“What is Workshop For?”: On Utopia and Critique in the Creative Writing Classroom

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On utopia

There’s a moment in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed that stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it. I know that’s a cliché, but ever since cramming for my comprehensive exams, I’ve stopped reading slowly, stopped pausing to reread a sentence, to turn it over in my mind. I skim now, something I never did before, even books I’m reading solely for pleasure. My mind is like a train, not a highspeed one gliding seamlessly through the landscape, but something clumsy and rusted, barreling, the engine coughing a thick dust, moving mostly by momentum. For my mind to stop is rare, and especially rare are those moments that do not cause cataclysm, when instead of skittering off the tracks, I am somehow lifted up into a pause, a sense of weightlessness, brief as it may be.

Le Guin’s novel’s subtitle is “an ambiguous utopia” and it follows Shevek, a physicist born on an anarchist moon, as he travels to and tries to reconnect with the culture, people, and science of his ancestral home. In the particular moment that stopped me, Shevek, is (attempting to) teach the students of an elite university in a capitalist state, students who, despite being the same species, are utterly alien to him.

The university demands that he give tests and grades, and he does so begrudgingly, telling the students that if he must grade, he will give everyone the highest mark. The students protest: if he did so, “how could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing” (Le Guin 128).

The physicist’s reply is striking: “‘Well, of course,’ Shevek said, troubled. ‘If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it’” (Le Guin 128).

Le Guin’s utopia is “ambiguous” in part because of the struggles and failures of her main character. Shevek is not presented as a savior or as a fool, but as a flawed being trying to reach across the gap between other beings. Her writing takes seriously the differences between people, the limits of communication, the ways in which culture shapes us, and how it can create—at times unbridgeable—divides. In his response to his students, Shevek is not being passive-aggressive or challenging, he is genuinely concerned. In his anarchist society, and more importantly, in his being, for one person to force another to do something is to commit the greatest crime. He fears he has unwittingly become an enforcer. He cannot comprehend the forces that shape his student’s situation, that remove certain choices from their privileged lives.


On students

In my undergraduate program, creative writing workshop courses were mandatory pass/fail. We would sometimes receive written comments on our work, more often verbal ones in the classroom. As we were encouraged to do, I often took other courses pass/fail, but, like most future professors, I was the typical “A student.” Though too shy and overwhelmed to grade-grub or ask for extra credit, I constantly sought validation, any sign that I deserved to be where I was, surrounded by the moneyed elite. Though I knew I wouldn’t be getting a grade, I craved and coveted the check-plusses professors would sometimes mark on my stories and poetry translations. I eagerly awaited the note that might accompany a final project of a pass/fail course, the note that said that if I had chosen the grade option for the course, I would have earned an “A.” In my creative writing MFA program, the grading of creative work was virtually non-existent. You often received your only grade at the end of the semester and, unless you had failed to turn any work in, it was nearly always an “A.” In creative writing courses, the real assessment was in workshop, where one’s potential shame or glory awaited.

In one of my first undergraduate workshops, in the days when teachers handed out printed syllabi, I remember being confronted with an image on the front page of the syllabus. A black and white photo, slightly pixelated, of a doorway overflowing with books. The books were not stacked neatly, but piled with disdain, their covers open, pages bent, tumbling from the shadows of the background into the crowded limen. Beneath the photo was a quote whose exact words I cannot remember, but whose sentiment terrorized me. The quote went something along these lines: it is not a question of there not being enough books, but too many. There are already too many books and too many writers.

Perhaps I misread the quote, perhaps it was meant humorously or flippantly or was just a moment of poor judgement by a beginning teacher, but the message to me at the time was clear: there are people who belong here and people who don’t. Prove that you belong, that you are the best, that your work is as good as the best, or you’ll be kicked to the curb like so much trash. I thought I might look up the actual quotation for this essay, but I don’t want to waste my time on that thankless task, those words have already taken so much time from me. Looking back on this moment, I remember that the instructor was a graduate student, in probably their first week of teaching their own class. What made this student writer need to guard the gates of their art so fervently? What did they fear? And what allowed them to set aside that fear, to be, after they handed out the syllabus, a wonderful teacher, someone I learned from, who in many ways started my own path as a writer?


