Prac­tice Imag­in­ing Change: A Work­shop Man­i­festo

A WORK­SHOP MAN­I­FESTO

Poets and Writers - - The Mfa - By He­len Betya Ru­bin­stein

IOPEN the cre­ative writ­ing cour­ses I teach with this vow: “I’ve seen far too many work­shops be­come an in­doc­tri­na­tion into an in­struc­tor’s taste—a se­mes­ter-long ex­hor­ta­tion to love what the in­struc­tor loves and to hate what he does too—and I am go­ing to do my best to avoid that.” The state­ment is meant to pro­tect stu­dents from the shame I felt when, in the first se­mes­ter of an MFA pro­gram in fic­tion, I lis­tened as the di­rec­tor mocked a writer whose books my par­ents, my sis­ter, and I all loved.

I ab­sorbed the ver­dict as truth even though the dis­dain felt like snob­bery: I would never tell some­one they were wrong to love what they loved. It wasn’t that I wanted to please my pro­fes­sor— I’d al­ready voiced my dis­sat­is­fac­tions with his course. What I wanted was to mas­ter the so­cial mores of a cul­ture that, in some un­con­scious and un­ex­am­ined sense, I’d en­tered the MFA pro­gram to join: the cul­ture of the tastemak­ing class.

It wasn’t de­spite but be­cause of the shame I ex­pe­ri­enced that the first cre­ative writ­ing cour­ses I taught re­pro­duced the canon of that pro­gram al­most ex­actly. I wanted to shield my stu­dents from the em­bar­rass­ing ig­no­rance I’d dis­cov­ered in my­self; I thought they should know what “good taste” en­tailed. A ped­a­gogy course had in­tro­duced me to the prob­lem of ed­u­ca­tion as ac­cul­tur­a­tion—a means

I’ve seen far too many work­shops be­come an in­doc­tri­na­tion into an in­struc­tor’s taste—a semester­long ex­hor­ta­tion to love what the in­struc­tor loves and to hate what he does too—and I am go­ing to do my best to avoid that.

of as­sim­i­lat­ing stu­dents into the dom­i­nant cul­ture of a pow­er­ful class—but I dis­cussed ac­cul­tur­a­tion only with stu­dents in my com­po­si­tion cour­ses, not in my cre­ative writ­ing work­shops. I wasn’t yet pay­ing at­ten­tion to the con­nec­tion between the prob­lem­atic con­structs of “bad gram­mar” and “bad taste.” I was still a stu­dent of “good taste” my­self.

We should grab read­ers by the col­lar and never let go, I learned. Write sto­ries so trans­port­ing our prose be­comes in­vis­i­ble. Use as few words as pos­si­ble to move the story for­ward as fast as we can. Never be sen­ti­men­tal, and avoid “pur­ple prose.” Great emo­tion man­i­fests only in­di­rectly, we were told. When a frus­trated class­mate in my MFA pro­gram de­clared him­self a max­i­mal­ist, I chose to pity him. Poor guy: Every­body knew re­straint was su­pe­rior, but he’d missed the boat.

Con­ven­tions of artis­tic ap­pren­tice­ship de­mand that stu­dents be schooled to rec­og­nize, im­i­tate, and as­pire to­ward in­her­ited ideals of great­ness. So maybe it’s not so shock­ing that a writer might pub­lish two ac­claimed books be­fore look­ing down at her own work and re­al­iz­ing that all along, she’d been pan­der­ing to old white men. This is what Claire Vaye Watkins un­packs in “On Pan­der­ing,” her 2016 Tin House es­say: the trou­bling dis­cov­ery that her “hard, un­flinch­ing, un­sen­ti­men­tal prose,” and the de­tails she wrote—like a “nu­bile young girl left for dead in the desert”—re­flected her teach­ers’ ideals, not her own. As de­scribed in Ta­jja Isen’s 2017 Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture ar­ti­cle, “Tiny White Peo­ple Took Over My Brain,” such men had be­come the “imag­ined judge and jury”—if not also Watkins’s ac­tual judge and jury, writ­ing her first glow­ing re­views. This is one way con­ven­tional work­shops en­sure struc­tures of power are re­pro­duced.

As a stu­dent in 2008, I par­tic­i­pated in the work­shop of a story about a Black man’s mur­der by white plain­clothes po­lice. The writer was the only Black per­son in the class­room—what po­ets Ju­liana Spahr and Stephanie Young have called the cre­ative writ­ing in­dus­try’s “mainly white room.” Per

con­ven­tion, he was silent as we de­bated whether the story was “too fa­mil­iar” or “un­be­liev­able,” the ob­vi­ous­ness of the racism it por­trayed re­sult­ing in a kind of cliché. When we were fin­ished the writer blurted, “But it ac­tu­ally hap­pened!” He’d been rewrit­ing the 2006 mur­der of Sean Bell.

