In our low-residency MFA program, we have developed an alternative to traditional workshops that I like to think of as “Whole Writer Workshops.” These are workshops that follow up on the ones we do during the semester which are more or less traditional, depending on who’s teaching. During our summer full residency, we look at work that’s been submitted to other classes in our workshops. Because these workshops are cross-genre (we will have poets, playwrights, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers in the same room) and because we don’t expect revision for a grade during the 9 days of our residency, we try to look at the work not in terms of what needs to be ‘fixed,’ but in terms of what it says about the writer and what it suggests the writer may want to do next.
I think this is a perspective that can be useful in other, more traditional workshops, even when we do expect revision. We may look at a story or poem and have questions about one of the undercurrents in it. It can be very liberating to discuss how this strand could be developed both within the piece or in a different piece. It can be helpful to discuss different genres and forms together and to realize that the way you might develop a subject in a poem might be very different than how you would develop it in memoir, for instance. We are able to talk about how an essay might grow out of a poem or how a poem might distill a narrative or how different vantage points might be portrayed through the characters in a play. It can be energizing and constructive to discuss how essays or stories in a collection can play off each other and how the answers to questions about one piece might most productively lead to a new piece rather than being developed in the current one (which might overburden it).
Because we are workshopping pieces that have been workshopped and revised already, we can talk about how workshops frequently ask for more, and how that isn’t always the best advice. Often our residency workshops ‘get it’ more than ones that are focusing in on form or on detailed comments for revision. Thinking about the writer and not just about the text can actually help with critique, which runs contrary to how we’ve been trained.
In the typical workshop model, the writer must remain quiet and the answers are only sought in the text. There is a place for this kind of critique, and it can also be very valuable, esp. when workshop participants know what is happening and why, but it also leaves out a lot, especially the voice of the writer. So when workshopping in a traditional class (graduate or undergraduate), I try to learn from the experiences I’ve had in the residency workshops and to strike a balance between textual critique and a more wholistic approach.