some thoughts on workshops, feedback, and literary studies… biased, of course.

Ahem. So my desire to post regularly was interrupted by the onset of yet another semester of college. But I kind of saw that coming.


I recently decided to be brave, and ask one of my literature professors to look over some poems of mine, and give me his general impressions. I’d like to say it was no big deal, but it actually took me some time to work up the nerve – firstly because I am, in essence, a coward, and secondly because I know this man has a staggering wealth of knowledge with regards to the study of poetry.


However, I got over my timidity and asked, as it was important to me. Not only am I seeking general feedback as to whether I can claim to be a categorically “not awful” poet, but I am considering entering a creative writing MFA program (should hell ever freeze over and I actually graduate).


The feedback I got was pretty positive, and interesting. Because this professor is not a teacher of creative writing, his commentary came from a particular vantage. His suggestions and observations seemed to place my poetic choices and methods within a greater context, giving me insights and possibilities I had not previously been exposed to (or on some levels, even considered). Interestingly, this felt like a much different experience than any I’d ever had with an in-depth critique, even though I’ve taken a countless number of creative writing workshops. I had to wonder feedback I got from other creative writers really was so different from the feedback I was getting from a PhD in Literature.


So I did something I highly encourage everyone NOT to do: I dug up some old, marked-up poems from my workshop days, to see what sort of commentary I’d received.


The reason I think this sort of thing is a bad idea has nothing to do with the value of critique – it’s mostly that old poems, to put it simply, tend to suck. Confronting yourself with the crap you used to write is a cringeworthy exercise that will make you want to climb aboard the nearest time machine, set the dial back however many years, and beat the crap out of your younger, over-important, emo self. Of course, this wealth of bullshit is likely the fertilizer of today’s garden of talent; it just doesn’t make the wafting fumes of the past any easier on the senses.


Nevertheless, back to my point: the comments I received in workshops usually had more to do with content than with language or form. We were judging each other based on whether or not we found the subject original and/or compelling, and matters of form and language were secondary. There was great focus on clarity of image or narrative, but less focus on how these things worked in a greater context to achieve some sort of poetic cohesion.


In workshops, there is a tendency to evaluate the work of others based on what you want to see, and what you’re trying to do in your own work. Which isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing; it’s actually a very good tool in developing your own taste as both a reader and a writer. The problem is that workshops often include a number or writers with underdeveloped poetic palates, and this perpetuates a standard of bland and limited expectations with regards to style and form. Thus, the focus centers on content: when all are encouraged to create work comprised of narrow verse paragraphs and conversational language, subject/content becomes the easiest place to express ingenuity.


This isn’t something that I would say is a fault of institution or instruction. It’s just the unavoidable effect of pitting group evaluations against creative expression – the most widely accessible understanding of value is going to reflect the most generalized interpretations of dominant trend.


I think that instructors of creative writing (or any artistic workshop environment) have their work cut out for them. Sure, they can introduce students to new forms, possibilities, and examples that defy the generic trend. However, most creative students are more concerned with fitting in than they care to admit. Innovation is shown by propelling the current norm, and pushing it forward from within. Examples outside the current norm are alarming, and not always clearly relevant. Even when those examples are compelling and excellent, they are intimidating. Which is to say nothing of examples from the past – they are archaic and only admirable as archeological objects, and to incorporate elements from such things is to risk sounding irrelevant. (Please see T.S. Eliot for discourse on my poets shouldn’t discount the past, as he captures my thoughts on this rather brilliantly. No surprise; great minds, etc, etc.)


Still, at heart I do believe that the workshop experience was essential to my “finding myself” as a writer. This sort of environment is a good place to start flexing your creative inclinations and figuring out where you want to sort yourself among your peers –showing you what appeals, and what appalls. It provides an audience that is willing (required, really) to engage with your text and provide commentary and observations, something you can’t just get from everyone. It’s also competitive enough to push you to try a little harder than you might try if you were only writing for yourself. I absolutely think that every aspiring writer should experience such a thing. I just don’t think that workshops alone are enough to develop true insight to one’s individual creative talent.


With the literary arts, it’s every bit as important to study literature as a reader as it is to produce literature as a writer. It provides access to a greater vocabulary of style, form, and technique than you’re likely to get from peer discussion on its own. In becoming a knowledgeable reader, there is greater opportunity for insight into one’s own work. (I cannot begin count the number of times I’ve struggled with a poem, and later found the solution to whatever problem in someone else’s writing.) Moreover, there is the potential to make connections with other knowledgeable readers, who can help to evaluate creative work within a greater context. I am firmly of the opinion that literary studies produce stronger, more well-rounded writers.


The risk, of course, is becoming so enveloped in other people’s writings that you fail to produce your own, or instead choose to emulate others to the exclusion of developing your own literary voice. It can also be intimidating as hell, and make you all the more painfully aware of the immense wealth of knowledge that you cannot ever entirely possess.


The best literature professors I’ve had are the ones who’ve encouraged students to approach literature as having no finite answers, but instead as a playground of interpretive possibility. The point is not to be right, or to know everything, but to be able to demonstrate why you’ve arrived at a particular impression or understanding, and how you believe the author has led you there.


While that may not seem a clearly applicable idea to the act of writing poetry, it is. As a writer, you are starting from a point of perspective, sentiment, or understanding, and in some sense showing the reader how to get there. If you understand the choices you make (or can make) in how to get the reader there, and you can defend such choices (whether they are a matter of form, language, syntax, content, meter, etc), then it’s more likely that you have created a successful poem.

2 thoughts on “some thoughts on workshops, feedback, and literary studies… biased, of course.

  1. this very well articulates a lot of my own thoughts on the balance between literature & creative writing. i got asked a lot, while i was in the Literature MA program (and writing poems), why i wasn’t in CW. i can’t do workshops; they drive me bats. personal problem. i would answer, because i don’t think i can learn how to write without reading “the best and most outstanding work of all mankind” (definition of literature provided by my eurocentric junior high english teacher). but seriously.

    playground of interpretive possibility

    this this this! <3

    • Exactly! Learning to write well means subjecting yourself to the excellence of others… which really requires the deliberate cultivation of critcal reading skills, in order to access that fantastic playground :-)

      If ever I had the chance to teach a creative writing workshop, I’d gleefully pepper it with literature analysis and massive amounts of reading. Pretty sure my students would hate me and think I was asking too much of them. Eh.

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