On different models

For the first workshop I taught at the University of Maryland, in my first “real” teaching job after years of graduate school, I adapted a method from the writer Jesse Ball. The traditional and most popular creative writing workshop model is called the Iowa method, because it came to popularity at the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I didn’t know quite why I wanted to do something different than Iowa, I only knew that I did. I think I would have been terrified that first day—first weeks, first year—no matter what, but I also felt that I was perhaps a little mad to be trying something so strange, to be deviating from almost every workshop I’d ever taken (which after three degrees was quite a few) right as I was starting a job I was terrified of losing.

In the Iowa method, the writer shares their work before class and then the work is discussed in class while the writer stays silent. Some teachers structure discussion—beginning with positive observations or summaries—some just preside (benignly or not) over a free-for-all of criticism. The writer’s silence is central to this method, the argument being that if the story or poem was in a reader’s or editor’s hands the writer would not have the chance to justify their choices or explain away concerns. The silence is meant to replicate the distance between the writer and reader in the “real world.” The criticism is meant to replicate the writer magically bridging that distance and sitting in a room while their work is torn to shreds. I exaggerate, a little. Workshop can be like that, but it isn’t always, so much depends on the students, and a great deal more on the teacher. Though the Iowa method was the primary method in undergraduate and graduate school, it wasn’t until late in my doctorate studies that I learned it even had a name, a specific history, or that there might be different ways to teach workshop.

Jesse Ball’s method, “The Asking,” that I was adapting for my first semester as a tenure-track professor, was much more complicated, with many steps and roles. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll say that it is structured in exactly the opposite way as the Iowa method. Students read the writer’s work and then, rather than bringing in prepared letters and arguments for and against the work, ask the author questions in class. Through a mediator, the author can decline any question or answer in any way they choose. Ball noted that one of the benefits of this method was that not all of the readers asking the questions even needed to have read the story; a good listener could read the room and ask a question whose process of answering would benefit both writer and other readers. The point of Ball’s conversation, based on Quaker dialogues, was not for the writer to defend her choices, but to make discoveries, make mistakes, “contradict herself” and “try out different positions relative to her work” (Ball 114). The role of the teacher was to ask questions alongside the students, to intervene only when “larger issues” demanded such (Ball 114). There were no suggestions given, no judgements of the works pronounced, either positive or negative. There were no line edits.

That first semester, I had adapted Ball’s method in a way that increased my role as a teacher (in addition to “the asking” there was a time for criticism at the end), yet even so I feared that I’d be pilloried for attempting this nonsense. But I needed to do it. I’d felt that there was something wrong about how I had been teaching workshop. As a graduate student teacher, I had kept asking myself, what is workshop for? The method of critiquing a silent writer, trying to improve through prescription stories that were usually written the night before, didn’t feel like an answer or even a path towards an answer. I don’t believe everyone who teaches the Iowa method is doing something wrong. I just knew, though I wasn’t yet able to articulate why, that this method did not work for me. It brought out a little tyrant in me, a need to grow tall by keeping others on their knees. Another part of me, that silent part of me that acts without worry or words, knew this tyrant well, and dragged her and the rest of me kicking and screaming along.

That first semester was a mixed bag. Some class sessions went wonderfully, some not so well. One of the biggest hindrances was my inability to actually follow through with the method I had created. In Ball’s method, the role of the teacher is less obvious and overt. I had just landed a tenure-track job and I felt like an impostor. The only path I could figure out to prove I wasn’t a fraud was to constantly perform how much I knew, give all the advice I had to offer, fix all the problems in my students’ stories. I often told my students not to carry the burden of fixing their peers’ work, yet I could not cast that burden off myself.


On the tyrant

I keep rereading The Dispossessed. I don’t quite know why. It’s far from a perfect book. Samuel Delany, among others, critique Le Guin for her narrowness of imagination regarding questions of gender, sexuality, and otherness. And it’s not an easy book: there’s violence, moral ambiguity, preaching. But I keep turning back to it, and reading it gives me great pleasure. I suppose, in this imagined utopia, I am looking for answers.

