Writing Workshops & Conferences

How A Writer’s Craft Can Be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 6

I’ve now finished, Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, and so I want to weigh in with some thoughts on the way workshops are discussed, and some of the advice she gives. She also has a chapter on conferencing with students, that I feel is related to the material on workshops. She has a lot of good ideas about changing the traditional workshop model—some are new, and some are familiar—and I’m glad that what she does works well for her, but I’m also excited to move on and see what some other writers have to say.

Let’s start with the positive things in Chavez’s discussion. What I glean as the most important aspects of the workshop model she proposes are: giving students a voice in the workshop, building a sense of community in the class, and training students how to workshop. These are things I’ve been doing for many years that are linked to the critiques of the traditional workshop structure that I’m familiar with and agree with for the most part. (Yes, I have one reservation; keep reading.)

Chavez describes how she builds community and trains students how to workshop by having small group workshops on early drafts. This is something I’ve been doing for years and that I’ve written about in the companion materials for A Writer’s Craft, though I’m sure my strategies are different from hers. Don’t we all find the strategies that work best for us? Incidentally, I was pleased to see Chavez acknowledge that everyone will need to adapt what they can from her workshop strategies in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop.

Students need early work in small groups when they can work together without a leader (other than the groupwork instructions) and learn to trust the feedback they give each other. They also need to learn that no draft should be finished when it is brought to workshop; that getting suggestions in the thick of the writing is more productive than getting them when a piece seems finished. I combine group writing exercises with small group workshops on early drafts. Students learn that their role in a workshop is not to pass judgement on each other’s writing, but to give suggestions. They also learn that it’s okay if other workshop members are wrong or give unhelpful suggestions — as long as they are honest and have good intentions, it’s okay if they give ideas that won’t work for the writer. Trust and goodwill are the most important aspects of a workshop community. Thinking you have all the answers is not.

In her main workshop meetings, Chavez uses the Liz Lerman method, and this is one place where I somewhat disagree. I respect the Lerman method, but I find it too prescriptive for my taste. I respect that the steps in the Lerman method are there to subvert the traditional workshop power structure, and I agree with that, but to me it feels like those steps institute a different kind of control over the workshop discussion that I don’t think is entirely necessary. Some of my colleagues use the Lerman method and it goes well for them, so I don’t want to sound overly critical. I feel the way I conduct workshop is similar but more loosely organized, and that works for me. I’ve learned from the Lerman method and may consider adopting more ideas from it in the future. I also noticed that Chavez says she starts with that method but doesn’t always follow every step.

What I’ve learned from Lerman is to begin discussion with positive comments about the piece being workshopped. I sometimes break one of Lerman’s rules and ask students what they liked about the piece. Often I frame this question as “What was interesting?” or “What drew you in?” so that their answers are more specific and more descriptive than evaluative. These are the kinds of questions that students usually love to answer, and they get our conversation going. After we’ve had some discussion that might be deemed more ‘critical,’ I often end discussion by returning to the positive.

In the critical phase of discussion, I like to focus on the reader and the text. I discourage comments that are about the writer or that call things out as bad. Instead, I try to ask students what was confusing or where they might like more detail. I often remind them that we often ask for more of something in a workshop and the writer may not want to give it to us. They may withhold that information or it may not be as important to them, and that is their decision. But knowing where the reader wants more helps the author make that decision.

This brings up one aspect of the traditional workshop experience that I haven’t given up on completely, though I have loosened up a lot. This is where I differ from Chavez and many writers on reforming the workshop. I do still ask the writer to be silent during our discussion of their piece, at least initially. I explain that the reason for this is that the text will ultimately stand on its own, and the writer won’t always be there to help the reader. It’s important that the writer hear what readers experience, so they can respond with revision, and it’s important that the workshop learns not to look to the writer for answers first, but to first be careful and constructive readers of the text.

Here are some ways I’ve loosened up my stance about silence, though, after teaching and being involved in these discussions for many years. Sometimes writers just can’t help themselves, and they have to jump in. I don’t berate them or even enforce the rule too much, though I may sometimes remind the group that we want to look at what the story or poem says before we turn to the author. Other times, there have been questions that we can’t answer from the text, and then we’ll turn to the author to ask what they had in mind. The goal is to always have a constructive discussion of the draft that we are looking at, not the one that the writer envisions, but where they are in that process and to both help them attain the draft they envision and also sometimes help them push their vision further.

In doing this, I am conscious of the power dynamics of the workshop. I don’t want to impose my vision of the story or poem on the writer, any more than I want the workshop group to do so. I tell students that my goal is to say as little as possible during workshop and to direct their conversation as little as necessary. Often there are pauses, and I’ll ask questions to get the class started. Or I will step in and play the devil’s advocate, sometimes revealing that’s what I’m doing. That may be to defend the author if the discussion has turned too critical or to raise an issue that the discussion has overlooked.

