Teaching Tuesday: Michael Martone’s Hypoxic Workshop

cg2The Opposite of the Hypoxic Workshop

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of critiques. Lately however, I’ve started calling them “Critique Essays.”

“Don’t treat these like off-the-cuff responses,” I tell my undergraduates. “You’re writing a paper about a work of fiction–only it’s still in progress.”

As much as I hate the word “paper,” it’s a word that students understand. It means they have to analyze. They have to say what they mean as clearly as possible, back up their points, refer directly to the text, etc.

I give them a rubric, a template that describes in detail how critiques should look, what I want them to include. Here is my assignment sheet for writing critiques. Day, Critique Essay Directions

And then I grade them. I give out a lot more C’s and D’s on these than on any other assignment in the course.

My thinking about the value of critiques has been most informed by:

  • this essay by Jeremiah Chamberlin, editor of Fiction Writer’s Review, “Workshop is Not For You,” in which he says, “You become a strong writer by writing critiques, not reading them.”
  • this essay by Peter Turchi, “Making the Most of a Writing Workshop; or, Out of the Workshop, Into the Laboratory,” in which he says, “One of the most useful things a workshop can do for the writer is to reflect the intention of the work back to her.” 

Paradigm Shift: The Hypoxic Workshop

A writer-teacher on Facebook was discussing a problem familiar to all creative writing instructors: in a class with 20 students, how do you schedule workshop slots so that everyone in the class can be “up” more than once? Lots of writer-teachers discussed their strategies—and then Michael Martone chimed in with a comment that caught my attention:

Here’s the thing—give up the traditional workshop model. Come on over to the hypoxic workshop. I have 12 students in my workshop and they all produce a story a week. That way they have written 12-14 stories a semester. Critique is reduced to 5-8 minutes a class.

Michael went on to say: “After teaching the traditional workshop for years, I realized that what was being taught was criticism. The “writer” in your class only gets to be writer twice a semester. Doing a hypoxic workshop insists that the writer of stories write stories. Not criticize stories. Not read and critique classic stories or anthologized stories. A writer writes. A workshop should be a generative space not a curatorial one. Other classes can teach how a story works via means of models. An hypoxic workshop teaches by doing. It is about process not product. Just saying. You don’t have to order textbooks for this kind of workshop. You are not “norming” your students. Their work is the textbook.”

This sounded a lot like the “writeshop” model that I’ve been talking about here and here.

So I asked Michael if he’d talk to me about the pedagogical thinking behind the hypoxic workshop, and he kindly agreed.

Michael Martone on the Hypoxic Workshop

[Here’s something from Triquarterly about Michael’s approach: CATCHING ONE’S BREATH: LONGEVITY, ENDURANCE, INTERVAL TRAINING, AND THE HYPOXIC WORKSHOP.]

I took the notion of hypoxic training form athletic interval training and subtracted the contest for which athletes train. This is practice as practice. That kind of training forces the cross-country runner or swimmer to go “hypoxic,” that is to be out of breath. Usually when you go hypoxic you must stop and “catch” your breath, recover.

But in interval training you must recover while still running or swimming but at a lower pace. This increases endurance first and with the increase of endurance speed perhaps follows. I have all 12 or 15 writers in the class write a story every week instead of a story every 4th faced with this schedule often balk. They have never done it before and have actually been taught that it can’t be done.

The usual workshop imagines its job as creating perfect or wanting-to-be perfect stories. Everything goes into the two or three stories a term. There is much talk of revising them too. And in most traditional workshops, the writer acts more often as a critic anyway and not a writer.

The purpose of the hypoxic workshop is to write. Its purpose is to allow the writer to write what she or he wants to write in a space that is uncritical—no time to “workshop.” The writer is concentrating on understanding, developing, creating process not product. It is to increase endurance and efficiency of writing. It seeks to make writing itself, the act of writing, as natural and necessary as breathing. Make it habitual.

My goal, and it is stated so on my syllabus, is that the writer will still be writing in 20 years. This workshop is not interested in winning the race, however. I have no interest in what is good or bad, what works or not, for anyone other than the writer. This is about the individual writer writing what gives him or her pleasure. It seeks to simulate that good feeling one has after exercising vigorously and is not interested in either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. It is not about winning a race, about being the best in a race. It is about writing itself and the discovery of each participant as to what he or she wants to do with his or her own writing.

What do you think?

It’s a real paradigm shift, isn’t it? When I started teaching novel writing, I started rethinking my ideas about the value of critiques. Here’s a post about that.

Tell me your thoughts.



