I once heard a story of a math professor who only gave open-book exams, because he reasoned that there were very few times in life when you could not take advantage of all your resources to solve a problem, few times when you would be so isolated that you could not look up the answer to a question. This has become the guiding principle for workshops in my creative writing classes.
My philosophy of the workshop comes out of Matthew Goulish’s “On Response,” in which he writes:
“We have two kinds of extremely delicate ecologies that it is our mission to protect here: the ecology of the individual practice, and the ecology of the community. I have just spoken about the community. Now I will say something about the problem of critique in relation to the individual practice. When the critical mind is engaged to praise the success of a work or to police its failures, the result nearly always threatens the ecology of the practice, mostly because those very subjective assessments masquerade as objective rules. What if somebody you respect praises some aspect of your work, and then as you continue to work on it, you realize that is the very aspect of the work that you need to edit out? You will hesitate. You will lose the merciless relation to your work that you must have in order to create. Of course, on the other hand, a negative critical comment can also forestall the development of that less successful quality of the work into something of great value. Understanding your own practice means understanding that nobody else can really enter into its stream, just as you cannot really enter into the stream of another. So with that impossible position in mind, what do we do?”
The goal in workshop is not to find things wrong to fix. (How many times have we heard “I couldn’t find anything wrong–good job!” or “It’s good, make it longer!”) We are not trying to fix broken work, because we are in a creation stage. That’s editing and it’s putting ourselves in authority to the writer and what the writer wants out of a draft. What we are doing is building forward, looking for what we can do as a group to get the writer to the next draft. One mantra of my classes is one draft leads to another and we talk about how you can’t skip steps. You can’t go from Draft 1 to Draft 5.
Too often we think about feedback as painful, as finding faults in the work—and by extension, finding faults in us as the writers. Feedback should not be painful. If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.
To get away from purely grammatical feedback and all the other responses that irritate professors, I do not require students to mark up the drafts and return them to the author. Their only written workshop responses are these priorities:
- Two craft-based priorities. What craft elements should the writer concentrate on when they go back to revise?
- Contains textual references. Must contain references to the text, quote, or page numbers.
- Meets word length (100-150 words).
- Is productive and substantive. They must contain actionable advice that the author can use when they go back to revise. If you’re writing one of your priorities on characters (like the sample), what should they do in revision? Put a character into a scene? What do you want from that character development? Why do you want more of them on the page? Responses that don’t contain actionable advice won’t receive full credit.
Students turn their drafts into the Canvas discussion board ahead of time and peers reply to the discussion board with their priorities before class starts. Because we are not working with critique, we’re not looking for what’s wrong with the piece, we start moving away from I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. We are focusing on forward facing feedback. We’re noticing what the author is doing with characterization, and can offer feedback on what they might try in their next draft. As we’re not working towards perfection, but revision, we continually talk about what will get this writer to the next draft, because we can’t skip steps.
Because the focus is priorities in revision, we get away from purely I liked/didn’t like, or I could relate, because those aren’t craft concepts. Characters, structure, exposition, development, any of the craft concepts we’ve talked about all semester are fair game to use.
Here are a couple of samples:
Character development- From a reader’s perspective, there seems to be a good starting place for your character development. I don’t think there is a real need to “See” your brother, in terms of the physical, more than you already did. Also, I like how we get bits of personality and character quirks in the both of you through out the piece. I would suggest adding some more details about your sister-in-law. We hear about you and your brother when y’all get mad (2) and a few other moments, but all the reader hears about your sister in law is “knew there was pain lurking behind her eyes” (4). I realize the piece is focusing on your sibling relationship but I think some details about Sarah could help.
Scene – I thought you did a fantastic job using the engaged I! I would have, however, loved to see some scene. We get a lot of amazing things, particularly your thoughts on the page, but we get no description on the page or characters. Recall, that if you want to draw attention, make a scene! What about this do you want to draw attention to? You might consider adding scenes from more recent times. Do you do any activism? I know this is a really specific example but I want to give you something to go on. You might also consider adding a scene of you sitting through those 4 one-hour-long readings. Were you sitting on your hands because you ached to do something different even if it was just picking at the carpet? Was your mind fully there in those sessions or were you off in some distant land?
Structure: Specifically, beginnings. Your final paragraph sparkles on the page. What would it look like to begin the piece with this paragraph? Or, since you already use white space, it could begin a section? That paragraph does such a good job communicating your theme that I wanted more when I read it. Also, you mention two key themes in that final paragraph: seeing ourselves in objects and seeing other people in objects. You explore both throughout the piece, and is there a way to make them more distinct? I think you can easily incorporate both themes, but they seem a little blurred, as if you go back and forth between them. Maybe you could dedicate specific sections to each one, then unify them at the end, if that resonates with you.
This style of workshop response confirms the knowledge of the peers: they do know what they’re talking about and do have the expertise to start a conversation about the craft at work on the page in front of them. On my workshop rubric, the responses are weighted the same as the in-class verbal contributions, so that if they miss one or two, it doesn’t tank their grade.
What’s also beneficial here is that everyone is coming to class with something substantive to contribute: when workshop conversation stalls, I can call on individuals to talk about a priority they have for the author in a way that doesn’t cause stress. Since the class can see all the responses, they know how their feedback is in conversation with others.
By asking students to rethink the focus of the workshop, we are working towards more forward-facing substantive feedback with the vocabulary we’ve been working on all semester. When we remove wrongness from the conversation, when we consider that the purpose of a workshop is not to fix broken work, but to give the author room to consider what might happen in the next draft, then our feedback can also become more productive.
Karen Babine is Assay’s editor. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions, 2019) and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), both winners of the Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction. Her third book, Acadie, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2022. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Find her on Twitter and online at www.karenbabine.com.