It’s dif­fi­cult to cap­ture in fic­tion the im­pact of a real event. But when I re­mem­ber that work­shop, I can’t help but feel that I joined in an ef­fort, by a group of white read­ers, to muf­fle and ig­nore a story of anti-Black vi­o­lence. Back then I still be­lieved race blind­ness might be a virtue, and what my crit­i­cism boiled down to was this: The racism in that story was too overt. I didn’t want to be­lieve it—that’s what “un­be­liev­able” meant.

Aes­thetic val­ues don’t in­clude only “hard” syn­tax and im­agery of “nu­bile girls,” but also the var­ied shapes of nar­ra­tives that read­ers wel­come and pur­sue—from the fairy tale’s arc to­ward a happy end­ing, to sto­ries like my class­mate’s that progress to­ward an un­com­fort­able truth. The one story that never gets called “too fa­mil­iar” may be that of white up­per-class do­mes­tic en­nui. And if academia’s en­trench­ment of cer­tain lit­er­ary-aes­thetic val­ues needs fur­ther ev­i­dence, con­sider the case of stu­dents like a quiet ju­nior I met while teach­ing at the Univer­sity of Iowa. He had come to Iowa to study writ­ing but had yet to meet a pro­fes­sor who seemed to re­spect the sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy he loved. He’d been silent in writ­ing cour­ses, he con­fessed, ever since a first-year in­struc­tor had told him she was tired of hear­ing his voice. Univer­sity work­shops, es­pe­cially pres­ti­gious ones, are no­to­ri­ously un­kind to writ­ers of so-called genre, like him—but you have to be on the in­side, or close to it, to know this be­fore en­ter­ing the sys­tem your­self.

A few years after com­plet­ing my MFA in fic­tion, I en­rolled in an MFA pro­gram in non­fic­tion. There I learned new codes for “good” work. Pre­vi­ously I’d in­ter­nal­ized the ideal of a read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence so ef­fort­less you for­got you were read­ing, but in the non­fic­tion MFA I met read­ers for whom the ef­fort of a dif­fi­cult read was a plea­sure in it­self. In the fic­tion MFA, Do Not Bore Me had been law, but my new pro­fes­sors praised me­an­der­ing prose. Be­fore, my pro­fes­sors talked book deals in terms of ad­vances; now my pro­gram di­rec­tor ex­horted us never to sac­ri­fice a book’s in­tegrity by sell­ing it for more than $10,000. These dif­fer­ences were a prod­uct of genre, yes, but they were also the prod­uct of dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties and their val­ues. In the fic­tion MFA, we read through a con­sumer’s lens and as­pired to­ward com­mer­cial suc­cess. In the non­fic­tion MFA, earn­ing money from writ­ing, or aim­ing to please an impatient read­er­ship, was viewed with am­biva­lence.

A friend in­tro­duced me to Liz Ler­man’s Crit­i­cal Re­sponse Process dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about how dif­fi­cult it was not to in­ter­nal­ize the aes­thetic val­ues of in­struc­tors, who pos­sess the power to grant de­grees, fel­low­ships, rec­om­men­da­tions, and blurbs. Ler­man, a dancer, of­fers a value-neu­tral ap­proach to “get­ting use­ful feed­back on any­thing you make, from dance to dessert.” The method, she says, “en­ables a group of peo­ple to un­cover their var­i­ous aes­thetic and per­for­mance val­ues,” mak­ing them “aware of the nu­mer­ous ways peo­ple see art and the ar­ray of value sys­tems un­der­ly­ing their dif­fer­ing vi­sions.”

Ler­man’s four-step, cap­i­tal-P “Process” be­gins with what she calls “state­ments of mean­ing.” These are re­sponses to the ques­tion “What was stim­u­lat­ing, sur­pris­ing, evoca­tive, mem­o­rable, touch­ing, mean­ing­ful for you” about the work? This is fol­lowed by ques­tions from the artist to re­spon­ders; neu­tral ques­tions from re­spon­ders to artist (not “Why’s the cake so dry?” but “What kind of tex­ture were you go­ing for?”); and opin­ions the artists may choose to hear or not (“I have an opin­ion about

the tex­ture. Do you want to hear it?”).

