Over my first five years of teaching creative writing, I noticed a common theme in conversations with both students and fellow faculty: overwhelm. Everyone was always running on empty. Midway through our fifteen-week semester, my students looked ashen and exhausted. They couldn’t stay on top of their work. They struggled to concentrate. They had no time or energy to write.
The same was and is true of faculty. Colleagues muse about trying to set up writing groups to share and critique works in progress only to find that the meetings actually feel like more more work, more distraction, and like a further encroachment on writing time.
I’ve come to consider something almost heretical in the world of workshops and peer feedback: is it possible, I wonder, that we talk too much? Could it be that talk isn’t always helpful? What are the chances that what’s need is less talking and more writing?
In my sixth fall of teaching, I invented the “writeshop.” That is, I reserved a certain number course meetings for in-class writing. I did so not only on a hunch that students needed quiet time for their mental and emotional well-being but also because I suspected that few of them really knew what it felt like to work properly, calmly, and regularly. What I had in mind was not merely therapeutic but also pedagogical: I wanted to help them build positive, life-long habits.
In my first semester of writeshops, I scheduled three such sessions. The first two preceded our major workshop submission deadlines and the final one gave the students time to work on a final revision.
Even as I put my plan in motion, I wondered if students would show up to a class in which we didn’t talk. Spoiler: they did and they do!
What happens in writeshop is simple.
Welcome: Students arrive in class, whether by Zoom or in person. We greet one another and talk about what is on the menu for writeshop, whether a prompt, a revision, or something else.
Set Up: I check to see that everyone knows what they are doing, field any questions, and support any students who need help getting started.
Purpose: I remind them what the point of writeshop is and what I am trying to communicate by having them engage in such an exercise. “You know that little voice in the back of your head that says, that sounds so dumb…don’t write that!?” My students always nod with recognition. “Tell that voice to be quiet. Don’t listen to it. Today, I want you to write without judgment. Don’t worry if it’s any good or not. That’s what revisions are for. We’ll get to that.”
Other lessons of writeshop:
- Writing without panic or all-nighters feels way better than the alternative.
- Good writing takes time. Only by putting a text down for a while can a writer get the distance necessary to figure out what the next step should be. And you can only put a text down if you have the time to do so.
- Writing is not magic. It gets done one word at a time and it’s not necessary (and is sometimes detrimental) to wait for inspiration or only to work in a particular café. The trick to writing is to write. In other words, there are no tricks.
Structure: I announce how long we will write: usually an hour or so, depending on the class. Reserve ten minutes at the end to wrap up.
Active Work: Once writeshop starts, quiet falls over the room. Students may turn off their cameras on Zoom, though I leave mine on. It’s important not to give in to the temptation to fill silence with talk. Let your students write.
Wrap Up: Ten minutes before our time is up, I give a gentle warning that writeshop will end soon and encourage everyone to get final thoughts down on the page.
Reflection: At the end of writeshop, we turn our cameras and mics back on (if on Zoom) and then take about ten minutes to share impressions. Students talk about what they wrote, how it felt, and plans for next steps. Students who showed up looking haggard and stressed are now smiling and relaxed. “I feel so much better,” they say. “It really helped knowing that others were writing too.” Improvements are not limited to moods and complexions. I’ve seen great results in their work, which is more thoughtful, more daring, and deeper as a result of our writing in community.
Document: I often have students submit a copy of what they produce during writeshop but only as a record and form of accountability. In generative writeshops (as opposed to ones dedicated to revision), it is essential for students to feel that they can write without fear of judgment of any kind. I never grade generative writing, except as complete or incomplete.
An example of writeshop instructions:
Writeshop: Thinking About Place
- Tell the story of a location. Possibly one that is very close to your heart that you already know well, or a new one that inspires your curiosity. Pay particular attention to your own connection to the location, however small or large that connection may be.
- Choose a location that you’ve come to know as an adult. Compare how you interact with this setting now to how you interacted with similar settings when you were a child. How has your perspective changed?
The clearest sign that writeshop is both necessary and successful came in this pandemic year. Over the past few months, several students have asked me to organize writeshops outside of class. They needed the support, the structure, and the togetherness it offered. I’ve obliged them. How could I not?
I now host an open drop-in writeshop for my undergraduates on Fridays. I open up a Zoom meeting, greet whoever is there and we work for up to two hours. I work on my book or on a lecture while they work on a creative honors thesis, an essay, or something else. Sometimes, if they need help getting started, I give them a prompt. At the end, we touch base. Smiles all around.
We faculty can learn from our students: what helps them can help us, too. Alongside my student writeshop, I’ve also been doing a weekly writeshop with a friend. We log on to Zoom, greet one another, and then minimize our windows, mute ourselves, and write for two hours in silence. At the end of our writing session, we turn our mics back on and follow up. Just like my students, I too inevitably feel happier and more relaxed.
Senior Editor Julija Šukys is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she teaches the writing of creative nonfiction. She is the author of three books, including Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning and Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaite. Epistolophilia won the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature. She also directs the Missouri Audio Project.