Like many creative-writing instructors, for most of my teaching career
I’ve led classes based on the workshop model: a student brings in a
draft, and we talk about how to make it better. When considering a
student’s poem about her soul-destroying job at Staples, say, the other
students and I might suggest some cuts, or modified lineation, or we
might point the poet to some established author whom she could emulate.
But we would not discuss the larger social reality of which that job was
a part, and how the writer might think about it. The limitations of our
dialogue are partly due to a model borrowed, in my classroom and in most
of the three hundred and fifty-odd graduate programs scattered around
North America, from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. With its
focus on craft, the traditional writing workshop largely limits the
instruction of writing to aesthetics—and so mostly precludes broader
conversations that might provoke students to consider content as well as
form.

One of the goals of this scheme is to avoid instructing the student on
what to say, and, instead, to focus on how to say it better. In
practice, though, it isolates the act of writing from much of what
informs literary work. In a piece for the Times in April, the writer
Viet Thanh Nguyen, recently named a recipient of a MacArthur “genius”
grant, described his frustrations with this approach as he experienced
it as an undergraduate, at Berkeley. “As a young aspiring writer, I was
troubled by how these workshops, aside from the ‘art’ of writing, did
not have anything to say about the matters that concerned me: politics,
history, theory, philosophy, ideology.” Nguyen’s piece echoed a lament
published by Junot Díaz, in 2014, which describes Díaz’s experience in
graduate school, at
Cornell
. “Shit,
in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion
someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the
discussion a serious writer should not be having,” he writes. One can
take such critiques further: on Literary Hub, last fall, Namrata Poddar
argued that one of the classic commandments of the writing workshop,
“show don’t tell,” was, as she put it, a “colonial relic,” which ignores
the power of “orality” in literary traditions around the world.

M.F.A. programs are not a monolith, of course—under its current program
director, Lan Samantha Chang, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has adapted to
some of these critiques; Carmen Maria Machado, who graduated from the
program, in 2012, (and was recently named a finalist for the National
Book Award for Fiction), told me, over e-mail, that, when she presented
“genre and form experiments with feminist/queer concerns,” her
professors and “classmates were unflaggingly supportive and game.” But
such progressive approaches remain particular to specific cohorts; there
is not, so far as I have been able to find, a pedagogical model designed
to encourage curricular support for ideologically inquisitive work.
Writers have been sitting around tables talking about craft for more
than eighty years. Are there other conversations we could be having?

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