  1. Amy says:

    I’m intrigued by this, but also curious: why/how does this model result in something other than what students could do on their own, without a class, just by writing x words a day? How is this course different from something like NaPoMo? What, in this model, does being in a class with other people bring to the table? What is the the instructor’s role?

    • jalen pruett says:

      I have those questions, too, Amy. Does the 2.5 hours of class become an in-class writing session? What is the role of the teacher? I love the goal–writers will be writing in 20 years–but do college athletes continue their sport after 20 years? I believe that students should be writing more regularly but there is also the point of necessary revision in the writing process. Interesting, indeed.

      • Cathy Day says:

        Thanks Jalen!

        In some ways, I think this pedagogy is similar to the “flipped classroom.”

        I also think it’s possible for a creative writing curriculum to benefit from at least one course that’s significantly different from others, one that produces an entirely different set of outcomes.

        But there is also this: if you instruct a course like this, how do you account for your time? and how exactly did you “teach”? Those are fair questions, and that’s what I’ve tried to talk a lot about here in this blog over the last few years.

  2. I think there is value in both processes but the reality is we will always be writing around our daily lives. We’d all do well to learn how to write alongside a full time job, family responsibilities, and other obligations.

    Learning to produce in bulk provides the raw lumps of clay we need in order to use our critical brain to revise. Ideally we should be using our critical skills every time we read a book. But I agree that I’ve gotten more out of critiquing others than I have received in the comments back to me.

    Perhaps the hypoxic method should be introduced for a short term, much like the month of #NaNoWriMo. The skill is practiced, internal boundaries are broken (proving that yes, we can write extensively and produce much), and there is the accountability of a group setting. But to only participate in a group write without scholarly feedback would make me feel cheated, within a MFA program. I would hope to learn from the professors as well as my fellow writers.

    Great concept and analogy though. Something to consider.

  3. Ian Wilson says:

    Hi Cathy,

    As I’ve written you before, I’ve been running a class in conjunction with Nanowrimo for 8 years now at UCLA Extension. It is a writeshop not a workshop. (I feel like I ought to have had the trademark on that term, I’d be rich now.) Two weeks of preparation to understand the strategy to approach the 50,000 word draft. 5 classes where everyone writes and does nothing but write while I proctor them. A final wrap-up class to talk about revision and what to do next.

    Worldwide, the success rate for completing Nanowrimo over the 14 years the event has been running is 16%. In my class, the completion rate averages 86%. This may be because I am a genius and the greatest teacher who ever lived, but I think more likely it’s because the writing is heavily monitored, that the participants must constantly report their progress to me and their fellow participants, and that the 30 days of writing a different way (no deletions, no editing, no revisions, no going back) is sufficiently short enough that their usual methods don’t kick in. Plus having to pay for the class themselves is also a motivator.

    So I’m a big fan of the idea of a writeshop. Participants report a feeling liberation in their writing that they had not experienced before. Is it great work? That’s the wrong question, though it’s a question that gets asked often. It’s work. Now comes the hard part: revision.

    What I wonder from Michael’s approach, though, is how you teach such a class. That is, the mechanics. How long are the pieces? Are we reading before class? At the Squaw Valley poetry conference, everyone writes a poem a day and brings it to the session the next morning. We can get through 20 poets under the writeshop model; the poems are only a page long. But 20 stories? I did something like this with a microfiction class at UCLA Extension. Everyone got to bring in their story every week and we went through as many as possible with about 8 minutes for each story. I took home the rest and provided comments. But those microfiction pieces were only a page long. So I wonder about how to manage such an operation.

    The other point I wanted to make was about your rubric. I found that too often, undergraduates didn’t understand how to critique. They didn’t know what they were looking at so they didn’t really know what they were looking for. Too often, the critiques devolved into what was liked and not liked. I developed a checklist of critical areas to examine the pieces with. It helped focus the discussion so at least I could point to the sheet and say, Can you identify places in the story where the tense shifted? Great! A “problem” to be solved. Can you identify a known structure? Another “problem” to be solved. With these kinds of specifics things to respond to, the class began to develop some kind of approach to talking about stories. It wasn’t ideal but it was better than, I liked it when the boy did X.


  4. Beth Dalton says:

    Hi, Cathy: Your solution, the critique essay, is an elegant one that encourages the student to read carefully as well as recognize and reference creative writing strategies in a work of fiction (or creative nonfiction). Many young undergraduates have not read enough to make off-the cuff commentary that is meaningful and constructive. Careful, thoughtful writers in a classroom like this can become disheartened in the workshop environment, and the weaker writers miss an opportunity to engage with and explore writing that challenges or surprises them.

