“Workshop” to “Writing Group”

Teaching


I love what Peter Turchi has to say about workshop here. This and Madison Smartt Bell’s introduction to Narrative Design have really informed my thinking about how I teach workshops.

When I’m teaching a workshop in which students are sharing “big things,” I ask them to read Turchi’s essay, especially this part:

The first step in preparing to discuss another writer’s draft is to try to identify the work’s intention. This is much more challenging than it might sound. It’s difficult to truly suspend our own tastes; it’s also difficult to identify with any confidence the intention of a work that isn’t fully realized (especially since the author might not have a clear intention, yet). But we need to try; and we need to be patient in doing that before we start talking about any specific scene or character or line of dialogue or description. (Far too often, workshop discussions are devoted to a few details at the expense of the whole.)


How do we recognize the intention of a work in progress? When students are workshopping stand-alone short stories, my mantra is: The story must speak for itself. But when students are workshopping big things, I think it’s okay (and necessary) for the author to speak on behalf of the manuscript. Not during the workshop itself, which causes much awkwardness, but before class, outside class.

Idea: require students to use the Blackboard learning environment to create a process blog about their big thing. Ask each writer to articulate the larger goals of the project, its structure, the character’s overall arc, the possible chapters to come, where things are going.

Another idea: require students to turn in their pages presented like a book manuscript: cover page with title and contact information, table of contents, epigraph, even maps and photographs, if they wish. I teach them to use the abbreviation “TK,” the printing reference that signifies that additional material will be added at a later date. If they think their book will be comprised of eight stories, but they’ve only written two and a half and the other five are still in their heads, I tell them, yes, it’s okay to give us two and a half stories, to give us placeholder titles, maybe even short synopses of what is “to come.” Basically, they need to teach us how to read their book. We need to know: are we reading stand alone stories, related stories, or a novel?

This approach often shifts the default setting of the class from “workshop” to “writing group.

You need visual (and aural and tactile) aids

Teaching
When I was young, I obsessed about craft as a writer and teacher, because I thought craft alone could save me and save my students. I learned (and then taught) the methods of characterization, effective use of dialogue, how to use setting to create mood and atmosphere. Et cetera.

In class, I never, ever talked about the writing process itself.

In “Unconscious Mind,” an excellent essay about craft and creativity that introduces his textbook Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell says:

“The great defect of craft-driven programs is that they ignore the writer’s inner process. Creativity, the inner process of imagination, is not discussed. So far as the craft-driven workshop is concerned, creativity is sealed in a black box; you’re supposed to remember that the box is there, but there is a tacit agreement not to open it in public.”

Here’s the problem, as I see it: in order to create an environment in which Big Things can be written and discussed, you have to move away from the straight-up craft-driven workshop. You have to acknowledge and talk about the creative process itself. You just have to. I mean literally: how do you get all that story on the page? It would be like training your body to run a marathon without also training your brain.

What I learned the hard way as a writer was that craft knowledge was not enough. I needed that other kind of creative writing book. The non-craft kind. You know, the self-helpy sort that talks about the boring day-to-day-ness of it, the goofy shit you find yourself doing when inspiration strikes, the obsessive rituals, the dogged regimen and fierce will that are required, all the ways in which you must talk yourself into embarking on (and sticking with!) the protracted journey that is the writing of a Big Thing.
This semester, I’m teaching a section of Advanced Fiction. My students and I are preparing to embark on National Novel Writing Month. At the beginning of the semester, I asked them to read this great article, “How to Write a Great Novel,” and respond to these questions:

What do you notice about the different ways that these writers get their stories out of their heads and ultimately into the books you read. What process and methods and tricks do they use? Do you see any pattern or similarity in how they work?

This is what we came up with.

1. It’s okay to have a plan, a blue print, an outline. (Banks and Ishiguro and Pamuk).
2. Pay attention to your obsessions. Save stuff until it starts to assume some kind of shape. Maybe you don’t just need a writing desk. Maybe you also need a wall (Danticat and Mantel). Maybe you need a card catalogue (Chaon).
3. Don’t work on a word processor, which encourages endless fussing. Consider hand writing on paper, notecards, blue books, napkins, etc.
4. Consider talking out loud and recording yourself (Powers and Baker).
5. If you do write directly into the computer (McCann), manipulate the machine’s capabilities to your advantage (Rice, Baker). And once you get it into the computer, then get it out of the computer so you can move it around (Atwood) or listen to it (Danticat) and see it (Lippman).
6. Remove yourself from distraction. Write on the subway (Wray) or in the bathroom (Diaz) or in your sugar shack (Banks).
7. Embrace the bountiful array of products available at your local Office Supply Store. Get out the scissors and tape (Ondaatje), the colored index cards (Chaon), the binders and flow charts (Ishiguro), the thumbtacks (Danticat).
One day not long again, I set aside some class time so that my students could work on their visual aids. The class meets in a room that’s lined with computers and has small tables set up in the middle. Some students went work at the computers, others sat at their tables to draw their outlines. One student was using crayons and colored markers. I sat down at a table to write thumbnail scene sketches on blue and yellow post-it notes. Someone came into the room, looked around, and asked, “Is this a writing class?” and I looked up and said, “Yes. Yes it is.”