery headgear in order to socialize and was holding it tucked in the crook of one arm; a sinister-looking beak dangled precariously. The body of the costume was a baggy brown sack made of some sort of synthetic fur, and the organizer could have easily passed muster as a bear, raccoon or chipmunk. Perhaps she does so on other weekends, at other fests. Her footwear, however -- large and bright yellow -- confirmed her avian identity for this day. Think clown shoes -- with webbed toes. She offered to show me the room where my co-presenter and I would be reading, and we hobbled over to a set of stairs, which, despite my protests that I would be fine on my own, she insisted upon laboriously climbing, and she led the way to a small room tucked away in a corner of the second floor.
Back downstairs, after listening to her make several jokes about poets in the attic and how it would be easier for her to fly, and after fighting my own fight-or-flight instinct, I perched on a chair but declined her offer of refreshments. I had been hoping for a handful of trail mix and a nice glass of white wine, but the fare consisted of soda and hot dogs, which somehow just seemed wrong.
By now my co-presenter had shown up, and he introduced me to another organizer (dressed in a gray suit -- business, not squirrel), who said, “Come with me,” and whisked us through a winding back passageway so that we emerged very close to the stage where a lecturer/handler, equipped with a gauntlet and a chain leash -- both of which seemed insufficient -- was showing off a bald eagle. Rather touchingly, the eagle had one enormous wing draped around the speaker’s back, and all went fairly well until the speaker tried to put the eagle back in his cage.
He began the process by reassuring us that the eagle went into his cage much more easily than the snowy owl did his. This brought a wave of uneasy laughter -- was this an example of nature stand-up comedy? Having missed the snowy owl’s performance, I was in no position to judge, but I did notice that the man in the gray flannel suit was backing away from the stage. Next, the handler dropped to his knees while the eagle spread his wings and attempted to fly off and generally battered the cage into submission. Eventually the eagle accepted his fate, and all that remained for the spellbound audience to see were some feathers floating gently on the currents of air-conditioning. It did occur to me, while listening to the eagle shriek, that this would be a hard act to follow.
But it was time now for the reading. When he first invited me to participate, my co-presenter had told me that the society expected an audience of 400. I thought that this number seemed rather high for a poetry reading, and, in fact, there were 20 chairs set up in our little garret. And 20 chairs were more than enough, since the group that gathered consisted of my husband, whom I had routed out of the gift shop where he was admiring a tie with a silkscreened pattern of falcons, which I refused to let him buy; an artist friend of ours; my co-presenter’s wife and infant son (does an infant count as an attendee? For my purposes of counting heads, yes, an infant counts); and the woman in the bird suit.
It was clear that, here at least, Poetry Month would be ending not with a bang but with a whimper or perhaps a faint peep. “What do you think?” my co-presenter asked me. I thought that I could not compete with a bald eagle and that it was time to leave. He stayed long enough to read one poem at the start of the next “Meet the Birds” session, and I migrated across town -- to Macy’s.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College.