Unsilencing the Writing Workshop
Students Might Learn More and Hate it Less if They Talk About Their Own Work
If you’ve taken creative writing classes then you probably know what it’s like to sit in silence while everyone else in the room discusses your work as if you aren’t even there. This is called workshop, the traditional foundation of creative writing programs.
When I asked a group of writers how they would describe their workshop experiences, responses included: crushing, nightmare, hazing ritual, test of endurance, awful, ugh. I’ve heard of students drinking before their workshops; I’ve heard of students crying in class and after it; I’ve heard of students never looking at their workshopped pieces again. The word brutal is often used, as if honesty must necessarily be brutal. All of this seems to be viewed as inevitable, just part of the workshop experience, because it’s balanced by the positive: detailed critiques, solid suggestions, real ideas for revision, and validation from peers and professors. We are told that this is how workshop goes: praise and critique, praise and critique. Throughout, the student who is “up” for workshop sits in silence.
But is this format really the most effective way to go? Perhaps it’s time—way past time—to rethink how we workshop. To make it less a test of endurance and more a space of open discussion. Perhaps it’s time to undo the silence of workshop, to let students be part of conversations about their work rather than mere witnesses.
Here’s a story from my own MFA experience. I had submitted a piece in which characters were on their way to dim sum. In the workshop, people wanted to know what dim sum was. They couldn’t ask me directly because it was workshop; the writer was supposed to stay silent and take notes. They spent some time talking about how dim sum must be something Asian but it was confusing and it made the whole piece confusing—they were distracted, you see, by not knowing what dim sum was. Of course the whole time I was thinking, really, you don’t know what dim sum is? Also, why didn’t you find out before workshop? But again I was supposed to stay silent, and everyone knows that at the end of workshop when you’re asked if there’s anything you’d like to say, it’s better just to say thanks and not much more because otherwise you’re just going to sound defensive.
In this workshop format, the idea of what constituted basic knowledge did not include dim sum. They, the rest of the people in the workshop, decided what constituted basic knowledge. And yes, they were white except for one other person and I was not (though you already knew that). The group’s knowledge was knowledge. I was the outsider, the strange Asian who needed to adapt my work to what they understood. This wasn’t intentional malice; it was baseline assumption.
This is also the kind of unchecked, micro-aggressive yet forceful imbalance of power that is the typical workshop environment. It is undoubtedly experienced in some way by everyone but profoundly so for writers of color, especially since creative writing programs, nationally, are 74 percent white.
I got my MFA in 1998, which feels like a very long time ago because it was. Yet workshops are still conducted in the same way. I have participated plenty in the typical language of traditional workshop—I wanted to see more of this or that, what are the stakes—the usual starting with praise then quickly turning to critique. I also know that, more often than that, I left workshop feeling some combination of demoralized and uncertain; I left wanting more validation, no matter how much I’d already received. But I didn’t question the overall system. It was just the way things were done.
As I became a workshop leader myself and a professor of creative writing, I perpetuated the same ideas about workshop space: the silence, the barrage of praise and criticism, the feeling of not knowing what to do with all the conflicting comments. I did this because it’s what I knew; it’s what I had learned. This system is so powerful, so much the core of what some call the creative writing industrial complex, that even today the majority of creative writing instructors adhere to it.
And so most of us end up getting through workshop with endurance stories that we go on to tell our friends. Like the story I just told you, about dim sum, which is minor compared to countless horrible workshop stories I have heard from other writers. But we do endure; we get through it; often we do it in order to get somewhere else—to the end of the semester, end of the program, to the other side of the classroom.
But I think that a system that relies on silencing and skewed power and endurance is a terrible system. Possibly it begins in how we’re taught literature and writing in elementary school through high school: the idea of thesis statements, textual evidence, and the emphasis on texts. The author—intention, context, biography—is made to disappear, as if in their disappearance we can reach some kind of objectivity. Students are trained to think about texts and in workshop they are trained to think of their classmates’ works as texts.
But a text doesn’t exist without its author or without the time, place, and circumstances—political, cultural, and more—in which it needed to be created. Which is why workshops are always, always personal, no matter how often we’re told not to take it personally.
I began rethinking workshop space in earnest years ago when I started teaching nonfiction. Here the personal is real. There is no scrim of fiction. This makes the space more delicate: when you talk about a “text” that is true, and the author is in the room, then you are also talking about the author. No way around it. For underrepresented students especially, this can quickly become a tense, stressful environment.