In the end, and often in the middle, I give the writer their time to respond to our discussion. I tell them that they don’t have to defend their work, but that they can explain things we didn’t understand, and they can also ask us questions about things they wanted to have a reading on. What I might experiment with is allowing the writer to make a brief statement at the outset of our discussion. This might be an explanation of their goals or of terms or experiences in the piece, or it might include questions that they would like us to answer. This could come as a written note attached to the draft (as Chavez does) or be done orally at the start of discussion.

Like Chavez, I do begin each workshop session with the writer reading. The difference is that Chavez has them read their whole essay aloud (her class is nonfiction). The other students in the workshop don’t get the text in advance; they read along and mark comments during the reading. In my workshops, I have the writer read a full poem, but for prose, I have them read a paragraph or two so that we get a sense of the voice in the piece. Reading complete longer works would take too much of our workshop time, on the one hand. And on the other, I believe students can give better quality feedback if they read the text carefully before coming to workshop; I know I can. Students always turn their work in before class, and they are expected to come with written comments for each other. Though I know they don’t always write the best comments, at least they have read the story or poem once or twice before class, and they’ve given it some thought before they have to comment. Rather than having them write a letter to the writer, I ask them to make comments in the margins and then end with a note that includes suggestions for revision.

I give instructions for giving and receiving workshop comments, and this is something I will probably work on to emphasize constructive feedback even more than I do now. One important piece of advice I give, which Chavez also seems to emphasize, is to read and respond to the draft the writer has written, not to try to make it like your own writing, but to try to help the writer do what they seem to want to do. Again, the early small group workshops help with this, since they learn to make constructive suggestions, and some students in the class may have read an earlier draft of the story or poem we are workshopping, so they may have more insight into the writer’s intent.

This brings me to individual conferences. Chavez advocates for two conferences, one before and one after the student’s workshop. I agree that individual conferences are important, though I always have students come for conferences throughout the semester, usually having four or more conferences with each student. As with many of the suggestions, this is something every writing instructor has to make their own peace with. What works for one population of students and one instructor will not always work for another. I find that there is no substitute for a one-on-one discussion of early drafts and late drafts with students. Sometimes our conference is all about writer’s block and how the student can commit words to the page; other times it is about a very rough draft, and the student needs suggestions and encouragement for how to develop it; still other times, esp. late in the semester, the conference is about fine-tuning a nearly finished draft.

I always make it clear to students that they don’t have to do what I tell them, but they should respond with revision. Usually I say this in the first introductory conference before they’ve given me a draft. They need to know I want to engage in a conversation, but I don’t want to write their work for them or make it mine. I love it when a student comes up with a creative solution that I wouldn’t have thought of. I want to hear what their intention was for the piece, and I try to help them to realize that. Having these conferences also means that I can say less in the workshop session, since I will have an opportunity to discuss it later. Or I may have insights into the workshopped piece because I’ve already seen it in conference, so I know some of the writer’s answers to questions the class raises. After workshop, we often debrief in conference and go over what was said in class, which can be a good time to deal with any personality conflicts or misunderstandings that the workshop may have caused.

Over the years, I’ve tried different strategies to let the writer have more of a say during workshop, though I’ve also held onto some of the value of focusing on the text and letting the writer listen. I try to find a balance that is respectful of the writer, while also giving the writer the benefit of the group’s reactions. I find this leads to productive discussions, especially when we prepare for these discussions by working in small groups and discussing craft together at the beginning of the semester. Students love the small group workshops, though they often say they like the full class workshops even better. Sometimes they even recognize how these experiences build on one another and how what they learned in small group workshop prepared them for the full experience later.

Felicia Rose Chavez has many other good suggestions that sound interesting but probably aren’t quite my thing. Bringing snacks to workshop is one. I have nothing against it, but I probably won’t go there, at least not often. Having students write a final artist statement is one I usually do as part of their final portfolio or final exam, though I’m not likely to make it an art project in the way she describes. A lot depends on the instructor’s personality and the culture of the institution where they work. Some things will fly in one place that would bomb someplace else or for someone else, so we have to find the methods that work best for us, as long as we maintain the writing community, respect for the writer (and readers), and training for the workshop.

Chavez’s book challenges and invites writing instructors to rethink the way we structure our classes and our workshops. She acknowledges that some of what works for her won’t work for others, yet she gives many great suggestions to use or adapt. It is an excellent way to start this discussion, and I look forward to further reading on this topic. Next up will likely be Matthew Salesses, Craft in the Real World.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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