Micro-review: Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?

Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?
Edited by Dianne Donnelly
(Multilingual Matters, 2010)
ISBN 9781847692689

Part of a series of books on the analysis of creative writing, Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? is a variably interesting collection of essays surrounding the question posed by the title. It’s unfortunate that the foreword is technical and abstruse to the point of being almost incomprehensible (and certainly not a good example of ‘creative writing’, unless the aim was to create the desire to run as quickly as possible in the other direction). For the most part, the essays reflect the personal responses of a number of creative writing teachers less to that question (i.e. ‘Does the Writing Workshop Still Work’) than to the broader issue of where the teaching of creative writing fits within the academic spectrum, and what are the peculiar challenges facing creative writing pedagogy, now and in the immediate future. Although there are contributions from teachers in Australia and the UK as well as the USA, I found the focus (especially in the recurrent references to ‘composition’ and ‘rhetoric’ studies) a little too heavily biased towards the approaches in the latter. There are historical as well as numerical reasons for this, but it did make for slightly distanced reading. This may also have been the reason for the fairly theoretical lit. crit. tone of many of the pieces.

Having said that, there are a number of essays that had me reaching for my teaching notebook, and a number of interesting and practical suggestions for ways to work around some of the problems raised. (Some examples: the need to actually teach students how to go about the business of making an intelligent and informed critique of others’ work; strategies for dealing with the discomfort many students have of sharing incomplete work in class; the importance of actually examining the basic ways a writer goes about constructing a poem (or whatever), even (or especially) with students who already know how.) I personally would have liked more of this approach – I come very much from what Dianne Donnelly describes as the “untrained creative writers (… not [having] had any formal teaching training in our field) … teaching ‘by the seat of our pants’” side of the equation, and was hoping for practical suggestions for concrete (rather than theoretical) things I could incorporate into my teaching. Large amounts of literary, academic and/or pedagogical theory did have me yearning for some excuse – housework, even – to stop reading.

But all in all, an interesting collection of essays, various enough in scope and approach to provide something for virtually every kind of creative writing teacher. It created more questions than it answered, but I suspect that was the point. Cautiously recommended.

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4 thoughts on “Micro-review: Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?

  1. It sounds as though you need a question mark at the end. Whom exactly do you cautiously recommend it for?
    If the book is entirely written by teachers, then surely there is one side of the equation missing. Why is there no input from students who attend these classes? They surely are the ones to whom this question would have the utmost importance. How often the end ‘user’ is left out of the discussion.
    Formal training does have it’s place, but oft times it just changes the teachers style, and not always for the better.
    But “does…(it)..still work?”. I would have to say from my own perspective, a resounding YES!
    Socrates the old Greek ‘gadfly’ was inculpated of teaching(?) the same ‘old’ ideas over and over, but his response was that to listeners who had not heard before they were ‘new’. Maybe the Writing Workshop still works well for those who want to learn, but maybe the teachers are tired of ‘working’ at it. (And I’m glad to add you do not belong to the latter group). It could be that some teachers need to (re)learn[b]how[/b] to make it work. There again some of the best trained teachers, teach ‘by the seat of their pants’.

    • The range of approaches was sufficiently various so that I can safely say all of your objections were covered by at least one person. The book is aimed at teachers of creative writing, and is about the teaching aspect, hence the focus on responses from teachers. But there were quite a few who had surveyed their students and incorporated student responses and concerns into their essays. The cautious recommendation is for anyone who is interested in the teaching of a writing workshop, and who isn’t put off by rather a lot of pedagogical theory (or who quite likes that sort of thing). It’s interesting, and will, I think, be helpful. But it is more theoretical and academic than ‘practical’, and often isn’t easy reading.

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