February 29, 2008KR BlogWriting

Change We Can Believe In (For Workshops)

Dan Barden has an article up over at the Poets & Writers site, titled Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing Classes. I’m not the biggest fan of the traditional workshop model, but this piece made my skin crawl. Barden’s attitude toward his students is dismissive and disrespectful:

In my life as a teacher, the thing that I’m most afraid of is cynicism. My own, that is. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if my day job consisted of pretending that graduate students actually know what they’re doing. I would feel like a whore–there’s just no other good word for it.

Yes, that’s right. A whore. Don’t you want to take a class with this guy? He just has so much esteem for his students, who “are more likely to know who their instructors hang with than what they actually write (‘she’s in that McSweeney’s crowd, I think’).”

I’m not saying his article is entirely without merit; Barden certainly may be onto something when he describes workshops that are

conducted as though providence will do the magic of improving a student’s writing. There’s an idea, maybe, that the middle way between all the suggestions made in class must be the right way.

Okay, sure, workshops can cause befuddling conversations that spend fifteen minutes arguing the merits of some particular odd enjambment, and they can create stiflingly nit-picky environments, and they can make you never want to write again. And certainly there are workshops that are workshops only because no other possibility is considered. The trouble with Barden’s view, however, is the solution he proposes:

Even in a political system as bizarre as democracy, there still needs to be leaders and followers. Some voices should count more than others. And if you don’t want these leaders to be only the richest or the loudest or the most venal, then you have to build a system that’s less democratic in some places than others. I’m just going to come out and say it: The workshop instructor should be a dictator. Humble and self-effacing, sure, but also absolutely convinced of her expertise.

This is the best he can come up with? Be bossy? I’m sorry, but I’m sensing a slight lack of imagination here. I’m particularly alert to the failings of this article because I do believe the workshop is ripe for remodelling. And people are already doing it–at AWP this year, Claudia Rankine, Richard Jackson, Nick Flynn, and Dara Wier sat on a panel called “Revising the Graduate Workshop: New Models for Teaching an Old Class.”

Flynn described a workshop that takes up a new theme each year. One, structure, seemed especially fruitful, as it asked students to look at each other’s writing and find some analogous shape at work in another piece of art, or even from nature. How great, I thought, to frame a discussion in this way, to be constantly alert to resemblances and remindings, to Williams’ perfect question: “What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped?”

Claudia Rankine slows her workshop down, so that students begin by churning out pages and pages of writing, which they will then work towards extracting just one poem from over the semester. (This actually sounds excruciating to me, but she said her students were happy with the experience.)

I would tell you about Richard Jackson’s approach, but I couldn’t hear him.

And then there’s Dara Wier, whose workshops I’ve been in on and off for the past three years, and who got me thinking about all these ideas in the first place. Because we don’t spend ages writing all over each other’s poems and trying to “fix” them, we have all this space for other, real conversations. Each week someone brings in a packet of texts and images that are playing a lead role in their mind, thereby bringing in ideas from science, history, gardening, survival techniques, linguistics, advertising and so on into the class. We each bring in a poem by some other person, helping each other to discover and enjoy new voices, and of course we bring in our own poems. And they are fine. They are exciting, because the liveliness of conversation and exchange sends you out just dying to write.

When I taught my first creative writing class this fall, I began with the idea that the metaphors we live by shape our thoughts and behaviors. I proposed an alternative to the workshop metaphor: a laboratory. A workshop is a room in which the final product is known from the beginning, a place where a product that does not fit the design gets reworked until it does. A laboratory is a place where experiments happen, where accidents and explosions may occur, and where chance and wildness of thinking are allowed to birth fantastic new discoveries. Maybe I’m passing up the chance of a lifetime, but I would so much rather work in a laboratory than a dictatorship.

The Kenyon Review was founded in 1939. The resources for the new literary journal were provided by Gordon Keith Chalmers, President of Kenyon College, while the inspiration to establish the journal and raise the national stature of the institution had come from his wife Roberta Teale Swartz, herself a poet and a friend and protege of Robert Frost. Frost encouraged the idea and visited Kenyon more than once. The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom was recruited to Kenyon by Chalmers with the express purpose in mind of his launching a distinguished magazine. During his 21-year tenure, Ransom published such internationally known writers as Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Mark Van Doren, Kenneth Burke, and Delmore Schwartz, as well as younger writers: Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor, to name a few. It was perhaps the best known and most influential literary magazine in the English-speaking world during the 1940s and '50s. In 1969, discouraged by the quarterly's financial burdens and sagging reputation, Kenyon College ceased publication of The Kenyon Review. The journal was revived in 1979, and in June 1990, internationally acclaimed poet and editor Marilyn Hacker was hired as the Review's first full-time (and first female) editor. She quickly broadened the quarterly's scope to include more minority and marginalized viewpoints. In April 1994, the trustees directed that The Kenyon Review be continued, but with significant cost-reducing and revenue-enhancing initiatives. Hacker left and David Lynn (acting editor in 1989-90), Kenyon English professor, was named editor on a two-thirds time basis. The magazine's financial picture has since stabilized and improved dramatically. The creation of a Kenyon Review Board of Trustees and a renewed commitment by Kenyon College combined to guarantee the financial health of the Review and to free its editors to pursue increased excellence. Such is the status of The Kenyon Review today.