I wanted to fol­low Ler­man’s ex­am­ple by mak­ing in­di­vid­ual stu­dents’ val­ues more trans­par­ent. But I knew that many un­der­grad­u­ates are de­ter­mined to ex­pe­ri­ence the cre­ative writ­ing work­shop they’ve imag­ined: a silent writer tak­ing in the read­ers’ cho­rus. I also wanted a par­a­digm that would ap­ply equally to dis­cus­sions of pub­lished and in-progress work. The so­lu­tion I came up with is an adap­ta­tion of a stub­bornly en­trenched model, not an over­haul. It’s a strat­egy for ad­dress­ing craft, giv­ing feed­back, and con­duct­ing work­shops, when I’m not sure that ad­dress­ing craft and con­duct­ing work­shops should be all, or even most, of what a writ­ing course does. I call the prac­tice “val­ue­trans­par­ent,” since neu­tral­ity is a prob­lem­atic goal, and be­cause I hope the ex­er­cise might help stu­dents rec­og­nize and trust their own val­ues.

I’m not con­vinced that my way of teach­ing is ideal. But I am con­vinced that we can teach cre­ative writ­ing with­out the lan­guage of fail­ure or suc­cess, crit­i­cism or praise, and that do­ing so will help us avoid re­pro­duc­ing sys­temic op­pres­sions, dam­ag­ing stu­dents psychologically, and stunt­ing cre­ative work.

The ex­per­i­ment be­gins with two ques­tions: What hap­pens if we take value lan­guage out of the class­room, avoid­ing words like good, work­ing, strengths, bet­ter, im­prove? Can we abol­ish our faith in writ­ing that is “good” or “bad”? The re­sult, I hope, is that our con­ver­sa­tions about craft can be rein­vented and rein­vig­o­rated as con­ver­sa­tions that re­mind us what art is for.

WRITE the story (or es­say, or poem) you want to read in the world.” My cour­ses be­gin with this in­vi­ta­tion for stu­dents to cre­ate their own goals: for the stu­dent who loves be­ing en­ter­tained to fig­ure out how to en­ter­tain; for the stu­dent who loves dif­fi­cult prose to ex­am­ine how such work en­gages him. As they share ex­am­ples of writ­ing they love, stu­dents be­gin to ar­tic­u­late their aes­thetic val­ues, which they’ll re­turn to in dis­cus­sions of pub­lished and in-progress texts and later use as touch­stones when they re­vise their work.

Our work­shops be­gin as our con­ver­sa­tions about pub­lished work do, with Ler­man’s state­ments of mean­ing. “Mean­ing,” in this case, doesn’t re­fer to in­ter­pre­ta­tion: The ap­proach treats in­ter­pre­ta­tion as part, but not all, of the ex­pe­ri­ence a piece of writ­ing cre­ates. Stu­dents are pleased to learn that the work they’ve pro­duced res­onates in some way, and by re­ori­ent­ing the con­ver­sa­tion around mean­ing, rather than praise or crit­i­cism, stu­dents are able to think about so­cially mo­ti­vated rea­sons to write and share work—to cre­ate an ex­pe­ri­ence for some­one else.

Con­ver­sa­tions con­ducted in the lan­guage of pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives make the writer’s feel­ings the conversational sub­text; the writer be­comes the con­ver­sa­tion’s im­plicit—and some­times

I am con­vinced that we can teach cre­ative writ­ing with­out the lan­guage of fail­ure or suc­cess, crit­i­cism or praise, and that do­ing so will help us avoid re­pro­duc­ing sys­temic op­pres­sions, dam­ag­ing stu­dents psychologically, and stunt­ing cre­ative work.

ex­plicit—sub­ject. Worse, such con­ver­sa­tions ha­bit­u­ate stu­dents to writ­ing for ex­trin­sic rather than in­trin­sic re­ward: for pats on the back. And co­pi­ous ped­a­gog­i­cal re­search demon­strates that a fo­cus on ex­trin­sic re­ward re­duces risk-tak­ing and ham­strings the qual­ity of cre­ative work. “When peo­ple do things in or­der to earn re­wards, they be­come less cre­ative,” write John Baer and Sharon McKool in “How Re­wards and Eval­u­a­tions Can Un­der­mine Cre­ativ­ity (and How to Pre­vent This),” from The Psy­chol­ogy of Cre­ative Writ­ing (Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press, 2009). “When they do things that they think will be eval­u­ated in some way, they be­come less cre­ative; and when they do things to please some­one else, they be­come less cre­ative.”

This is why work­shops ori­ented around praise and crit­i­cism don’t only at­tract nar­cis­sists—a word I use in the sense of one who is un­sure of his self­worth and so seeks ex­ter­nal es­teem— but also cre­ate nar­cis­sists. They un­set­tle a writer’s in­her­ent sense of worth and di­vert at­ten­tion away from in­trin­sic rea­sons for mak­ing art. Even praise, like any other drug, will even­tu­ally poi­son art. Like crit­i­cism, it makes us for­get what art is for.

