Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Robin Black Guest Post: Shaking Up The Workshop

Many thanks to Aggie for inviting me to post! It's a real honor. First, I want to introduce myself. I'm a fiction writer and my first collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, is coming out from Random House in March. There are ten stories in the book and it took me eight years to write. I always tell people that because, early on, if anyone had told me it would take that long to finish a collection I would have thought either a) that they were crazy or b) that I must be crazy to be doing it. But it turns out that eight years isn't even a weirdly long time for a book - and I think that's important for writers to know from the start. If it's taking a lot longer than you had imagined or hoped to write even an individual story, it may be because you're doing something right.

On my mind today is the subject of the feedback writers get along the way. I think I'm focused on that because next month I'm returning to classroom teaching - undergraduates - after two years of taking private students and teaching one-on-one. This means that I have to face the dreaded workshop again. I say 'dreaded' because though I see a lot of advantages to the workshop format, I also think it has a pretty impressive capacity to do more harm than good. Here's how I see it: As a teacher, at the heart of my commitment to every student is the goal that after our work together, she will be even more excited about writing than she was before she met me. There's a lot more to teaching than that - I'm a total craft nerd - but without that increase in enthusiasm and commitment, I haven't done my job. And workshops, with their emphasis on on perfecting individual stories, their potential for competition and their drive toward consensus can all too easily have the opposite effect. So I have been thinking about ways to shake the format up - and I'm hoping that some of these thoughts will interest those of you who are in workshops now.

One big change I'm introducing is that for the first few classes we're going to workshop early drafts of stories by people who aren't there - friends of mine. I want to give my students practice critiquing and teach them skills for doing that, without risking the feelings of anyone in the room. I want the freedom to discuss a problematic piece frankly and consider strategies for the best, most helpful ways to present those concerns to the author - without the author there. The process of translating a private response to a story into a useful comment is a complex one. Knowing how to do that isn't something we're born with - but I'm hoping it's a skill that can be taught.

I also want my students to see that the main benefit of a workshop is not having your own work critiqued, but learning from reading other people's. That had better be the main benefit - if you have ten people in a workshop, each will spend 90% of their time critiquing and only 10% being critiqued. And I think that's fine, because there's a huge value to reading work in early drafts. Don't get me wrong, I also think that studying how gifted writers accomplish what they accomplish is a crucially important thing to do. But looking at significantly under-realized work can be at least as instructive. I have many bad writing habits that I never saw until I encountered them in other people's work, if only because I was too close to my own to have much perspective at all.

I mentioned that another tendency of workshops is to drift toward consensus. In my view, that's a particularly insidious danger because one of the most important lessons for any writer to learn - and for some of us it takes a long, long time - is that there will always people who don't like our work. There are people who don't like Hemingway, Woolf, Austen, Faulkner and on and and on. Having detractors is inevitable. Yet when we're in a workshop, we want the approval of the group - sometimes even more than we want advice. So, along with using my anonymous drafts to illustrate that inevitably participants respond more and less positively to particular works, I'm going to ask that each student be honest with herself each time about whether she feels connected to the author's basic intent, and if not, to consider playing a smaller role in the discussion. Years of experience have taught me that people who respond positively to a piece are almost always more helpful to an author than people who don't - which makes a certain amount of sense, though too often in workshops it's the most negative who speak loudest.

I hope some of that gives you all some food for thought. Again, thanks so much to Aggie for inviting me to visit this blog! Oh, and the picture above is just a reminder that every writer needs someone in their life who will never critique their work. . .


  1. Robin, rethinking the workshop format is a brilliant idea. Your students will be very lucky to get such a wonderful start (or nudge) to their writing life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and thanks to Aggie for inviting you to. Oh, and I love the photo and the reason behind it!

  2. i agree with your numbers--90% of the time the student is learning to and actually being a critic. For that reason you know I have drifted away from a model of a workshop that emphasizes critique. Instead, I think I am moving more toward a true studio model where the students write a lot, write more than they critique. I fear that while learning to be a critic has value, it also carries a risk that the internal critic will be turned on within the writer with the result being the shutting off of the writing.