Diagnosing the limitations of writing workshops

My last workshop class of the semester was Tuesday, and it was also the last workshop that dealt with my writing.  Again, lots of praise of what I’d written slathered over with odd and less-than-useful criticisms.  I know that makes me sound like an ass, but hear me out on this.  I think I’ve figured out the problem.

When we write our criticisms of each piece, we’re instructed to include positive feedback–things we liked–with constructive feedback–things we think could be improved.  This is how it was done in my Fiction Techniques course back in the spring, and it’s how it was done this semester.  I chafed a bit under this because sometimes I just couldn’t find anything nice to say.  Other times I had to go on super-elaborate criticisms of pieces just so I could explain why I liked this one single part over here, and then I would get dinged by the instructor for being too critical.  I just couldn’t find a way to write interesting criticism while also sticking to the positive/improve format.  (Man, that must really make me sound like an ass.)

This format for criticism lead to another problem in the class: it made it very easy for some students to give the same criticism each week.  There was one lady, whom I’ve had two classes with now, who, every week without fail, said, “I just love your writing.  It’s so descriptive” and then would follow up with “There’s just not enough description to really put me in the scene.  When I read it, I got so into it, but then I wanted more.”  (I’m copying these comments directly from my notes, by the way.)  Or, my favorite, “This doesn’t seem realistic enough.”  Because these students said essentially the same thing every week, their opinions in class quickly became background noise that was safe to ignore.  Which might be fine if this were just one or two students, but by the end of the semester, five out of the nine students were doing this.  So what do you do when you’ve got meaningful criticism coming in at less than half the promised quantity?

This is a writing program, which, hopefully, means that it produces good writers.  But shouldn’t those writers also be good readers?  We got a taste of that in the Fiction Techniques course (it was like a good old fashioned high school english class).  But in the workshop, there has been no emphasis on reading a story well.  Just tell us what you liked and didn’t like.  But what about reading for structure, themes, understanding the plot and why it moves in the direction(s) it does, feeling out the pace?  Close reading, deconstructing the text?  We were never asked to do that.

So it’s a two-fold problem:

  1. The students are asked to provide criticism on things that they liked/didn’t like, not on the things that might help the writer in terms of the things the writer was trying to do.
  2. The students aren’t asked to analyze the piece as though it were a real piece of literature; we’re never asked to take it seriously.

These two things combined, I believe, lead to the problem of students providing the same feedback each week.  (In fact, you can easily tell who wrote up their feedback just before class after a single reading.)  I think this is why Ryan Boudinot, in the piece I’ve posted about before, specifically mentioned turning out good readers:

I recently left a teaching position in a master of fine arts creative-writing program. I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers.

I get what he’s saying now, and I understand the importance of using workshop to hone not only my writing skills but also my reading skills.

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