I was also tired of workshop spending so much time talking about a plot point or logistical matter that could easily be cleared up by simply asking the writer what was intended. So one day I did just that: started asking the writer what they meant. And the entire workshop shifted. The mood lifted. The writer and the rest of the workshop could talk about intention—what carried through and what didn’t. The writer could engage in process during workshop.When the writer gets to talk about what they’re trying to do, they discover something more about what they actually are doing.
When we unsilence workshop, when we invite students to participate in the discussion of their own work, everything changes: the writer is no longer passively accepting comments. Rather, they become who they should be: the creators and navigators of their own work.
The workshoppers, in turn, are asked to do less prescribing (I want to see more of this; I want this or that to happen; I didn’t want that character to be here) and more questioning. Why did you use first-person? How important is the sister character supposed to be? Instead of a typical old-school workshop comment such as “I want to see more about the mother,” there’s a question: “We don’t see much about the mother—how important of a character is she?” The former is a demand; the latter is an opening.
When the writer gets to talk about what they’re trying to do, they discover something more about what they actually are doing. Almost always, they reveal information that they’d been holding back. In other words, their talking within workshop, rather than at the end of it, helped them process their own process.
I remember, when I first started opening up workshop space, that it felt very rebellious and transgressive. I was letting the writer talk! Letting them answer questions! The students were shocked by this too. That’s how well-trained we are in the traditional system. But it didn’t take long to get used to an open space because, it simply feels more productive. It simply makes more sense to have a conversation.
Here’s an overview of how I ran a recent fiction workshop in which MFA students were writing novels and short stories:
I began the semester with a few classes devoted to talking about workshop and craft. I did this because most of the students had never before been in workshops that hadn’t followed the traditional format. Crucial essays we read were Matt Salesses’s “Pure Craft is a Lie” series at Pleiades, and Joy Castro’s “Racial and Ethnic Justice in the Creative Writing Course” in Gulf Coast.
These essays also helped establish how the semester was going to proceed: that we were rethinking and revisioning our way of talking about story-making. That we respected each other’s individual histories, backgrounds, and experiences and understood that our critiques and suggestions were informed by our own backgrounds and experiences.
When a student distributed their stories for workshop, they were encouraged (but not required) to include a brief written overview of what they hoped the workshop would address. For example, students would say they were particularly concerned about structure, or not sure about the point of view, and so on. Some students wanted particular attention paid to certain paragraph or sections. The workshoppers’ feedback letters focused on how they interpreted the story, what they thought it was about or what they thought the story was doing, and included questions around areas that seemed unclear, confusion, or particularly tense.
On workshop day, the writer who was “up” began discussion by talking about how they wrote the story. Where ideas came from, why they wrote it, what they were trying to do. They got to set the stage for their own workshop. From there, workshop moved in the direction of conversation, with questions and suggestions supplied by the rest of the class. For example, a typical comment of praise we might hear—“I love the images in the first paragraph and I thought it was a great way to being the story”—would be reframed into a question like: “I love the images in the first paragraph and I thought it was a great way to being the story—how did you decide to begin with that?”My goal is for students to leave feeling heard and feeling motivated to keep working and revising, with ideas (rather than demands) in hand.
Of course, students sometimes fell into habits of traditional workshop critique, and sometimes that worked fine, integrated into our more open approach, and sometimes some additional steering on my part was needed. My steering often returned the conversation to the writer, asking them to consider their own work. In the first few weeks students often said, I’m not used to talking, almost cautiously, as if they were breaking a rule. It took practice to adapt to this more open system but it didn’t take long, probably because this unsilenced method creates a greater level of comfort in the room.
What I have found is that an unsilenced workshop is a more invigorated and healthy space. There is conversation rather than everyone waiting to take a turn to speak their critique. Numerous students have told me that they’d never actually enjoyed a workshop before. That they felt less worried about on how their peers would react—and thus more free to take risks.
My goal is for students to leave feeling heard and feeling motivated to keep working and revising, with ideas (rather than demands) in hand. The traditional, silenced workshop tends toward tension, competition, a sense of failure. The unsilenced workshop tends toward encouragement, generative discussion, a sense of possibility. The critiques are not directives but perspectives.
The creative writing workshop has always been about doing workshop more than being up for workshop; you spend far more time considering the work of your peers than hearing comments on your own. This process helps teach us how to be better at revising and editing. A more open, unsilenced, dialogue-focused workshop space continues this benefit while also allowing writers to be more actively involved in their own process. They aren’t watching the critique of their own work, but rather central to the conversation. In talking out loud about their work, writers often find their own answers.