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Creative Writing Workshops

Someone sent me a copy of Dan Barden’s “Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing,” which has been making the rounds on the internet. He objects (carefully) to the workshop idea itself – where there’s little actual learning going on. More of it is showboating and personality-wars, and not too much on the fundamentals, or, perhaps the right fundamentals.

After teaching CW for thirty-seven years, I have to agree. Not a lot gets done, but enough to keep the course in the inventory at most English departments. Students learn to take a more objective look at their work, learn a few things about compression, avoidance of the equivalent of emoting in drama workshops, how to keep an audience in mind, sort of. Encouragement is useful, and can lure a few students into writing candid, unembarrassed disclosures of self. Friendships are made, a writing club might actually lead to some sort of virtual journal. A few readings in public make some students feel a little more worldly.

But one has to wonder how literature was produced before the middle-20th century, before Paul Engels instituted the first graduate CW program at the University of Iowa, where it remains the preeminent MFA program. Did Shelley sit around with Keats and read poems out loud, while a doddering old white-haired professor, call him Sam Coleridge, pursed his lips and hung his chin on his opium-darkened fingers? Nah. The corner of a cold room was the workshop, the reek of coal fumes the inspiration for most writers before we get to the modern age. I doubt Dante, always on the run from his political enemies, hardly had time to drop into a swivel chair and try a Canto on the local bards. I can’t imagine Homer asking if a certain phrase worked for his listeners – or whether the Cyclops’ episode was over-drawn. But hey, he wouldn’t have that luxury for another twenty-eight centuries and change.

But I’m not interested in whether creative writing can be taught, or if it can, if that is actually a good thing. Much of the work written in writing programs takes the form of talking out loud about personal pain and anguish, about breaking up, feeling isolated, unhappy about parents, considering leaving college, or worrying about room mates. If other students recognize the problem, and “identify” with it, then it’s a good poem, a good story. They get it. If you press anyone to talk about the craft of the piece, generally there is a certain reluctance to comment. The right emotional button was pushed, and the students are not likely to want to dissect the flaws or the weaknesses of the work. I ran out of spit telling one class after another that the information in a piece is only part of what makes it good. The rest is craft – the tedious business of revision, refinement, the smoothing out of crooked or rambling sentences, the tucking in of phrases, and most remote to their concerns, the idea of music in poetry, the syllabic chemistry of sounds and vowel interactions that make a line memorable, startling to the ear. All that is beside the point because the emotional buzzer rang in their hearts, and because they suffer a good deal the pangs of being young and struggling, emotional identity is an elixir.

In essence, a workshop is a psychological laboratory where students inch toward overcoming their alienation from a vast institution that wants their money, and doesn’t care about salvation or survival. Everyone is there to train for a job, an entrée into the middle class world. Their lives are pretty much reduced to a student ID, a matriculation number, paid-up accounts with the Registrar. You know they’re all just barely hanging on as they are rushed from one semester to the next, graded, their minds and attitudes stream-lined for the rigors of work in a cubicle at some branch campus of a corporation.

I was forced to relent from my analysis of craft once I understood what was really at stake in the workshop – it was their only chance to attend to an inner life that was denied to them from as far back as day care, pre-school, summer learning camps, high school regimentation, and the terrifying reality that one hardly exists in the competitive force field we call college. All along their dreary way were parents who wanted the kids to shine, i.e., not be a bother while they elbowed and shoved their own way in the corporate world. If a kid stumbled, it was an inconvenience, a loss of face while other kids moved along without much whimpering. Think of the film Metropolis, which I showed occasionally; seldom did a student see the story as a cautionary tale about his own impending future. The lockstep, the monotony, the slavery all seemed part of a black-and-white world that had closed behind them. Their world was different, or so they hoped. A few would excel, some would find their way based on ability, others find love, but the majority were subjected to the bewildering negativity of American institutionalism and its adamant law that only those who stomach the struggle to “make it” deserve recognition.

Of course, the professors who imposed themselves on these students were no better off. The pressure was always on to publish, to earn high student evaluations, to join as many housekeeping departmental committees as they could, and not betray their hatred for the institution that made their lives meaningless. One worked in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy in which the chair of the department was made to demand unreasonable standards, often contradictory standards – like an abundance of committee assignments together with a high productivity as a scholar or writer, and who routinely appeared in all the top ten journals and book publishers. If you didn’t make it on the spine with your next book, i.e., publish with Kansas and not Princeton, you burrowed deeper into the tiny vineyard of your expertise to get the prize the next time. What else could you bring to the classroom but this same sense of oppression that was making your students miserable as well? They could read it in your voice, your eyes, your indifference to everything but the most exaggerated language, a surface so full of false glitter and excitement that you reached out to it because it showed craft! It went beyond mere information, the student finally got it and turned him or herself into a Salvador Dali of words.

When you look at most literary journals , from Rattle to Tin House, you see the same jittery, overblown language that was rewarded in the workshops. The winning entries seem written by bi-polar patients cresting at mach speed on the keyboard. There’s hardly time to draw a breath. The poems edge toward suicidal intensity, the short fiction toward love or despair so shrill you feel the grammar flying apart. You won’t read the grand winners, the finalists, the semi-finalists again; once was enough, and these are the hallmarks of creative writing. This is how you made it – you outgunned the most neurotic among you and took one more step out into the void and came back with something resembling a third rate Sylvia Plath.

It isn’t that the workshop failed, it did all it could with the emotional debris that came into the room three times a week, fresh from the institutional battlefields that required almost superhuman dedication just to keep up. What you had were the patients at the Berghof sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – people who couldn’t disguise their bad health, their morbidity, but found some way to make the most of a dreary situation. To put on the eyes and ears of a typical student, you would soon find out that most of the classes they attended were essentially worthless, and that their lives were proceeding inexorably toward bureaucratic dungeons where they would accrue a few raises, some promotions, access to a few privileges, but work that left no mark upon the world or gave their own existence any memorable experience.

The workshop was the last room in the world where your feelings mattered. People heard you out, and with some goading, commented on what “worked,” what didn’t work. You fiddled with the text, you wrote some more, you turned in a portfolio of polished versions, and got an A or an A-, and trudged out into the real world once more, to your statistics course, or chem lab, and maybe, if you were extra lucky, showed a poem you wrote to a date just to fill in the gaps in conversation. You had an experience, a chance to shine a light into the soul, and while it told you very little, it gave some brief glimpse into what was in others’ souls. Maybe that’s enough.

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