Writing Workshops and the “Woke” Mind

Posted on Oct 12, 2017

Writing Workshops and the “Woke” Mind


By Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer


Civilization—the very way we understand the construction of our lives—is a collective narrative, a kind of agreed-upon bestseller. Society is constantly being rewritten—and sometimes this rewriting is called progress. In the last year or so, we have witnessed our collective (western) narrative being subjected to a brutal, ideological editorial, one that aims to curtail our hard-won freedoms. It would be nice to complacently think that this US-led editorial has no affect on the greater world—but this is categorically not so. We are seeing, first hand, the way in which regressive narratives do damage (the Quebec City Mosque attack, for example). In such unstable times, understanding narrative, narrative building, and the craft of fiction are crucial skills citizens must try to master in order to parse everyday world politics. In a climate of “alternative facts” and “fake news” it is more important than ever to create—in the guise of writing workshops—what I will call “imagination” laboratories.

This paper aims to show how writing workshops exceed their prescription of simply teaching people how to write. The writer, teacher, and political activist, Grace Paley, writes that “[t]he idea of writing from the head or from the view or the experience of other people, of another people, of another life, or even of just the people across the street or next door, is probably one of the most important acts of the imagination that you can try and that can be useful to the world” (Paley 202). In that writing fiction aims to bridge the radical alterity of others, it intervenes on phobic ideologies. As well, by imagining other lives, other worlds, and doing so by way of poetic language, and with respect, story-making insistently disrupts the over-arching hegemonic narrative. The writing workshop opens minds by virtue of practicing small disruptions over time. And the products of these workshops—diverse stories from many “woke” minds—are in turn consumed and ignited by many awakening readers.

I’ve been running successful creative writing workshops for about fifteen years. I have taught beginning level students, youth, advanced workshops, and I have taught these workshops in-class and on-line. I have taught fifteen-year-old, and eighty-five-year-old, people. I’ve taught exercised-based classes, prompt-based classes, reading-based classes and workshop-focused classes. I’ve had my students Q&A such writers as Roddy Doyle, Nicholas Shakespeare, Francine Prose, Jonathan Lethem and many others. I have worked through student work one-on-one and in groups. I have asked students to facilitate my classes, and I have asked them to make creative work that has no words in it. I have asked my students to dance. I have asked them to interview strangers. I have asked them to bring in their favourite stories. I have asked them to read critical and political theory. I have asked them to cut up or erase existing work. I have asked them to write the thing they most fear and the things they would never ever dare write about. I have asked student-writers to drive their metaphoric cars over little old men. I have asked them to tell impromptu, off-the-cuff stories. I have instructed my students in yoga and breathing exercises. I have bribed with Smarties! I have taught them the strictest rules about narrative arc and sentence structure and then asked them to read one of Gertrude Stein’s most difficult, confounding novels. I have then asked them why Gertrude Stein is a genius. And I have weathered their fury at me, and enjoyed their laughter. Workshops provide a place for transformation – albeit slow transformation – and they do this by holding space outside of the more normative, regulatory civilization in which we live.

In every class I have taught I have introduced myself, told the student-writers a little about myself, declared to them that I do not pull my punches and that they can expect to be disturbed a little in my class and that this is purposeful, that writing should disturb us, wake us up to who we are and what our singular power is — our discrete and agentive voices — and then I explain that I have a three-pronged approach to teaching the craft of writing.

The first prong is to listen.

I say to my students that writers are listeners. We are the people to whom other people tell their life stories on the overnight bus. Just the other day, as I journeyed home from a long research trip in the UK, on the shuttle to the aircraft in Newcastle, a woman suddenly struck up a conversation with me, and then asked to switch seats on the flight so that she could sit with me and tell me the long, very sad story of her husband’s death, and the complications of her relationship with him, and the horror of dealing with the administration around burying him and dealing with the contents of his Berlin apartment. She told me this story between emotional convulsions. But writers listen to more than story. We listen to syntax and we listen to the eruptive moments — the moment when the woman, sobbing quietly, admitted what a piece of work her husband had been and how she was, in some way, relieved. We listen to the hum of the room, and the swirl of event around the story. In this case, the air-sick child two seats behind us, and the coo of the mother trying to calm him. We listen to the announcements about air pockets and seat belts because we know that story is capacious — that a story about grieving a difficult marriage might need vomit and bad weather. Writers also – when we are any good – have learned to listen to ourselves, to the idiosyncratic and sometimes inconsistent way we notice the world. We listen to this because we understand that story doesn’t really lie in character, in plot, in dialogue, in sentences, or in narrative arc – it resides instead in meaning making. The southern gothic writer, Flannery O’Connor, writes that “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate” (O’Connor 96). A literary text is invested in substitution in order to bring the reader, through the story’s affective, and resonant, strangeness to an otherwise inexpressible meaning. That is to say that meaning-making drives story. And meaning-making erupts in the writer as she grapples with her own noticing of her own idiosyncratic inconsistencies, her own blind spots, her own sudden shock at epiphany. The writing workshop teaches the writing-student to listen for such events.

The second prong is to write. This may seem obvious and I think most students expect that in a creative writing workshop they might be asked to write. There is no rocket science in the simple act of writing. Everyone – or most everyone – learns to do this when they are quite young. But there is writing and there is writing. Many people believe that it’s impossible to learn how to be a good creative writer but I have seen too many students go from zero to sixty in a workshop to believe them. I do not think every person can become a brain surgeon but I think that most people who really want to become a brain surgeon and who are willing to undergo the hard and persistent work of becoming a brain surgeon can become one. And yes, I am equating literary writing with brain surgery. Perhaps you have by now heard the famous Margaret Atwood quip in response to a brain surgeon who told her he wanted to take up writing when he retired. She replied that she was thinking of taking up brain surgery when she retired. Of course, she was joking but the reason the joke works, is that hubris reigns in both instances.

