An old joke says that a sadist is someone who’s nice to a masochist. By that standard, you find both types in creative writing workshops that require students to submit their work for critiques by their classmates. Francine Prose suggests why in an interview with Jessica Murphy Moo in The Atlantic online, reprinted in Reading Like a Writer, that includes these comments:
Francine Prose: “I think that the idea of writing by committee, or learning to write by committee is insanity. It’s just simply insanity. I mean, writing is all about being different from everything else – not the same. So when you’re writing to satisfy the tastes of a group, and presumably you know those tastes after a while, that’s actually quite dangerous.
“ … there’s something essentially sadistic about the whole [workshop] process. I mean to sit there and have the love of your life – your work – something that close to your heart and soul, just ripped apart by strangers. …
Jessica Murphy Moo: “And not to be able to say anything.”
Francine Prose: “Yes – and not to be able to say anything. Who thought that up? It’s so cruel. And everybody essentially knows it’s so cruel, but that’s one of the many things you’re not allowed to say. This whole language of euphemism has sprung up around the inability to be honest. You can’t say, ‘This just bored the hell out of me.’ So instead you say, desperately, ‘I think you should show instead of tell.’ Where’d that come from? I mean, tell that to Jane Austen!”
Comment from Jan:
Philip Hensher was right that a creative writing workshop “can be wonderful, with the right group, with a proper level of trust; or it can be atrociously unhelpful.” Journalist Cheryl Reed got little help from students’ comments she received while getting an MFA. “Most contributors offered terrible and conflicting advice,” she said on her blog. Reed added that although she received many favorable comments on her fiction, the workshop process on the whole wasn’t helpful: “It was mean and mean-spirited.”
I had to submit my work to peers in my undergraduate journalism classes and found the process neutral, neither helpful nor harmful. Perhaps the experience was benign because I had a gifted professor or because the rules for news-writing are clearer than for fiction: Your story has an inverted-pyramid structure or it doesn’t. I’ve also led workshops in college journalism classes I’ve taught, and they had more flexibility than those Prose describes: My students could respond to comments. But I’ve used workshops sparingly for reasons implicit in Reed’s remarks: They can amount to — if not in the blind leading the blind — the nearsighted leading the nearsighted. Some creative writing programs may require workshops partly because, in writing classes that last for several hours, they give everyone a break from the lecture format. For that reason alone, some students and professors welcome them.
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(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.