Is the workshop dead? What about the return to reading as the basis of Creative Writing instruction?

Ana Menéndez (USA / Nederlands) and Alain André (France) exposed their points of view about the proposed questions in the last EACWP Conference in Paris (Nov, 2012)


The following text belongs to the the first panel discussion recorded in the EACWP conference’s proceedings. Ana Menéndez brought into the round table her experience as the founder of the new Creative Writing Programme degree in Maastricht University and also as a writer with an American educational background. Alain André enriched the discussion from his 25 years teaching experience in France, as a writer and also as the creator and director of Aleph Écriture.

Both participants analyzed and contrasted the American model of Creative Writing teaching —since the University of Iowa created its first official academic degree in 1936— with the rather recently emerged European model, whose younger tradition has also evolved more smoothly from the prescriptive pedagogical patterns of literary workshops to a more descriptive way of teaching and creating. “Ortodoxies become entreched. And an established ‘way of writing’ or ‘sound’ is created”, Menéndez underlined. “We work on writer’s process —André remarked— in order to help the students to invent their own creation processes”.

Both agreed on a fundamental idea: in the Creative Writing teaching field skills can be taught and talent can be nurtured as long as becoming a writer also means becoming a good reader.

Panel discussion 1: Is the workshop dead? What about the return to reading as the basis of Creative Writing instruction?


Beyond the workshop

Ana Menéndez (USA/ Nederlands)

“Creative writing” is a funny term. When you think about it, it’s almost embarrassingly redundant as the title of a discipline that purports to trouble itself with good writing. Isn’t all writing “creative” after all? And who on earth ever thought of teaching such a thing? Did Homer trouble himself with the pursuit of a fine arts degree?We can trace the term “creative writing” to the progressive education movement of the late 1920s when the practice of self-expression came into vogue in the U.S. Students were encouraged to find their own voice, explore their own creativity. The term then was a reaction – almost a political reaction to the “uncreative” genres with which students had more traditionally struggled: translations themes, papers, reports.

But the first kind of “creative writing” instruction was meant more for children. In the United States at the beginning of the last century there was deep resistance at the university level to such a curriculum, much as there is today in Europe. In 1906, George Pierce Baker inaugurated a playwriting workshop at Harvard University that became very popular and successful. But he was still unable to persuade Harvard to offer a degree in playwriting. Baker finally moved the workshop to Yale University in 1925, where he helped to found the Yale School of Drama. Just how deep was the resistance at elite colleges? When after the success of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov applied for a professorship at Harvard University, the linguist Roman Jakobson fiercely opposed his candidacy. “Gentlemen,” he wrote, “even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?

The first school to take creative output seriously as a worthy academic pursuit was the University of Iowa, which in 1922 announced it would accept creative work as theses for advanced degrees. A few years later, in 1936, they went further, establishing the first creative writing degree program in the United States. It became a model for the teaching of creative writing. Today, there are some 700 such programs in the U.S.

They have become a mainstay of university education in the United States, often derided, sometimes lauded, but undeniably influential. They have changed the landscape of publishing and reading – Iowa alone counts 17 Pulitzer Prize winners among its graduates. Some of the finest writers of our time have gone through MFA programs among them: Michael Chabon, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, Annie Dillard, Henry Taylor, Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, Paul Harding, Flannery O’Connor, Allan Gurganus, Daniel Alarcon, T. Corraghessen Boyle, Denis Johnson, Nathan Englander, ZZ Packer, Joy Williams. And my favorite poets Philip Levine, Charles Wright and W.D. Snodgrass.

So powerful a cultural force cannot stand long without fierce criticism and there has been much. The most well-known of these was probably Tom Wolfe’s, who in a 1989 Harper’s Magazine piece sniffed at “writers in the university writing programs” who in “long, phenomenological discussions” have “decided that the act of writing words on a page is the real thing and the so-called real world of America is fiction.”

The most depressing of these critics, perhaps, was Kay Boyle, the director of a creative writing program at San Francisco State for sixteen years, who told The New Yorker that, “all creative-writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” Part of the problem, I think, is that the model that Iowa introduced – a workshop of 10 to 15 students led by an established writer talking about why or why not a fellow student’s story “works” has remained almost unchanged for 75 years. Orthodoxies become entrenched. And an established “way of writing” or “sound” is created.

The contemporary workshop has become obsessed with rules (write what you know, show don’t tell, strive for well-rounded characters). Sometimes this works. Sometimes it’s disastrous, as the banality of the comments offered by students of varying experience can sometimes reach hilarious proportions.

