#AWP2017 Conference Report – Vivian Wagner on “Opening the Doors to Discovery: The Generative Writing Workshop”

awp#AWP17 Panel S112: Opening the Doors to Discovery: The Generative Writing Workshop

Description: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” said Robert Frost. How do creative writing teachers help students open the doors to discovery? This panel will explore generative workshop for adult writers. Panelists have taught many workshops in all genres and developed a sense, practical and intuitive, about the value of using prompts to generate fresh and surprising writing. The notion is reminiscent of Buddhist koans: be in the present and respond to what occurs in the moment.

Panelists: Rachel Basch, Baron Wormser, Rebecca McClanahan, Dustin Beall Smith, Kim Dana Kupperman

Conference Report

I first experienced a generative writing workshop with Rebecca McClanahan at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop several years ago. It was a magical and invigorating experience, and it fundamentally changed my approach to both writing and teaching. So when I saw McClanahan was presenting on this generative writing panel, I knew I had to attend.

Generative writing workshops are entirely different from traditional writing workshops, emphasizing, as they do, the creation of new material rather than the critique of existing work. They’re lively spaces that foster unexpected discoveries, surprising connections, and unbridled creativity. This panel offered a variety of perspectives on the value of this kind of workshop, particularly for adult learners.

The session opened with a presentation by McClanahan, who talked about the roots of the word “generate,” including birth and electrical production, both of which can serve as apt metaphors for the process this kind of workshop. She then described six principles that guide her generative writing workshops:

  1. They’re communal rather than competitive.
  2. Exercises can build on one another, becoming more complex as the class goes on.
  3. Workshops often involve close readings and examples from model texts, with prompts focusing more on form than on subject matter.
  4. They involve periods of in-class writing, while also allowing participants to complete work outside of class.
  5. They do not involve critique, but rather close listening, note-taking, and suggestions for where to take the work next.
  6. Quantity is as important as quality in these workshops – and probably more so.

She emphasized that participants in her generative writing workshops create as much new work as possible and go home with many ignited sparks – some of which might eventually be reworked and revised into completed pieces.

The next presenter, Dustin Beall Smith, argued that technology has disrupted how we experience the present moment, and that prompts in a generative workshop serve to awaken participants. He described slamming his hand down on the table in a workshop to wake everyone up, and he said that prompts can serve a similar function. Ultimately, he said, such alertness leads to enhanced creativity.

Smith spoke of kundalini energy, which he described as a serpent coiled at the base of the spine. When it’s prompted into life, this serpent – like a current of electricity – travels up through the chakras into consciousness. He said his generative writing prompts tap into the emotions and energy of the root chakra so that writers create powerful work. To this end, he’ll often use prompts that tap into pain and anxiety. For instance, he said, he’ll ask students to recall and write about the most painful and upsetting day of their lives.

The next panelist, Rachel Basch, argued that generative writing workshops are “an antidote to the way I’d been teaching writing.” She spoke of the value of using passages from literary works to prompt work. In her workshops, she asks students to discuss passages, to respond to what’s there, and then to write. A generative workshop like this, she said, is “like praying or meditating with others.”

Baron Wormser started out by saying that “a prompt is a quick way into the unconscious.” We’re all trying to get there, he said, and yet we’re all shackled by the conscious mind. A prompt creates a situation where we have to access something.

“A prompt is an incitement,” he said. “It’s a jolt. It offers an opportunity for engagement.”

A prompt asks students to grapple with the present moment, and in this, argued Wormser, it’s like a Buddhist koan, prompting unexpected and powerful connections. Prompts, too, counteract the tendency of many writers to limit when and where and how they write. Wormser described, for instance, a student who could only write “at midnight of a full moon listening to Metallica.”

In the end, he said, you just have to write. You’ve got to be there. And generative prompts create the conditions for unbridled and unrestricted creation.

Finally, Kim Dana Kupperman talked about how she likes to teach students to locate prompts – what she calls “pressure points” – in what they read.

“Locate your own prompts,” she said. “There’s one on every page.”

This panel was energizing and exciting, a celebration of the power of creation and the importance of making spaces to encourage and support it. Ultimately, it inspired me to go forth, generate new work, and help others to do the same.


Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington) and a poetry collection, The Village (forthcoming from Aldrich Press-Kelsay Books).

One comment

  1. As moderator of this panel, I am most thankful for your enthusiastic endorsement of the talks we gave. To clarify, however: my talk was about how one might apply literature-generated prompts from a generative writing workshop to a class on reading literature (and in the case of a class I recently taught, readings in essay and memoir). Hence the line about Virginia Woolf’s work, that there is a prompt on every page. My goal is to teach students how to locate prompts in the reading they do. This practice engages writers/readers in an exercise that promotes the ability to find–in one’s own work–what Michael Steinberg calls “pressure points,” or the prompts to the writer to amplify or develop certain moments in their writing. Thanks! As I said, I am grateful for the write-up. –Kim Dana Kupperman


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