If all you ever do is all you ever done, all you ever get is what you already got.
I’m in the midst of reading a terrific new book, Craft in the Real World, by Matthew Salesses (pictured above). In it, he questions the origins, functions and outcomes of our common beliefs about literary fiction, and then turns to the ways in which the “writing workshop” reinforce those beliefs, to the detriment of those whose identities or practices don’t fit that singular model.
Let’s back up. What exactly is a writing workshop? The term “workshop” implies a place where things get built, and a place where a master craftsman shows apprentices how to use tools, maintain materials, and learn the equipment and practices of a trade. But the writing workshop isn’t that. The master craftsman isn’t working on salable materials of her own in that space, and isn’t showing students how to move words around or select terms or introduce characters or deal with cultural difference. It’s not like a cabinetmaker’s workshop or an auto body workshop.
The writing workshop (which Salesses tracks back in origin to the University of Iowa in the 1930s and to a larger project in anti-communist cultural intervention) is a room with one instructor and eight or ten or twelve students. One of those students has sent her or his story to the rest of the group in advance, and the group comes in having read it, marked it up, and prepared to discuss it. During the discussion, the author is intended to be silent, so as to allow the other students to simply talk about what they found interesting or problematic, and to forestall writers’ defensiveness about “what they MEANT to do…”
Out of such good intentions comes a well-paved road to an often bad destination. And Salesses names a bunch of those bad destinations. Events in which people of color or LGBTQ+ people feel as though their powerlessness extends even to their own stories. Events in which the intentions of one genre are overwritten by the intentions of someone else’s genre. Events in which “the audience” is presumed to mean “people like me,” rather than people like the writer. Events in which words like conflict and stakes and story arc are tossed off as though they had a singular meaning.
The very best writing workshop I ever had was on the porch of the main house at Bread Loaf after the unproductive workshop of my story that had taken place in the reading group itself. That group of a dozen found themselves completely incapable of imagining Tim’s life and circumstances, wondered why he didn’t do X or why he thought Y. Applied their own concerns, argued about the character’s interpretation of events as though his interpretation wasn’t intended to be particular and specific to his circumstances. It was awful and unhelpful, as I imagine that it was for every writer over the course of those ten days. One story in particular, which I thought was just marvelous, was taken by the group and smashed to bits, each critic then reassembling the shards into her or his own mosaic. It’s really a pretty awful thing, which, to paraphrase Tolstoy, is awful for every participant in their own way.
But the next day, I sat on the porch with the workshop leader, Peter, and we had a true master-apprentice conversation about how I could literally speed up or slow down the pace of a scene to make it do even more of what I wanted it to do. It was the exact analogue to the cabinetmaker who says to the apprentice, “So if you want to make that kind of a curve, there’s a better tool to use to cut it.” And we talked for almost two hours not about interpretation or theme or mood, but about the actual work of creation, the materials available and their variety of uses. I learned more on the porch than I had from decades of writing instruction and a dozen traditional workshops.
We often repeat the things we know because we know them, and forget that the decision to do exactly the same thing again is a decision. It’s just gained momentum in such a way that we let it continue. We’re afraid of the decisions we could make, because we don’t know if they’ll work; but the decisions we’ve made for decades often don’t work, either. They’ve just become invisible.
There’s a lot of chatter, for instance, about electric vehicles. People are filling the conversation with chaff—no fueling networks, precious metals for batteries coming from third-world political crises, the cost of disposal—in an effort to distract and confuse. But listen. Henry Ford didn’t have fueling networks when he introduced the automobile; they arose to meet the demand. Oil comes from places with vast political crises, and plays into those crises. And rather than dispose of one thousand-pound battery every ten or twelve years, which is visible and easy to imagine, we currently dispose of seventy or eighty thousand pounds of gasoline or diesel fuel over that same period, which is invisible and goes into the sky rather than being visible and going into some repository. People pose problems with the possible, and never once consider the vast, unimaginable problems already present with the current.
Writing workshops are the same. We could go on forever with the cone of silence in which the writer sits helplessly off to the side while ten people misinterpret their work for an hour, but really, we don’t have to.