This fall I did something I’ve never attempted before. I taught an eight week creative writing workshop. It was offered as part of the adult enrichment curriculum at our local community college, and it was open to all comers. There were eight evening sessions scheduled for 90 minutes each (by the third week we were routinely running two hours per session at the consensus of the workshoppers).
I called it a “workshop” because I tried to balance the “lectures” I delivered with synergistic feedback from the workshoppers themselves. The workshop also included two story writing assignments with guided critique sessions using the Clarion approach. I provided a snow storm of handouts on what I regarded as essential concepts, and I also shared about a dozen published stories that I hoped would provide some common reference points when talking about story writing concepts.
Over the years I’ve participated in more workshops than I should probably admit to. Close to twenty at this point. They were of varying length, varying formats, with varying emphases and underlying philosophies. I tried to draw from what I felt were the best attributes of those many different experiences. And, most of all, I tried to stay focused on the definition of “story,” the ways writers can best achieve the writing of their story, and also have an awareness of the most significant realities of getting a story past the publishing gatekeepers (i.e. some tips on how to make their stories more saleable… to the best of my knowledge, both from what I’ve been taught and what I’ve experienced).
I tried to avoid letting the class drift in the direction of literary criticism per se. We also laid down some heavy rules about critiquing. No ad hominem remarks about the authors were tolerated (critiquing is about the story, and no one can assume the story is a reflection of the author’s views or values). Critiques always had three parts, a critiquer’s summary of their perception of theme and/or plot, a summary of what worked best for them in the story, and a courteous statement of what didn’t work for them, with some suggestions about how those aspects could be improved (but not rants about how the critiquer would have written the story to their preferences… the idea being to stay in the framework of the original author’s vision). Critiquers were directed not to redundantly cover the same ground of previous critiquers, but rather say something concise, like “ditto Joe’s comment about voice.” Critique time was limited to about 2 minutes per critique. As the moderator, I gave the final critique, and the author had a couple minutes to comment about their story when the critiques were finished.
As I said, the workshop was open to all comers, so the experience level with critique sessions was fairly limited. Only two or three of the ten workshoppers had been in critique groups before, and from what I gathered, those earlier experiences were often less structured and less moderated than our workshop. Similarly, since the workshop was open to all comers, the experience level with all facets of creative writing was vastly heterogeneous.
Getting everyone on the same scrimmage line for the game was one of the larger obstacles for a workshop that nominally consisted of 12 hours of formal “instruction.” We actually probably inflated that to 16 hours, but trying to keep the experience productive for everyone while still hitting everyone’s needs at different levels and in different areas of craft was easily the biggest overall challenge.
I was blessed with a great group of people. They spanned about a 50 year age spectrum and were almost equally divided gender-wise (the ladies had a slight advantage). Their reading and writing preferences were eclectic, as were their personal backgrounds and life experiences. I couldn’t have asked for a better group among whom to learn how to go about “teaching” a writing workshop in a community college setting.
I’ve been an instructor during my military and professional life, teaching both mundane and intellectually demanding material. What I have learned with every trip to the front of a classroom has been the enormous benefit that teaching is to the instructor. You have to do your homework. You have to know what it is you are trying to teach. You have to order your thoughts and develop multiple ways of expressing them to others. You have to respond to interesting challenges from the class to better explain what they don’t understand, or to defend things they disagree with.
A fellow named Bill in my class was a great example of forcing me to rethink something I had been taught as almost doctrinal in a few earlier writing classes. It surrounds the famous Hemingway short short short story that reads (in its entirety) : For Sale: baby shoes, never worn. The conventional take on this story is that it is the story of a parent, selling baby shoes intended for an infant who died before they could be worn… or variations on that theme. Bill challenged that, saying that it wasn’t necessarily a downer story, but indeed could be a happy story. Bill’s forte was poetry, and he proceeded on the spot to write a one page poem that laid out the happy ending version of this story.
Bill, thanks for reminding me about the word hubris.
I could argue, I suppose, that I am only a sparsely published writer and that A) I should have invested the time devoted to this class to my own writing and marketing and that B) I didn’t have the writing credits to market myself as a source of insight regarding creative writing, and C) my approach might contradict or undermine the more conventional creative writing doctrine of more credentialed instructors, such as the college faculty themselves.
I could argue that. However, I decided that fellow writers have a lot to give one another, and many of us have had more contact with the actual story “industry” than most academics. I am grateful to have earned a BA in English (once upon a time), and I am grateful for the handful of university and college level creative writing classes I have taken since finishing that early BA. But what I am most grateful for as an aspiring writer myself, are the insights I’ve picked up along the way from good, and even great writing workshops that were led by dozens of professional writers, with their varying views of the craft and business aspects. It has been my experience that even the simple but essential definition of what a story is does not get the emphasis it deserves in most academic settings. I’ll leave others to argue why that might be, or if it is even true (like I said it’s my personal experience/perception).
What I got in feedback from my class, and what I felt as the workshop was progressing, is this. Writers who are out on the playing field, struggling with all the forces that hold us back, trying to identify and nurture the forces that propel us forward have something to offer one another. We can’t hold each other’s hands or do one another’s writing for each other. However, we can learn from each other and we can encourage each other. Furthermore we gain something by learning we are not alone in our struggle to pursue this lonely and crazy obsession to tell stories. To tell good lies. To make things up. Or to tell our histories well or the histories of things and people that we regard as important enough to be preserved and shared.
Sorry if that sounds overly lofty. It isn’t meant to be lofty, merely a real explanation of the satisfaction and benefit I personally derived from my recent experience. I’m thankful for having had the opportunity to force myself to dig into everything I think I know about writing and share it with others. In the long run I think it helps me be a better writer.
Oh, and I did write a story for my class along with them. They wrote two stories, I only wrote one, but I felt as though it created a bond between us. I’m planning on doing this again next fall. In the mean time I’ve identified a few holes in my insight that I need to be filling-in between now and then, both to help me with my own writing, and to share with the next dozen or so new writing friends.