Fitting conversations about research into the creative writing workshop

Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay

My interest in the role of research in creative writing has recently led me to some texts on creative writing pedagogy. I just finished Can It Really Be Taught? Now I’ve just started Released Into Language by Wendy Bishop. The Elephants Teach, The Theory of Inspiration, and some others are also on my reading list.

What seems obvious from these readings is that the creative writing workshop is the most common model for teaching creative writing even though there seem to be a lot of questions about how useful it is.

One of the best fictional illustrations I’ve ever seen of the creative writing workshop experience was in a brief scene at the beginning of the movie Wonder Boys (based on the book by Michael Chabon) where the students in the class tear apart Tobey Maguire’s work while he sits there, silenced by the gag rule and either stone-faced or zoned out. Then another student, seeing the way he’s being attacked, chimes in with more positive/constructive feedback to save him. The students in the class hate their classmate’s work largely because they don’t understand it and the writer in question is unable to explain his thinking to them, even if he wanted to (though in this case, it seems unlikely he’d want to, given the nature of the character).

You could argue about whether this is a realistic representation of the workshop environment, but it certainly captures what it feels like to be in that environment, at least based on my memories of my own undergraduate workshop days, particularly a comment element called the “gag rule.”

In her article, “Voice of Authority: Theorizing Creative Writing Pedagogy,” Rosalie Morales Kearns is particularly critical of the gag rule aspect of the workshop experience.(1) This is the rule in which the author must stay silent while their classmates discuss the quality of their work, except to offer clarification (and even then only if directly asked).(2) The reason for the gag rule is to prevent the author from getting defensive or otherwise taking over the conversation, which is a good thought but it seems that in a lot of cases the costs outweigh the benefits in ways that are both expected and unexpected. Kearns’s issues with the gag rule are many but she talks about a specific experience she had in which, as a student, her classmates criticized her decision to write a story that takes place in the tenth century because “so little is known” about that time (they said). The gag rule made it impossible for her to tell them that she had, in fact, done the necessary research to set her story during that period.

As I said, my own creative writing workshop memories have faded with time but from what I do remember, we never had much chance as writers to talk about our process. We would study example texts chosen for us by the professor to study the craft and maybe read a how-to book or two, but there was never a point where we actually got to describe how we got from (to paraphrase Janet Burroway and her co-authors) impulse to revision. And we never heard much from the professors on their own processes either even though they were all published authors themselves. So we never got to hear about the evolution of an idea into a story or poem or essay. We never got to hear about why the author made certain choices and discarded others. Most relevant to my current interests, we never got to talk about what exactly it is a writer does when they encounter a gap in knowledge as they are writing. Or simply wants to set their story during a historical period which would take a great deal of research to understand.

There are a lot of barriers to introducing conversations about the role of research in the creative process in the creative writing classroom, especially at the undergraduate level. First, the AWP Recommendations on the Teaching of Creative Writing to Undergraduates make it pretty clear that at that level creative writing instruction is actually somehow about becoming an expert reader, not an expert writer. Second, teaching this way damages the myth of the author as the divinely inspired genius which creative writing workshops like to uphold. Also writers who teach creative writing may feel these discussions just aren’t a good fit when teaching students about craft (at whatever level that might take place). And finally, teaching about the role of research in writing has generally been the domain of composition instructors. Don’t students already know how to do this?(3)

But I have a feeling that allowing more room for both aspiring and experienced writers in the creative writing workshop to talk about their processes would naturally lead to conversations about research because research is a natural part of the creative process. There would be no need to set aside time for a special “library day” or carve out a day in the syllabus specifically for the topic. It would probably just happen. I mean, look at the “Five Things” guest posts on Chuck Wendig’s blog, in which writers have absolutely no requirement to talk about research and yet it often manages to come up anyway, usually as an exciting challenge that the writer faced along the way to creating their published work.

Obviously, I’m not an expert. I have an aging undergraduate degree in creative writing and while I do produce creative work, none of it has ever been published (in part because I’ve never tried to publish any of it). I’ve definitely never taught creative writing. Yet I feel like there’s value in finding ways to talk more about process alongside discussions of craft, which would require allowing writers to actually talk to each other (not just in a writing journal that only they and the instructor might see) about the work they do (not just a work that they produced). So conversations about research could fit into a workshop model. Just maybe not the one that’s commonly used today.

*

  1. Kearns, Rosalie Morales. “Voice of Authority: Theorizing Creative Writing Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication, 60, no. 4, pp. 790-807.
  2. In a creative nonfiction workshop I took as an undergraduate, the only thing the writer was allowed to say was “thank you” at the end of the conversation, which was particularly grating.
  3. No, because research is contextual in nature. Composition instructors typically teach how to do academic research. While we don’t know much about what creative research looks like, it’s a good bet that it is is actually quite different from the academic research process, though there may be some similarities.

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