    I believe first and second year writing classes need to establish good reading and writing practices. Martone’s solution, it seems to me, would be useful for older, more experienced students who have read a great deal of literature and learned something of the craft of writing fiction.

    • Ben says:

      Yes! Beth, that’s what I’ve been thinking as I read through this. A lot of this is about trusting the ability of the students, and perhaps advanced students might deserve more trust than they get. Maybe they can be relied upon to provide sharp and focused feedback, to define success for themselves, and to participate thoughtfully in the discussion of their own story. But in an introductory course, a lot of the learning takes place during those long and generally shitty critiques. The point of the workshop, in the intro course, is not as much to help the writer as it is to help the class learn to think about and talk about a piece of writing. Once they’ve got that down, then I’m all for freeing/streamlining/focusing the workshop in ways that make it the writer’s aide it’s supposed to be.

  5. Jon Sealy says:

    I like the idea of brainstorming non-traditional (i.e. non-workshop) models for the creative writing classroom, but I agree with Ben’s point above that this might be better suited as a kind of senior capstone experience, the way business programs (maybe?) have senior projects where you go out and start a business. I think I would have loved some course like this in college, but as a senior, after I’d already learned the ins and outs of craft and analysis.

    I do wonder what value this approach offers the students. Why couldn’t you just have 12 students sign up and for no course-credit form a writing group where they do this independently? As Amy asked in comment #1, what does the professor bring to the table, other than providing a formal structure (and grades) for self-discipline? I’m all for discipline and writing, writing, writing as a prescription for learning how to write, but that’s a lot of tuition dollars for something you could accomplish on your own, or with a committed writing group, or with some kind of software that measures your daily output.

    Martone says his goal is for the students to be writing in 20 years. I presume he’s talking about graduate students? Is that a goal you’d really want to assign for your undergraduate students? The beauty of the traditional workshop model is that it teaches skills that are applicable beyond the dreamy world of writing (analysis, learning how to speak up in meetings, humility). At least for students in creative writing 101, that seems much more important than trying to breed another generation of writers.

  6. Cathy Day says:

    Hey everybody, thank you for commenting and asking such great questions. This post went live just as Martone embarked on a trip. He emailed me to say he will check in when he can. Maybe I will invite him to participate in an interview with me (or any of you) that could speak to these issues. Something for the AWP Writers Chronicle?

  7. The interview is a great idea. Sorry to be catching up with this a few days late. As you know, I’ve used the writeshop model several times in novel writing classes, because it’s the only model that finally makes sense to me. But it would not have occurred to me to adopt the model for a regular workshop course. My Forms of Fiction students produce four stories over the course of the semester, but that’s nothing like Martone’s a story every week. You’ve given me a lot to think about–as always. Thanks, Cathy.

  8. Martha says:

    I’m an MFA student at Northwestern University who has taken a (modified) version of a hypoxic workshop, and I have to say it was one of the best workshops I’ve taken. The professor modified the idea a bit – for the first five weeks of class, we wrote one (nonfiction) essay per week, of any length or topic. Then each student got 12 minutes of discussion about their piece in class that focused on questions the writer had, usually about what was most compelling or where readers wanted to hear more. We avoided “likes and dislikes” and what was “working or not working.” Then after our five hypoxic weeks, we chose 1 of our essays and turned it into a full length piece that was also workshopped.

    The hypoxic model really worked for me because it got me out of my head. I knew I had to have *something* for the next class, so I just let myself write, and avoided getting hung up on whether what I was writing was particularly “good” or not. That was such a freeing experience, and so different than the traditional workshop where I might go 8 weeks in a class without actually writing anything. I’ve come to believe that a hypoxic workshop every now and then is very beneficial to me as a writer. Plus it’s a great way to generate ideas. I am actually going to be a teaching a 50-minute intro to the hypoxic workshop and how it can be useful as part of Northwestern University’s Apprentice program on December 8th, so if anyone is in Chicago and wants to see a grad student teach a free public workshop for the first time, stop in! http://tinyurl.com/LF7wk32

  9. Martha says:

    We were required to e-mail our piece to the rest of the class by Sunday evening (the class was on a Tuesday night) so we had just a couple of days to read and make a few notes. I think that only worked because there were 4 of us in the class. Each author was also allowed to send along three questions about their piece and each reader had to come up with three questions for the author after reading their piece. We often focused our 12 minute workshops on the authors questions and the readers’ questions were usually left for the author to ponder after the workshop.

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