07 December 2005

Workshop Hacks

While there are things I agree with in the latest attack on writing workshops, the author, Sam Sacks, builds his argument from some strange assumptions. First, he assumes that Best New American Voices 2006 edited by Jane Smiley is a representative selection of the best work from the best workshops in the U.S. He assumes that people who enter writing workshops aspire to be the best writers who ever lived. He assumes that great writers can be great teachers and poor writers are inevitably therefore poor teachers. He assumes great writers have enlightening wisdom to impart to young writers. He assumes that his experiences are typical.

All of these assumptions are at least weak, if not flat-out false, many of them for multiple reasons.

There are two basic values to good writing workshops in my experience: they teach people to pay closer attention to what they read, and they give them ways to think about what they write. Any loftier claims are horse effluent. The only real way to learn to write is to write and keep writing and read and keep reading. There aren't any great secrets held by a wise secret cabal that will help anybody become a better writer.

I was talking with a friend, a fine writer with an MFA, about another writer, a young one who has gotten some attention and who has never, as far as we know, been in any sort of writing workshop. "In five years," my friend said, "X will probably be a good writer, but at the moment s/he doesn't really know how to structure a story. That's where a workshop could help. The talent's there, the sensitivity to language, but some feedback on how stories like X's work and some ideas of other ways to make them work would be helpful."

Workshops provide time and impetus to write, which can be invaluable. They also provide a built-in audience, which is a mixed blessing. What Sam Sacks has to say about the much-(and justly-)maligned "workshop story" is accurate and well said, but the reason such stories pop up in workshops all the time is that they reduce the negative criticism by being predictable and mediocre. Certainly, too many of these stories get published, and the cause of that may be workshop indoctrination, but that's more a problem of editors without any taste, skill, or individuality than it is a problem of writers or workshops.

Not all workshops are alike, either. I liked an approach I heard once from the playwright Mac Wellman: he instructed students to write the worst possible things they could. The results, he said, were excellent. He'd given his students permission to write terribly -- indeed, commanded them to do so -- and thus circumvented many problems of standard workshops, got some interesting results, and thought the students learned a lot.

One of the more common weaknesses I've seen in workshops is that students are too young and have spent their entire adult lives (if they have such lives yet) in academia, so their general knowledge of the world is of ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls. It's remarkable what one or two years in the real world will do for a writer. I've just finished being in a screenwriting workshop with people of all different ages and experiences, and some of them wrote truly interesting, innovative, entertaining scripts, because, lo and behold, they actually had things to write about: joys and terrors, passions and wounds.

The proliferation of workshops is not going to kill American literature, because the majority of workshops are not represented in elitist dullness like the Best New Voices books (actually, I remember reading some pretty good stories in the volume Charles Baxter edited), and many workshops serve a perfectly useful purpose of increasing people's knowledge of how hard it is to write well. I'd bet more people leave workshops -- even bad workshops -- with a better appreciation for what they read than leave workshops determined to be professional writers. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of good writers out there, and what we need now more than anything are good readers.