In one scene in the book, Shevek tours a historical museum of the capitalist nation state A-Io. In the museum is a “discolored, time-tattered rag:” it is the cloak of Queen Teaea, and it is made of the “tanned skins of rebels flayed alive” (Le Guin 217).

The sight makes Shevek sick, he leaves the museum, he confronts his guide, asking her: “Why do you cling to your shame?” (Le Guin 217). Later, his guide tells him: “I know that you’ve got a—a Queen Teaea inside you…And she orders you around just like the old tyrant did her serfs” (Le Guin 218).

‘“That’s where she belongs,”’ Shevek says, “Inside my head” (Le Guin 218).


On revision and redemption

One of the critiques of writing teachers, from students and others, is that we talk a great deal about revision, yet give so little space for it in the classroom. One reason for this is technical: the revision of a story can take months or years. Though it’s possible to work with graduate or honors students for an extended period of time, for most students the time needed for a story to knock around in the back of your head for a while until it figures out what it is simply doesn’t fit within the academic schedule. But I think there’s another reason for the lack of thoughtful and thorough instruction of revision in creative writing classes: that little tyrant, whether in the head and out. Peter Ho Davies writes that American writers (especially beginning writers) are perhaps uniquely against revision. I agree. Our society is built on punishment buttressed by a lie of scarcity. We do not believe there is enough justice or joy to go around. We do not believe in redemption, in real redemption, by which I mean when a crime is committed and the person changes afterwards, not the anti-hero, if-you-only-learn-his-side-of-the-story redemption that we are fed on prestige television. If you truly believe in redemption, you can’t execute anyone, you can’t put anyone in a prison built for torture, you can’t shoot to kill. In comparison to those instances, the revision of a story in a fiction workshop seems unimportant, but in adrienne maree brown’s fractal conception, we are each cells in the great human organism, each of our acts a microcosm of and connection to the whole. Plus, I believe in art, no matter what. I’ve come to believe that there’s a real cruelty, and perhaps more importantly, an ignorance, in tearing down students’ stories, even if they never hear the words you say about them. A narrow-minded judgement of students’ work precludes its potential—its ability to become more complex, more beautiful, more itself.

All of us who teach have had the experience of being shocked into delight by the changes a student has made in their work. Selfishly, the delight is heightened when I can track the words I said to a blossoming in the work, but more often, students come to places I couldn’t have imagined, make choices I couldn’t have prescribed. In addition to this delight, I know that there are there shifts that I don’t notice, but that exist, and aesthetic developments I don’t prefer, but that speak to the writer and will speak to other readers. I know there is everything that will happen after the class, all that I do not and cannot know. Writing is a long game, I tell my students, and you don’t age out. I’ve come to believe that the only thing that distinguishes writers is not any gift they come to the classroom with, but the choice or chance to continue writing. To continue the long, lonely process of building a relationship with language, of building worlds out of words. Though I can often see where a person is in a particular moment, I’m certainly in no position to judge what anyone will make next month, next year, next decade. It is this infinite possibility that allows me to keep teaching.


On practicalities

I have always been deeply uncomfortable grading my own courses, especially my students’ creative work. After years of agonizing, of rubrics I couldn’t make myself follow, of hours spent trying to justify a percentage point up or down, I have largely stopped grading creative writing. If you do the work—a thorough and honest endeavor—you get full credit. There’s some wiggle room and allowances, but, in short, though I read and comment on a great deal of students’ writing, I do not grade a great deal of their work. I believe in this choice, not as the only choice a teacher can make, but as the only one available to me, the only one in which I can stay true to myself and be the best mentor possible. The end results are clear: my students’ work has not in any way worsened, in fact, by all measures that I can notice, it has only improved, perhaps because not grading has allowed me to be a better teacher.

