Some time ago ago I was inspired by a post by the lovely Dovereader, now at The Literary Shack, who posted about critique partners and their importance in the writing process. This has inspired me to write a little bit about what life has been like pursing a major in creative writing at university, and discuss a similar topic.
One of the biggest pros to studying writing at a post-secondary institution is the access to published, accredited, and talented authors, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters. Their success varies (no David S. Goyers or Margaret Atwoods or Robert Frosts at my school), but each and every teacher I’ve had the pleasure to take a course with has taught me something valuable about writing, and about myself.
There’s another, perhaps less appreciated benefit: the opportunity to form a working relationship with fellow students. Of course this is sometimes something of a downside, but more on that later.
At every university harbouring an ever-stewing gang of writers about to launch themselves upon the world with the full fury of their imagination, or at least at every Canadian one I know of, writing is ‘taught’ (I use the term loosely) in the workshop. Similar to Dovereader’s aforementioned critique partner, the workshop is where stories are shared among fellow writers and are critiqued, or ‘workshopped.’ Course are comprised of some discussion of theory, but as I’m sure any writer has or will come to realize, writing cannot be ‘taught’ so much as it must be practiced. So the majority of any give course is devoted to the workshop.
Regardless of genre–fiction, poetry, script, and non-fiction courses are run in much the same way–students will submit a polished (theoretically) piece and either the entire class or a smaller group will take their peers’ submissions home, read them, and provide comments in the following class. Comments will include such things as what ‘works,’ what ‘doesn’t work,’ what needs clarification, where the piece can be trimmed or expanded upon, what they understood, and so on. Here’s where the workshop gets a little tricky.
More often than not students put each other’s work on trial; they judge the story to be good or bad based on their own vision of what a story should be, rather than focus on understanding what the writer was trying to do. I have to admit that I was just as guilty as they were until a professor pointed out that we should be doing a ‘close reading’ of the piece rather than simply picking out what we liked and didn’t like.
(On a side note, a fabulous book for learning close reading is Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. I’m currently re-reading it, but first picked up the book several years ago. It teaches the art of understanding and examining every choice the writer has made, from the individual words to decisions about plot and character.)
I’ve had mixed experiences with workshops. This year is my last (I hope) in my degree and I’m not sure if I’ll miss the input of my peers or not. Currently I’m wrapping up work for the fall semester. Today I concluded a workshop with some very intense students, myself counted among them. By intense, I mean that we argued quite passionately about each other’s work. As senior students we’ve all become quite confident in our sense of story, character, diction, and style. Yet every single student’s work has been completely different from any other’s. So we set about judging one another’s work based on our own idea of what a story should be and how language should be utilized. As you can imagine, the situation often became tense as most of us shared our opinions openly.
(Before I go on, I should clarify: during a workshop the author is not allowed to speak. Rather, they’re to be like a fly on a wall, listening in but never coming to the defence of their piece. Only after comments have ended are they allowed to speak. Otherwise they sit and scribble notes. On rare occasions they’re given permission to answer a direct question, but that’s to the extent of their ability to participate. So arguments are limited to being between their peers.)
At the start of this semester my piece sparked a heated exchange between one of my fellow students and our professor, who was defending my work. Needless to say, I was surprised, both by how opposed to my story this student was and by how well my professor understood what I had been trying to do and by how readily she defended that.
That was, however, not an example of a worst case scenario. In fact, this was one of the best.
Stay tuned for the continuation of The Writing Workshop!