Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Writing workshop: taking the risk to grow as a writer

A couple of weeks ago, my creative writing class held their monthly workshop.  I have ten students working on various writing forms: poetry, short story, prose essay and novel.  What I noticed is they did not seem to know what to tell each other.   Each one knew what he or she wanted from the others but did not have confidence that the others would want the same.  There were so many, "Hey, your story is just great.  I like all the comic moments.  You really made me laugh."  No substance to the criticism.  No chance for growth.  And then big, bad teacher thing had to sit there and attack failing description, pages of telling without concrete, sensory imagery, dialogue that offered little characterization, weak construction and a complete disregard for punctuating dialogue and paragraphing.  These students know better.  So why the sudden regression?

This was the sixth workshop we had this year, and my students had gotten over shyness and taking things personally.  But a new student joining us from another school and choosing not to speak at all when poetry was on the floor seemed to take a lot of the earned confidence away from those who were gaining familiarity with the forms they felt less comfortable with.

Turning the light on in workshop
Today we sat down and talked about what each writer wanted to know to improve the work submitted to the workshop.   There were some revealing moments.  There had been a real division between the poets and the prose writers, a strong belief that there was little they had in common.  But as they added to the list on the board that each wanted feedback on, so much turned out to be the same: imagery, purpose, viewpoint, consistency, tone, tense, timing, conventions.  Sure there were areas that had greater need:  my novelists needed to know that they were consistent with the details, and my poets' main concerns were imagery and message.  But they still all needed this feedback to improve and most importantly wanted it.  By the end of our discussion there was a better sense of how not just to use the workshop to benefit oneself, but how to provide the best assistance to the other writers.

This one class discussion brought back the chance for growth in all of them and put a stop to the belief that there was any good reason to sit out when a less familiar form was needing feedback.  It is two weeks before our next workshop.  I will probably have a briefing the day before we start so they can recapture this new view of criticizing each genre and how they can assist their peers in growing as writers.

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