Jeremiah Chamberlin is the Associate Director of the English Department Writing Program at the University of Michigan and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. He is also the editor-in-chief of the online literary journal Fiction Writers Review. His work has appeared in such places as The New York Times Book Review, Glimmer Train, Granta, Flyway, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is the recipient of residencies and fellowships from The Interlochen Arts Academy, The Glen Arbor Arts Association, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. He is also the co-author with Natalie Bakopoulos and Eileen Pollack of the creative non-fiction textbook Creative Composition, forthcoming from Cengage in 2013.
Whenever my students complain about workshop, their gripes invariably have to do with issues of reciprocity. Or, rather, the lack thereof—they have spent a great deal of time carefully reading and writing thoughtful comments on the work of their peers, only to receive the vaguest feedback in return. They are angry because they feel that workshop is a social contract. Specifically, one predicated on The Golden Rule: Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You. They've spent months "putting in their time" writing critiques and commentary with the understanding that the "payoff" for this diligence would be receiving the same level of attention to and suggestions for their work. Sometimes they are so angry about this violation of community trust that they can barely resist naming names. And even if they are mature enough to look past the issues of betrayal and fairness, there is still the practical matter of lacking direction for their revisions. So they come to me seeking retribution. Justice.
Needless to say, they aren't pleased when I tell them it doesn't matter. "Workshop isn't about your work, " I say. "In fact, in a perfect workshop you might never have your writing read by your peers."
Now their anger has turned to confusion. "Then what's the point?" they ask. To them, this is the whole bargain—you read someone else's work so they'll read yours.
"The point of workshop is to make you a better writer."
"That's what I mean," they reply. (They think I've misunderstood them.) "How am I supposed to get better if I don't know what's wrong with my writing?"
"You become a strong writer by writing critiques, not reading them, " I say. Being forced to analyze the effectiveness of other writers' stories and to then provide them with clear, concise, specific suggestions for improvement will do more to develop a writer's craft than almost anything else. Through this process writers develop a stronger objectivity about their own work, sharpen their critical thinking skills, and hone their language. A writer can't always recognize flat dialogue or abrupt scenes or uneven pacing in her own work, but she can sure as hell see it in someone else's. And the more adept she becomes at identifying it elsewhere, the more easily that skill becomes adapted into her own writing—it becomes second nature.
At this point in the conversation, most students will begrudgingly admit that commenting on the work of others has benefits for their own writing. But they will still grumble that writing critiques feels like busywork, that the same task could be accomplished by reading the work of their peers and then simply discussing it in the open forum of the class (after all, part of their complaint—whether voiced or not—has to do with the amount of time they spent on the other person's writing). What I try to explain, however, is that the effort required to articulate why and how the components of a story are working will not only force them to think more deeply about their understanding of the story's central concerns, but might also challenge their initial reading of the piece. This takes time.
Now, I know it's not much of a consolation to tell ourselves "They're only hurting themselves" when we don't receive the thoughtful feedback we'd hoped for on our work. Nor am I arguing that constructive criticism isn't helpful; there are real benefits to having our stories read closely by our peers. After all, simply understanding the physics of force, inertia, and angle of impact that govern the game of pool doesn't necessarily mean I'll be able to sink the ball when I lean over the felt with my cue; it takes years of practice before these skills become engrained, and even then it still takes a mixture of focus, concentration, and luck to pull off a difficult bank shot. So having someone who can comment on our form, our follow-through, even our choice of shots as we learn can be tremendously helpful and instructive.
But at the same time, by mistakenly believing that the most beneficial aspect of the workshop experience in terms of our artistic development is what takes place when it's "our day" to have our writing critiqued, we do ourselves—and our work—an enormous disservice. Understanding, instead, that one of the best opportunities for personal growth as an author comes from the sustained, close reading and articulate analysis of someone else's writing will have the effect of shifting the workshop model from one of social contracts, fairness, and duty to that of true learning and mutual respect. More importantly, we might come to realize that the most selfish thing we can do for our own work is to be altruistic. Perhaps that's the point.
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