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In Praise of Creative Writing Workshops

 

In the June 8 & 15th issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand opens with the statement, "Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem."

The tone is hyperbolic, so perhaps he's trying for humor. But the rest of the article and the title, "Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be taught?" suggests humor is not the prevailing sentiment of this writer. In fact, the article reopens what feels like an old debate: Can creative writing be taught? It refers to Mark McGurl's book, The Program Era, which argues, among other things, that such programs stand "as the most important event in postwar American literary history."

I haven't read McGurl's book, but I plan to. I just want to tackle Menand's opening.

School has started again, which means workshops are being held across the country, which means writers are gathering to give full attention to a fellow writer's work. I am fortunate enough to be leading one of those workshops. We are a couple weeks into school, and I've seen so much variety, so much risk-taking in students' writing. But more than that, in the discussions, I've seen so much intelligence. In Menand's opening statement, there is a huge and significant discounting of what actually goes on in a workshop. Menand divides the world into two types: those who have published and those who have not. And those who haven't, he implies, have nothing to offer but ignorance.

How wrong he is. In my workshop, over the course of three hours, the MFA graduate students have discussed two works of fiction, covering pacing, characterization, dialogue, narrative distance, structure, sentence structure, setting, tone, balance of interiority to exteriority-on and on. Have any of them published? I don't know and I don't care. I just can't wait for next week's discussion.

At the end of the article, Menand admits that despite everything, workshops do, indeed, work. He'd taken poetry workshops as an undergraduate, and, he writes, "I wouldn't trade it for anything."