Our con­ver­sa­tions about craft might re­mind us what art is for by shift­ing away from what “works” to­ward what ac­tu­ally hap­pens when we read. Does your heart race? Do you cry? Think? For­get that you’re read­ing? Pick up the dic­tio­nary to look up a word? More im­por­tant: Which el­e­ments of the text, and of the world the text in­hab­its, de­ter­mine your re­sponse? When a stu­dent is asked to move away from value-laden lan­guage in con­ver­sa­tions about cre­ative work, she is be­ing asked to re­sist a set of neb­u­lous, ar­bi­trary, class- and cul­tur­ally coded aes­thetic val­ues, to study the read­ing process and to de­fine her val­ues for her­self.

“Should we have no stan­dards?” is one re­sponse I’ve heard when I ex­plain that I never say, “Great job,” and never put check­marks in the mar­gins of stu­dent work. “No,” I re­ply, “we should not.” As teach­ers, we might have stan­dards for how stu­dents ap­proach their work, for how they read, ob­serve the read­ing process, de­fine their aes­thetic val­ues, and re­vise in pur­suit of those goals—and we might use these stan­dards to eval­u­ate

Even praise, like any other drug, will even­tu­ally poi­son art. Like crit­i­cism, it makes us for­get what art is for.

stu­dent per­for­mance, when we must. But “stan­dards” inevitably nar­row the scope of what writ­ers en­vi­sion as con­se­quen­tial el­e­ments of their work.

“But I want to know if peo­ple liked what I wrote,” stu­dents might plead. I’ll ask what they mean by “like.” “If they wanted to keep read­ing,” one says. “If they feel moved,” says an­other. These are qual­i­ties we can dis­cuss with­out risk­ing that the writer’s ob­jec­tives are ob­scured. “You don’t be­lieve that Faulkner is good and Danielle Steel bad?” is an­other ques­tion I’ve heard. I point out that dif­fer­ent peo­ple—or the same per­son, on dif­fer­ent days—might choose to read one in­stead of the other. Their bod­ies of lit­er­a­ture ful­fill dif­fer­ent needs.

After state­ments of mean­ing, stu­dents and I spend most of our time point­ing to de­tails of a text—au­tho­rial choices, con­scious or not—and ex­am­in­ing their ef­fects. This dif­fers from con­ven­tion only in that avoid­ing the lan­guage of ex­plicit value pushes us to ex­am­ine the read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with a mind­ful at­ten­tion that re­sults in the dis­cov­ery of our own val­ues. It’s not easy to avoid say­ing, “This is great” or “This works.” We slip up all the time. The learn­ing hap­pens when stu­dents are asked, and I ask my­self, “What do you mean?”

TEACH­ING this way has helped me iden­tify my own (ev­er­shift­ing) aes­thetic val­ues. But the more in­ter­est­ing dis­cov­ery has been how tied these are to my po­lit­i­cal and so­cial val­ues. When I long to per­suade stu­dents to “un­pack” or “com­pli­cate” the tidy happy end­ings of their per­sonal nar­ra­tives, for in­stance, it’s be­cause I want them to re­ject dom­i­nant cul­tural nar­ra­tives that ob­scure what I see as im­por­tant truths. This begs the ques­tion: To what de­gree should I not only teach in a way that re­flects my val­ues—as this ap­proach re­flects a de­sire to foster in­clu­siv­ity, mu­tual trust, and stu­dents’

If you ask a be­gin­ning writer why they write, there’s a good chance they’ll re­spond along these lines: to voice what is un­heard, to com­fort or move a stranger, as a form of protest, a cry­ing-out against or in ac­cord.

self-worth—but in a way that en­cour­ages stu­dents to adopt my val­ues? The so­lu­tion I’ve found is not to hide these be­liefs, but to con­tex­tu­al­ize them as such—per­son­ally and po­lit­i­cally in­formed—and to be clear that I won’t be us­ing my po­si­tion as in­struc­tor to priv­i­lege my views, that stu­dents will have the space to iden­tify, re­con­sider, and find author­ity in their own val­ues.