Since that first semester in 2017, many others have written about the limits and failures of the Iowa model, have proposed new methods, reimagined older ones. As I kept teaching and researching, I learned that I was not the only one that found something poisonous and violent in the traditional workshop. Reading this new writing was like having my own mind and experience whispered back to me, all the formless mess of my fear and anxiety articulated and clarified. When I started down this path I felt so alone, that what I was thinking must be wrong, that I was the only one hammering away at this boulder. Yet I was not alone, not in the least. Down the hall, even, my colleagues were hammering at the boulder as well, until slowly we created a tiny passage that allowed us to see each other, that let a little light in.

Over the years, I’ve worked out a dialogue-based workshop method that I believe works for me and my students: students share what is meaningful in the work, the author asks questions, the readers ask questions. I’ll keep adapting and changing it, but I’ve used the one I have now for several semesters and it feels both comfortable and elastic. I’ve found ways to adapt it to many different students’ different needs. To do so I drew on Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process and the pedagogy of June Jordon, bell hooks, and Felicia Rose Chavez. I adapted a cold workshop method from Noah Eli Gordon. I drew—less on the structure, that on the spirit—of a wonderful workshop taught by Reginald McKnight, where he read each story aloud in class and we discussed it after hearing it, never laying eyes on the printed page. I learned a great deal from a former graduate student, Maiasia Grimes, who argues for the importance of centering the writer in the workshop conversation. And another crucial piece of advice came from the writer and teacher Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn, who told me that she does away with criticism all together in workshop. In hearing Alysia first describe her method, by brain fluttered, and then I was reminded of something Nikki Giovanni said once in an interview: that she doesn’t tell students what is wrong with their work, just what is right with it. They already know what is wrong.

So essential is judgement and criticism to traditional creative writing workshops, that it took me years to be comfortable with these concepts. But once I realized I didn’t have to close with critiques, a dialogue-based model opened for me. I found that the workshops were just as helpful and engaging without the space for unbridled criticism. This method is not just a series of compliments, honest or otherwise, as I feared would be the result if I took Giovanni’s words seriously. Students have lively conversations about their work, are able to both celebrate and examine the work freely. I tell writers that the questions they ask can be broad (What’s working, what isn’t?) or narrow, focused on a specific aspect. If they want prescriptive comments, they can ask for them, but I’ve found that using this model, readers are less likely to give unasked-for prescriptions, or to feel that fixing the story is their job.

Most of my workshops are in peer-led small groups. Students break into groups, read each other’s work in class, then talk about it. Instead of only workshopping a few people a week, everyone’s story is workshopped each class. I feared at first that without my constant guidance nothing would be learned, or that I was somehow cheating by letting students do my job for me. But the result is that there are more stories, more conversations, more teachers in the room. The method is far from perfect, it’s chaotic, messy—one group always finishes first, the group with me in it always finishes last because I still can’t stop talking. Everyone has a voice as loud and as important as everyone else, including the author, and everyone is making art and making mistakes. I may be kidding myself, but the students often seem to be enjoying the work, they seem to want to do the work.


On what a workshop is for

I’ve asked myself this question for years. And after teaching and observing and learning from students and other writers, I keep returning to an answer I first encountered outside of the classroom. In 1980, artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña asked passersby in Bogota “What is poetry to you?” She received many answers, but her favorite was “Que prosiga,” which she translates as “That it may go on.” How simple. How true. In this answer, there exists a cosmology without hierarchy, without tearing-down, with only participants. The only goal to continue making art, to help as many people as possible make art. I’ve come to see workshop as a part of this practice of continuance, both the process and product of keeping on, of going on. What else could workshop be for?




Works Cited/Referenced:

Ball, Jesse. Notes from my Dunce Cap. Pioneer Works Press, 2016.

bell, hooks. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, 1994.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy. AK Press, 2017.      

Chavez, Felicia Rose. The Anti-Racist Creative Writing Workshop. Haymarket, 2021.

Davies, Peter Ho. The Art of Revision. Graywolf, 2021.

Delany, Samuel. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. Wesleyan University Press, 2009.

Jordan, June. June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. Routledge, 1995.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. Harper Voyager, 1974.

Lerman, Liz. Critical Response Process. Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, 2003.

Vicuña, Cecilia. “Language is Migrant.” Poetry Foundation.