Hot for creative writing teacher

This year I'm doing a Winter Wheat session on the creative writing classroom: the good, the bad, and everything falling in between (and in poetry workshops, so much is indeed the in between).

So I'm asking y'all...what makes a poetry or fiction workshop worthwhile? What makes it excruciating?

And heck, while we're at it, why not bring up the point behind workshopping. Is it just to force writers to produce more material so that they can a) feel creatively and/or intellectually superior to; or b) feel limpid, anaemic, and feeble (but all in a poem-inspiring way) in comparison to their peers around the table? Is there such thing as a positive, nurturing workshop environment, or are we just braggarts and voyeurs of verse? Can workshops help some writers while hurting others? As teachers, how can we make the workshop work? I will be sharing some of my own hippy-dippy feel good teachin' ideas here as well...


Hi Mary -- Here's a few scattered thoughts for you. For me, the best workshops have been those that not only provide good comments/insights on the poems I bring in, but that also get me writing more poems through specific writing assignments -- showing me new ways to write poems. This also can happen just through the osmosis effect of being in that kind of dialogue with good poets. As an offshoot of that, a good workshop hopefully also puts a writer in touch with peers that she or he will continue to share poems with and have an ongoing working poetry relationship with. That also touches on what can make or break a workshop, I think, which is the quality of the other people in it -- in terms of their writing, but especially in terms of their critical contributions to the discussion of your work. Ideally, there's a balance there -- so that you're not totally out of your league or, just as bad, too big a fish for this pond (to throw two cliches at you), or stuck in a workshop that's too fiercely divided along differing aesthetic lines. Lastly, I'd say a good workshop also includes a good amount of one on one time with the teacher to discuss in more depth what's touched upon about your poems in the workshop.
P.S. I forget to add about your post title -- NICE Van Halen reference!!
Penultimatina said…
NICE Van Halen reference!!
You can take the girl outta Michigan, but classic rock...

Thanks for all of your thoughts, MQT--I agree completely. I'm always trying to tell my advanced students, "Hey! These poetry workshop peers might still be your poet friends ten years from now," and they look at me with disbelief, but the proof is in the pudding (cliche right back atcha!).

I've always felt like a good workshop just created this vibe...and as a student I wanted to spend time outside class chatting with my fellow poets. One on one time w/prof is so big too; I was just reading this thread on the Chronicle of Higer Ed discussion board about office hours, and it reminded me of how much I loved meeting with my profs as an undergrad. It was always a conflict between paying attention to the conversation and letting my eyes wander over to the bookshelves. Oh! All of those books!

I think diversity--of every kind--also helps in a workshop. I was always bored in situations where everyone was trying to write the same poem about the bar at the end of the street.
Frank said…
For me, it's simple. The best workshops have always stoked the competitive flame. Sure, there's something to be said for the inspirational power of reading really bad writing, but even that works best when it's been published (like "Man, such-and such journal published this garbage? I can beat that"). Nothing ups the ante like workshopping great writing, though. It's a challenge that demands you go high or go home, to use a euchre metaphor.

So really, nurturing environments are nice and all, but it comes down to the overall quality of the workshop writing.