Matthew Salesses on the Two Things a Workshop Can Do Best (and Often Fails Doing at All)
In Conversation with Courtney Balestier on the WMFA Podcast
Writing can be lonely work; WMFA counters that with conversation. It’s a show about creativity and craft, where writer and host Courtney Balestier talks shop with some of today’s best writers and examines the issues we face when we do creative work. The mission of WMFA is to explore why we writers do what we do, so that we can do it with more intention, and how we do what we do, so that we can do it better.
In this episode, Courtney Balestier talks to Matthew Salesses, author of Craft in the Real World, about how we might workshop differently, the most ill-used terms in craft discussions, and the words that Matthew has banned from his own workshops.
From the episode:
Matthew Salesses: If you think of the ways that we’ve talked about craft, they really do fit the individualist person who has a lot of privilege and agency and drives all of the action. It’s all based on one person’s decision-making power. That model is very well represented within the workshop. And I do think in some ways, you’re right, the problem with the workshop is that it’s designed for people who maybe needed, at that time, to have their voices be silenced for a little while so they could hear other people. It was made for people who had all the privilege in the world and believed that they could do anything with writing and maybe needed to hear from their peers things that they wouldn’t otherwise have heard.
We’ve just moved so far from that. If I think about what the workshop can do, I actually think the original model kind of cuts off the two main things that the workshop can do best, which is talk about a work in progress, talk about the author’s process, which you can’t do if the author can’t talk, and access the diversity of writers in the room and their diverse experiences and literary histories and proclivities. And that is not something that really the workshop is designed to allow for or maximize.
Courtney Balestier: Right. Not only that, but it’s this kind of standardization of what your colleague pointed out that had that real lightbulb moment for you, as a thing that can’t be standardized.
Matthew Salesses: I think it was actually pretty successful in standardizing it. Going back to the idea of fighting communism with workshops, there is a kind of strategy of standardizing a certain white, western, American, democratic norm. And if you can standardize that in the craft forum where you’re prioritizing style and form and surface level techniques, instead of thinking about what the content is, who you’re writing for, why you would even write a story in the first place—those things are much easier to standardize and can go out into the world, and also have the advantage of the great American ideology of pretending not to have an ideology.
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Matthew Salesses is the author of three novels, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, The Hundred-Year Flood, and I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, and a forthcoming essay collection. He has taught at Coe College, the Ashland MFA program, the Tin House and Kundiman summer workshops, and writing centers like Grub Street and Inprint, among others. He has edited fiction for Gulf Coast, Redivider, and The Good Men Project and has written about craft and creative writing workshops for venues like NPR’s Code Switch, The Millions, Electric Literature, and Pleiades. He was adopted from Korea and currently lives in Iowa.