GONZALEZ: Workshop setting promotes interactive process

Jasmine Gonzalez

jasmune-color-sidedWhether creative writing can ever truly be taught is a major question among writers. The University of Iowa, home of the world-famous Writers’ Workshop graduate program, states that “writing cannot be taught,” but, “writers can be encouraged.” The program brings in writers who display significant writing talent to develop and hone their skills; the degree conferred at the end of their time there is, in a way, incidental.

Creative writing programs are not about manufacturing the next F. Scott Fitzgerald, but about tapping and refining existing potential. The emphasis is on the writing process itself, which can be learned and appreciated regardless of actual talent. Even if writing is not something that can be taught, the act of communicating with a group of different individuals certainly is.

What sets creative writing courses apart from other writing classes is its inclusion of the writers’ workshop, wherein a student’s work is critiqued by a small group of fellow students and, to a lesser extent, the professor. Whereas technical writing can be graded on its ability to match specific requirements, the complexity and subjectivity of creative writing makes it difficult to be graded against a standard rubric. The essence of creative writing is forming a connection with the audience. The workshop, then, is the most effective method of bringing together all of the necessary participants in order to improve a writer’s work.

The writers’ workshop offers skills that transfer directly to everyday life. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, some of the top ten skills sought in a new employee are the ability to work in a team, the ability to communicate verbally and the ability to obtain and process information. Surely enough, the writers’ workshop offers a strong foundation for all of these abilities, especially active listening, a skill often emphasized for both personal and professional success.

One of the most important aspects of the exercise is that the writer being critiqued must remain silent and listen to the discussion, waiting for all discussion to wrap up before offering any explanation or defense for the piece.

The experience can be awkward at first. The temptation to jump into the conversation and explain one’s own work is often overwhelming. But such defensiveness leads to an impasse: readers are unable to voice their opinions, and writers are unable to receive helpful commentary. So instead, we are asked to stop and not just hear, but actively listen to the criticism and consider the points made. Our personal commentary comes in only after everyone else has had the opportunity to speak. Through this process, writers gain new insights on their work and collaborate in creating stronger pieces.

The writers’ workshop process allows the reader to take in someone else’s work and learn how to identify both strengths and weaknesses in a piece and to vocalize these points effectively. The practice tests one’s ability to apply prior knowledge to a new situation, such as writing theory and mechanics in the case of a creative writing class. In this way, students can fact-check, research and engage with a new perspective on their topic. 

The skills learned from the workshop process are crucial to all students, even those outside the humanities. Anyone from an engineer to a nurse to an educator will eventually need to work in a team to brainstorm ideas for the best solution to a problem. The workshop is an immensely useful setting to foster these skills, and one that all students should have experience with in their academic career. Knowing how to actively listen and engage with peers makes these situations more efficient by preventing individuals from merely one-upping each other without considering the validity of each other’s views. With all these benefits, it would be interesting to see the instructors incorporate the workshop process into other academic disciplines as well. Until then, it would not hurt to consider filling in a free spot in your schedule with a creative writing elective, regardless of your field of study.