The Case for Writing Workshops

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Girls‘ recent exploration of the writing workshop has provided a rare opportunity to publicly explore the good and bad sides of the building block of creative writing instruction, known as just “workshop” to veterans. For those who don’t know, during workshop, one writer sits silently, offering up a previously-submitted piece of writing to discussion, analysis, and critique. During the allotted time, the teacher classmates will refer to “the writer” and “the writer’s choice” as if the person in the “hot seat” were absent (this is the mandatory silence that Girls‘ Hannah cannot maintain in class). Sometimes the writer gets a five-minute response window at the end, sometimes not. Often the critique begins with a “what works in this piece?” discussion before moving in to constructive criticism. The received wisdom of workshop is that you learn as much from dissecting the “craft” choices of your peers as you do from their dissection of your own work. In other words, everyone is learning from each others’ mistakes.

A read through Flavorwire’s collected workshop horror stories, so many of which contain awful stumbles around race and gender, reminded me of my own continuous critique of the way workshop can fail non-majority writers, tripping them up with questions about language and authenticity. The rawness of the form means there’s sometimes not enough protection from the queries and tangents of naive or downright biased classmates.

Of course, there’s the counter-argument that this prepares writers for the same kind of problematic skepticism they’ll receive from audiences, editors, readers, and more. It’s certainly not the safe and warm space for writers it might seem to be. This is the argument Hannah’s Iowa classmates respond with when she complains that her work has been misunderstood: get used to it.

In Sunday night’s episode, Hannah ripped into all her workshop classmates, categorically dismantling their various artistic pretensions. It was something of a fantasy fulfillment for anyone who’s been workshopped, received a harsh comment, and wanted vengeance. As Dunham herself said in an interview this week, she has always been “resident yawning bitch” in workshop:

There is no prescription for productivity, and writers must find environments that support them and lift them up. For me that was never a writing workshop, though I had some amazing teachers at Oberlin and even in high school. In fact, I was always the resident yawning bitch. But I know people who grew as writers, established essential friendships and a voice and a vision in MFA environments. I will say the writers’ room of a show is a sort of writers’ workshop, and we have a roundtable of writers who make Girls possible. It was hard for me at first (after all, I was raised to believe artists go into their studios alone and wrestle their demons to the ground). But now I rely on it. Making art doesn’t have to be so lonely.

That desire to transcend the sometimes-maddening solitude of creative work explains why — despite the clear limitations of workshop — it still compels so many writers and artists.

Dunham is fairly unique, with a singular vision that demonstrates a kind of confidence most artists do not have. So for the rest of us, having our work taken seriously — even if it’s being criticized seriously — can provide considerable affirmation, even occasionally the soaring kind. Sometimes you can walk out of the door feeling like a true artist, and part of a community of artists.

Out of the dozen or so workshops I’ve taken since college (including all the workshops in my MFA program), I’d say at least a quarter were incredible experiences that elevated my writing and sense of artistic purpose. And even the less successful ones, in which the participants didn’t click or I felt misunderstood or bored, have left me with a handful of decent notes on my own work and a few new writer pals and allies.

There’s a pragmatic aspect, too. Once you become experienced enough with the workshop format, you can immediately jettison the the critiques of people whose opinions you distrust, and take the ones you trust home to work through at a later date. If a piece of writing is either completely new and needs direction, or if it’s close to finished and needs a final tweak or two, the workshop process can get revisions going much more quickly and in a more directed way than reading the work over alone might do.

Most of all, the advantage of workshop is the feeling that your struggles, the knots you’re trying to untie, are shared by others. So while I’m in favor of improving the workshop model to put greater value on the experiences of participants who are queer or disabled or people of color, I don’t think we should entirely ditch the model either. As the writer Elissa Goldstein wrote me in an email about Girls and the workshop:

It would be nice to see some of the benefits and pleasures of the workshop depicted in future episodes — the camaraderie; emotional support; the delight at finding a peer who really gets your work and what you’re trying to achieve and gives the most insightful, helpful feedback/criticism; the praise that is deserved and propels you forward even when your story needs to the totally re-written; the pleasure of just talking about books and writing with other people who are as obsessed with that as you are… the workshop is a flawed model, for sure, but I think the best we have. (kind of like Democracy?)