I spent a year interviewing writers, researching programs and studying the culture at my university before designing the program we eventually came up with. Most teachers I spoke to urged me to move away from the workshop model. Cristina Garcia called it “The Bad Apostles Model”. Following their advice and examining my own development as a writer, I made the decision to build a foundation of reading before the students even began to write their full-length piece.
Our minor at Maastricht University deals less with “rules” or “tips” than with the process of self-discovery and development. While I don’t agree with Kay Boyle that creative writing programs need to be abolished by law, I do believe that they must radically change. The primary change is away from a reliance on work shopping to a return to reading as a foundation for learning.
At Maastricht, we developed a 20 week course that approaches writing with the philosophy that it is both a skill that can be taught and a talent that can be nurtured. We spend the first 8 weeks studying classics that have something to teach us in a descriptive, as opposed to prescriptive, way. We read Flannery O’Connor for plot, Ernest Hemingway for dialogue, William Faulkner for point of view, John Cheever for setting, and so on. Always the emphasis is on reading for craft itself, the way a fashion designer might buy a garment only to take it apart and see how it’s put together. Students in this course are required to write two papers analyzing stories from a craft perspective. That is, why did the author make the particular choices he or she made in the text. In addition, we do exercises geared to each “foundation” of writing we are studying. For example, for the lesson on dialogue, I have students write the dialogue between a man and a woman in difficult circumstances: She has a lover in the closet; he’s come home early because he’s lost his job.
We talk a lot about how a writer approaches the task, concentrating less on rules (show don’t tell!) than on results. The last class in this first eight-week period concerns itself with the ineffable quality of art that is read, in Nabokov’s words, with the spine. This approach, I believe, hews closer to the spirit of the European approach to art.
Europe enjoys a long tradition of aesthetic philosophy which argues that the “genius” of the fine artist is unteachable. Kant defined this particular genius as belonging to an “exemplary originality” for “which no definite rule can be given.” Insofar as the example of the genius “gives rise to a school, that is to say, methodical instruction according to rules” fine art practice becomes the occasion for a “soulless” art of “imitation,” “aping” and “copying”.
In our course we are searching for the underpinnings of the classical guidelines. These are those qualities that usually appear in the best writing: vividness, a preference for the concrete of the abstract, an attention to and love of language. As well as honoring the fact that the best art has a separate, elusive quality that the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca called duende, a sense of the human that is part keen observation and empathy and is born from a way of living and feeling.
By teaching students how to read closely, analyze for structure, and consider the choices the author made, I’m not just encouraging better writers. I hope I’m also encouraging them to become better readers, more engaged, more wise to what narrative does. For me, the fundamentals of writing have less to do with the accepted forms and more with those qualities of spirit that animate the best art: curiosity, respect, empathy, discipline and above all joy, that ability to keep one’s outlook light and free, even when the subject is most somber. Reading and working in such a way allows one to find pleasure in the process itself. And when you find pleasure in the process, the writing never grows stale.
Alain ANDRÉ (France)
In 1936, the University of Iowa introduced the first creative writing degree program in the United States. The model it introduced —a workshop of a dozen or so students led by a senior writer— remained relatively unchanged for 75 years. But slowly some universities are breaking the Iowa mold by returning to the classical pedagogies —namely studying the masters. At the University of Maastricht, workshops are still part of the instruction, but a much smaller part.
The majority of what we do is teach writing through lots of reading, discussion, and specially targeted exercises. This panel will offer a 10-minute lecture of Maastricht’s program followed by a panel discussion: “Is the workshop dead?”.
If you can stand a last mini-lecture, I’d like to tell you one of the reasons why I stopped believing, as far as the writing workshop as a kind of “cena” or Last Supper is concerned, in Jesus-Christ (as the right posture for the teacher). Of course, as to the relationships between reading and writing, national stories are really different. I’d just like to say a few words about the American one, as far as I know, and about the French one, and then, explain how I dig my way in this old creative writing teaching problem. Three short points, then…
The American story: An academic discipline
Ana’s fine lecture questions the Iowa model. It is noticeable that this critique is frequently developed by American creative writing teachers. Last year, in July 2011, a Conference was proposed in Cerisy-la-Salle about French writing workshops. I listened to a lecture by an American poet there. She lives between Washington and Paris, she teaches poetry at the Iowa University and translation in Paris. Her name is Cole Swensen, she published a dozen of poetry books, some of them translated into French by Corti, and critiques.
She told us that what was invented in French creative writing workshops was fascinating for her, seen from a US point of view. In the States, as you know, creative writing is an Academic discipline, with Masters of Fine Arts (MFA), Masters of Arts being different and focused on literary critique. Students chose writing as their future jobs. They are selected for their writing qualities. The idea is to develop their skills thanks to a favourable atmosphere, life inside a community of other writers and pertinent activities. It lasts 2 or 3 years. You’ve got about 300 programmes like that in the States, with an identical structure: writing workshops and literature courses.
From the very start, creating and learning how to create are linked together. Writing is considered as an art, just as sculpture or music. It began in 1898, with a programme called “verse making”, and the first MFA was created in the Iowa University in 1931. Teachers are mainly writers. Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver were among the first students, as you know, and gave its reputation to the programme. All these Masters developed a lot in the seventies. And now the USA have got a lot of writers able to teach creative writing, but not so many jobs to do so. The pedagogical model seems to be always the same: a group of 8 to 11 students; texts of some pages are shared before the course and discussed during the course.