It takes years and years of attention to becoming a writer to master becoming a writer. I started writing stories when I was six years old. I am fifty-two now and am only starting to receive recognition for my persistent study of the craft. I tell my students that a big part of learning to be a more adept writer is to be open to critical feedback. I have really clear rules around workshop approach and make sure my students understand the difference between criticism and opinion. It is not okay, for instance, to say that you don’t like this or that about a fellow student’s work. The person giving feedback has to directly refer to the story and why they felt that this or that feature of the piece didn’t work IN THE PIECE. It is not enough to feel something didn’t work. One has to pinpoint why and give the student-writer the very clearest reasons so that she can address the problem as a craft issue. Teaching students that good writing comes through editorial — and the confidence to parse that editorial feedback and decide for oneself which elements of the feedback will serve the story, and to then decide how to implement these improvements in ways that feel authentic to one’s thematic impulse in a piece and one’s dedication to the tone and voice in it — is ultimately the most useful tool student-writers will receive. Writers are borne as they come to reflect on the act of reading editorial – and reading like writers. I joke with my students that in all likelihood they will not be sitting on the end of my bed ready to defend their artistic decisions when I read their novel so they had better be sure that what they want to say is right there on the page. In this way, every writer has a very developed and strong internal reader.

Which brings me to prong three. Prong three is to read. This prong is a two-pronged prong. The first prong on the third prong is pretty innocuous. Students are required to read. You’d think that students opting to take creative writing workshops would be nerdy book fiends and, while this is mostly true, it is not always true. If I had a dollar for every student I’ve taught who has not read a novel since they were forced to in grade twelve, I would have lunch money for life. I have no real answer to why this is, except for the most banal one, which is to say that everyone can write so everyone thinks they have business writing and that it’s easy. By the end of my courses, my students are thoroughly disabused of this notion even as they begin to see how – in all its difficulty – there is power and beauty in the hard work of becoming a writer.

The second prong on the third prong is the trickier one. I tell my students that I expect them to read their work aloud in class — and I am here to tell you, it scares the living crap out of them to hear this. I tell them that the reason for this is that not only is reading one’s work aloud one of the very best editorials a writer will ever give himself but that I know from experience that having your first public reading coincide with the launch of your first book is not ideal. When I announce that I will ask for volunteers — and keep asking for volunteers until everyone has read their work aloud — feet begin to shuffle and eyes to shift. In one of my classes, an older woman stayed after class to tell me that she would do everything I asked of her with the exception that she would never ever read aloud in class. And I said, never say never. I told her that I only ever asked students to read from work they had just generated from flash exercises I assigned in class so none of it would be edited and no one would have any expectation the material was raw. “So maybe you will eventually feel comfortable enough to read your work aloud,” I said. Every class I politely called on her to read and she shook her head or lowered her gaze until finally about halfway through the course she dared. She was nervous and tentative and brilliant. Was she disturbed? Yes. Was she opened up by this experience? Yes. Did she thank me? She walked out of that course a braver person, and that is something.

I would say that of my fifteen years of teaching — of my hundreds of student-writers — probably roughly one out of each class of student-writers has gone on to publish on an ongoing basis, and a couple of these have been shortlisted for and gone on to win prizes. It’s maybe five percent or less. That is to say that statistically, clearly, you cannot really teach everyone to become a writer. If you only crunch the numbers, you will see that such a small fraction of the student-writers persist in writing or even aspire to continue once the class is over. But the workshop is not about churning out writers who publish. And this is because the writing workshop is not a factory. It doesn’t intend to cookie cutter story, or manufacture some quintessential writer. Becoming a writer involves more than workshops. But workshops are like a creative inoculation. They do something marvelous. They spark in certain people the belief that the thing they most want is something that is attainable. They spark it fiercely or else it would never ever stick over the long haul. The workshop is a laboratory of emotion, of nuance, of listening, reading, and writing. It is an experiment into being okay with other people scrutinizing the outpourings of your heart. It is about being radically willing to write about uncomfortable truths — and perhaps more importantly — about being radically willing to hear the uncomfortable truths other people write about, things you never imagined: hidden brutality, never-spoken hurt, wild, transgressive love, impossible childhood recollections, misunderstandings, vile dialogue, and bittersweet friendships. It constructs from reality at times but it is not afraid to wildly imagine new ways of living, new planets, new politics, and strange happenings at the borderlines of what we think is real, but might only be real insofar as we have made it up, and set ourselves the task of believing in it.

In The Creation of the World or Globalization, the French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy writes that “A people are always their own invention” (104). Nancy also understands that the world in which we live is a world we have collectively built. He also sees that this world we have constructed is a world that “is destroying itself” (34) — and we can see the devastation of capitalism all around us, from the erratic weather we’ve been experiencing to the horrific spasms of psychosis all over the world. The workshop, as we understand it now, is a slow route to solving this problem, of course, but if it is true that people are self-invented and that the world is a story we tell ourselves and one in the process of self-destruction, perhaps it will be through new stories, and specifically through the exchange of new, innovative stories we nurture among ourselves one by one, in radical opposition and without regard for a status quo that is no longer functioning for the greater number of people—perhaps this concept of workshop can provide a test case for larger laboratories of stories, ones that might serve us, might wake us up to our better potential. After all, for a story to work, to ignite, it only needs a critical mass of people to have faith in it. Consider for precisely what, in your daily commute to work, in your understanding of world news, you are willing to suspend your disbelief. Could this story be better? How would you revise it?



Works Cited

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Creation of the World or Globalization. New York: State University of New York, 2007. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1962. Print.

Paley, Grace. Just As I Thought. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999. Print.