Even in a course in which aes­thetic val­ues are re­lent­lessly ques­tioned, I’ve ob­served that a col­lec­tive value sys­tem nev­er­the­less tends to emerge. In one class, stu­dents spoke of their “en­gage­ment” with one an­other’s texts in lauda­tory tones; to keep the con­ver­sa­tion in line with my goals, I needed to ask what “en­gag­ing” meant and how a text worked to­ward that end. Was “en­gage­ment” al­ways de­sir­able? Did “en­gage­ment” ever hap­pen at the ex­pense of some­thing else? Maybe “en­gage­ment” meant dis­trac­tion, es­capism, a turn away from the con­tem­pla­tive and to­ward com­mer­cial­ism’s quick thrill, we thought—but then again, maybe “en­gage­ment” could also re­fer to the sur­prises of po­etry and the chal­lenges of con­cep­tu­ally thorny prose.

That a class might ar­rive at a shared value sys­tem isn’t sur­pris­ing: Aes­thet­ics—like gram­mar, fash­ion, and pol­i­tics—serve as mark­ers of be­long­ing. And the val­ues we iden­tify as our own aren’t fixed. I doubt I’d love the au­thor my pro­fes­sor once de­rided if I read his books to­day, and that’s not only be­cause my aes­thet­ics have changed, but also be­cause I have changed, and my ethics have changed—partly as a re­sult of the con­ver­sa­tions I joined when I started my MFAs. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that au­thor’s work doesn’t hold value— its value to cer­tain read­ers, in­clud­ing read­ers I love, is plain. In­stead, this is ev­i­dence of how un­fixed our aes­thetic val­ues are, de­pen­dent far more on a reader than on the text it­self.

Which brings me back to the ques­tion of what art is for. I won’t at­tempt a uni­ver­sal­iz­ing re­sponse. But I sus­pect that there is an eth­i­cal di­men­sion, con­scious or not, to most artists’ work. If you ask be­gin­ning writ­ers why they write, there’s a good chance they’ll re­spond along these lines: to voice what is un­heard, to com­fort or move a stranger, as a form of protest, a cryin­gout against or in ac­cord. Even art cre­ated solely in pur­suit of plea­sure arises from the im­per­a­tive that plea­sure, too, de­serves space—like out­rage or grief, plea­sure is some­thing artists can make.

The con­ven­tional work­shop tends to dis­tract stu­dents from these mo­tives, grad­u­at­ing writ­ers who won­der whether pub­lish­ing a book will change their lives, in­stead of whether pub­lish­ing a book might change the lives of oth­ers; writ­ers who won­der whether their work is any good, in­stead of

whether it does any good. I’ve heard de­but writ­ers say that they can’t wait for the first year of a book’s life to be over, that the bar­rage of award cy­cles and best-of lists, the sense of con­stant as­sess­ment, feels tor­tur­ous. They strug­gle to fol­low the ad­vice of writer and Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop di­rec­tor Lan Sa­man­tha Chang, who, in an ar­ti­cle pub­lished last year on Lit­er­ary Hub, wrote that the most im­por­tant thing writ­ers can do is pro­tect their in­ner lives—to “wall off an in­te­rior room where you’re al­lowed to for­get your pub­lished life.” Fol­low­ing this ad­vice is dif­fi­cult not least be­cause the in­sti­tu­tional struc­tures that os­ten­si­bly sup­port emerg­ing writ­ers do so lit­tle to pro­tect their in­ner lives.

Maybe, though, writ­ing pro­grams and work­shops could train writ­ers to fo­cus their en­ergy some­where other than as­sess­ment, prizes, and re­views. Maybe, in re­fus­ing to take aes­thetic val­ues for granted, in un­cov­er­ing and start­ing con­ver­sa­tions about the ethics these aes­thet­ics man­i­fest, cre­ative writ­ing class­rooms could be­come spa­ces for con­sid­er­ing the role of writ­ers and the work they cre­ate as ac­tors in a pub­lic space, agents of the sort of so­cial change that be­gins when a reader is changed.

The fi­nal ques­tion my stu­dents and I ad­dress in our con­ver­sa­tions is “How else could this be?” It is an in­vi­ta­tion to imag­ine a va­ri­ety of paths to­ward the next ver­sion of the work, and the ex­pe­ri­ences these al­ter­na­tives might pro­duce. The ques­tion has its ori­gins in the tra­di­tional work­shop, but I en­cour­age stu­dents to imag­ine al­ter­na­tives out­side of what con­ven­tions of “im­prove­ment” would sug­gest. Our job as read­ing writ­ers is to re­mem­ber that the story can al­ways be told dif­fer­ently. So I spell it out on the black­board:

OUR JOB IS TO PRAC­TICE IMAG­IN­ING CHANGE.

The fi­nal ques­tion my stu­dents and I ad­dress in our con­ver­sa­tions is “How else could this be?” It is an in­vi­ta­tion to imag­ine a va­ri­ety of paths to­ward the next ver­sion of the work, and the ex­pe­ri­ences these al­ter­na­tives might pro­duce.

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