Cole Swensen’s point of view
According to Cole Swensen, this teaching needs to change, in order to allow work on different and mainly longer texts, and in order to integrate new technologies. She lays the stress on words, instead of expressing one’s own self, on ethics in writing, on collaborative writing, on inter-art writing practices and on translation, but I can’t develop this point. Her point as to French workshops is that we’re inventing generative workshops: we work on a writer’s process and we help students to experience the whole process or device, step by step, to help them invent their own creation processes.
I don’t resist saying now that those workshops are most of the time starting from reading. We don’t suggest exercises, as John Gardner does in his Art of fiction, for instance, let’s say… “Describe a barn as seen by a hungry bird, but don’t say a word about the bird and about the point he’s bloody hungry.” We read short or not so short literary extracts, from Marcel Proust, Malcolm Lowry or Bob Dylan, and the prompts derive from this reading.
The French story.
University: the reign of critique
Anyway, the French story is quite different. Creative writing is not an Academic discipline. The first creative writing Master is being created now in Toulouse. Creative writing teaching was abandoned even in secondary schools in 1901, as what we called “Rhetoric classes” disappeared. It became the reign of commentary, text explanations and compelled admiration exercises: the reign of critical reading.
First workshops: the reign of spontaneity
This model began to die at the end of the 60s, after the new novel and the new critique period: with May 68, with a global refusal of magisterial and authoritative courses. New approaches began to be developed in pedagogical movements, among French literature teachers, in continuous education or professional training, and sometimes even in universities. The idea was to write together right now, even from nearly nothing, the atmosphere in the classroom, something somebody said when entering it, a tiny fact. The idea was to look at the student as a potential writer.
You didn’t have to study all the classics, from Homer to James Joyce, before trying to write your own first verse or fiction sentence. You mainly needed to help people love writing instead of hating it as a scholar stupid obliged job. You just needed a magician able to invent prompts. You also needed, did we think, a pedagogy based on personal projects. The idea was also to get reading free. Read what you want and do it the way you like, wrote for instance the French writer Daniel Pennac. Then creative writing workshops associations, reading clubs and so on appeared.
About the relationship between writing and reading in the creative writing workshops. Reading as a writing problem
I can just give a hint about the way I began to think about the problem. It was a problem, because I considered that becoming a writer meant becoming a good reader too, and probably first. As Marcel Proust noticed: “The most difficult point, for a writer, is to become a fine reader of one’s own texts.” As to the first teachers in Aleph-Écriture, a lot of us were former French literature teachers and young writers. We agreed with the idea that too much constraint or literary stringency could be a cause of writers’ blocks for young writers, but we didn’t accept the general worship of spontaneity that prevailed in the seventies.
So we invented a strategy based on “detour”. It means we first gave poetical objectives, explicit ones, to our workshops. But the students were first invited to do something: to write something, not to study a literary text. Then, as they obviously needed some help to go further, they were invited:
– To read short literary extracts related to the technical theme of the prompt: not to produce a scholar commentary about them, but to extract one among the literary tools they just needed to go on with their own writing.
– Then, to share with the teacher about these tools how to use it. Is it really necessary, up to which point? Then, they were invited:
– To share in a small group the texts they’d produced, and to see if the proposed so-called tool was a useful key and device or not.
– To rewrite alone, or just go on with their writing.
– And, but eventually, at the end of the workshop, to read or give their texts to the whole group, members of their small groups being the first readers to give a feedback.
For example, I had a workshop that was designed to help students identify the stake of a sentence. You assume that a sentence is the main stake of any novel, don’t you? I used to read the very beginning of a novel by the French writer Marie N’Diaye: A classical comedy. It’s a rather short novel, but composed of a unique sentence of a hundred pages or about. By the way, you can see we use contemporary writers from the start, which doesn’t forbid us to come back to Montaigne, Chaucer or Tacitus if it seems useful.
I suggested the students to write the beginning of a story that included, as in the novel, a narrator in a certain mood (sleepy, or stoned, or desperate, as you wish) and considerations about the previous and about the upcoming day. The beginning had to be written in 2 or 3 manuscript pages, but in one sentence.
After the experience, you could give students a set of rather long sentences. I have a collection of them, if you like, but they’re in French, by Marcel Proust or Mathias Enard, of course, but also by William Faulkner, etc. They chose just one. Two questions about it: How is this sentence built? How does it “hold”, instead of falling into nowhere and nothing? It was a good introduction to stylistics, I think, even if they were spared with too much of its specific vocabulary. But we were speaking about parataxic and epitaxic sentences, for instance. Then they shared their own sentence in a small group, with the same questions. Then they had to rewrite, to affirm their choices and mainly to make their sentence become a seaworthy boat.
And at the following course, they were invited to give their rewritten sentence and to receive prepared and public feedbacks by the members of their own small group first. Of course, the stakes change when it comes to novel writing, for example. But I use the same scheme when I want students to work on novel structure, on characters, on time in narrative and so on.

Just a last word: why did I work like that as a teacher? Because I think that, at least in France, we have to change the way students or trainees consider literary texts. They are used to forced admiration exercises, they are used to empty or just too erudite or skilful commentaries. They have to become good gold-miners, good poachers, good literary predators, able to look for what they need as writers, and to aim straight as poachers. And how shall they succeed in it, if we, as teachers, don’t help them to read the right way?