Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Workshop! What Is it Good For?

Yes, but what does it mean?

I rather like creative writing workshops. They afford us a glimpse of audience. They give us the opportunity to try some things out in a semi-public setting. But one thing they are not is authoritative or indicative of what’s necessarily going to happen next for any of the writers in them.

In creative writing workshop, because we are all on a journey (as writers), all we can say to each other is what we see at one station, one moment on the journey. We can’t see the arc, the whole trip and where it’s heading. Even if we see several things from a writer, we’re still seeing things from a limited time. Maybe two stations, then. All we have is the opportunity to see what we think are the strongest methods of forward momentum, and these things that might be playing against the momentum. But that is only a guess. Our reactions can only be piecemeal and ad hoc.

It’s a difficult, convoluted balance (non-fiction / fiction / poetry) between enacting and asserting, which is my slightly complicated version of “showing” and “telling.” In many ways all of a written work of art is “telling,” as it’s created out of words, but words have differing tones and textures, some more presentational (chair) and some more abstracted (angry). “Presentational and abstracted” is another, yet another, version of showing and telling.

Show & Tell. We always end up back there for some reason. We’ve been doing it since when, kindergarten? And here we still are. And they’re interrelated. It’s NOT show, don’t tell, it’s Show & Tell. Showing by itself is nothing but tables and chairs. Telling by itself is nothing but assertion.

Along with that, though, our moments together are further complicated by the rushingness of a day, and the air of surety that statements tend to create in workshop (as in: drop the second paragraph / stanza), when, more truthfully, we are all equally journeying toward something that necessarily recedes for each of us—as art is not a destination but a process. All destinations are temporary, and none of them are final.

It’s important to have something we’re writing about. Something that we have to choose. Some subject outside of oneself. And to bring it, as content, up front. What I mean is the occasion of the work of art. Some call it scene. Some call it context. For some people it seems to always equal story or narrative, but it’s not that. It’s the need of a reader to find some center in the work. Even fragments circle a center. An absent center is still a center. Sometimes it’s a conceptual center. An idea the essay / poem / story circles. Sometimes it is images that are drawn from the same site (living room, courtroom, park, train, etc). Sometimes it’s a formal question or a question of form.

But if we say that a part of an essay / poem / story isn’t working, or that it has “missed an opportunity,” we can’t know for sure if it really has—it’s only what we think we’re seeing, what we’re allowed, or are able to see through our participation with the work—which is—what is this work’s contract with the reader, with the world—what is in the balance? In play? At stake? The answer to that question (those questions) is the start.


At 8/31/2010 8:50 AM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Well said, John.

At 8/31/2010 11:25 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I think that people who criticize cw workshops (especially in the way that FW does) do so thinking that people who support them are making grand claims about what they accomplish. I think the space itself, the being in that space, is a grand enough claim.

At 8/31/2010 4:29 PM, Blogger Curtis Faville said...

I think it's impossible to have a professional workshop which isn't about competition. Workshops with true amateurs--people who either never studied literature--or workshops with no academic credentials--can have uncompetitive meetings, but since there's no pressure, there's no impetus to succeed. Inevitably, the best talents are turning in the best work, and a pecking order is established, with envy, jealousy, condescension, favoritism, etc.

I've thought that workshops might be organized this way: Switching juries. Taking a poem from one class, and having the other class critique it in joint session, with the authors remaining anonymous. And vice versa. At the end of the term, the names of the authors would be published on the department bulletin board. Anyone wishing to find out who wrote what, could determine that at the end, if they cared.

When I was at Iowa, favoritism and prejudice was shamelessly on view. The talented were encouraged, and the less talented were discouraged, which tended to increase the disparities. Based on what Gurganus said about Cheever a few terms later, the situation in the fiction workshop was probably no better.

At 8/31/2010 4:49 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That is undoubtedly the situation in many places (and I’ve heard that about Iowa in the past [but I’ve heard nothing about how things are there these days—maybe it’s better?]). But it does not necessarily have to be the case. Not everywhere. Maybe it has to do with this concept of “professional workshop” that you mention. That was never the feeling when I was at Texas State or at Ohio University. There were other feelings. And things weren’t always friendly. But I never had that feeling of competition you mention. It might be because I can be oblivious to such things, or that I was not at a famous program. I don’t know. We had fun mostly.

I would be interested to know how others I went to school with remember it. That might be telling.


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