WriteCast Episode 60: Lessons from Creative Writing Workshops
© Walden University Writing Center 2019
CLAIRE: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Claire Helakoski,
KACY: and I’m Kacy Walz.
CLAIRE: Today we’re talking about creative writing workshop techniques for scholarly writers.
KACY: During my coursework I had the opportunity to participate in a creative writers’ workshop. Today we’ll talk about my experience and Claire’s background in creative writing, and how creative writing workshop techniques can help scholarly writers. So how long have you bee writing creatively, Claire?
CLAIRE: As long as I can remember, really. Creative writing is a big passion of mine and my bachelor’s is in creative writing. And I have an MFA, which is a Master’s of Fine Arts, in creative writing as well. Personally, I write fiction and nonfiction, and I’ve taught creative writing classes to high school students and adults. And, for those of you who are listening who might be wondering “What’s an MFA program? What does it look like?” it’s a two or three year program and it involves intensive study of different creative writing genres, teaching writing pedagogy, and working on creative projects that culminate in a creative thesis.
KACY: In my graduate program we have two different tracks. One is a PhD in Creative Writing and the other is a PhD in English. I’m working on my PhD in English right now and one of our faculty members likes to call us the non-creative writers.
CLAIRE: [laughs] Aww, that sounds a little like a discouraging label…but, so you took a creative writing class even though you’re in the non-creative-writer group?
KACY: [laughs] I did, yeah. My original dissertation topic was on works of creative nonfiction, and I thought that taking a creative nonfiction course would provide me with some helpful insight. It also helped that one of my chair members was teaching the course, and it gave me an opportunity to work with her.
CLAIRE: Did you think it was a lot different than your other classes for you PhD?
KACY: Well, like all my courses, we did a lot of reading, but we were reading for different things than what I would read for in a literature theory course. So, one thing that I particularly liked was the practice of workshopping, and when we would read other professional writers, often times we were doing so to develop a vocabulary for talking about writing. And, so each time we had a workshop session, the entire class would read one student’s writing and, to prepare, we wrote a letter to that writer explaining our thoughts while we were reading. And we’d start it really traditionally with kind of a “Dear Claire,” or “Dear Whomever,” and then get into things we really liked, things we had questions about, you know, things we found less effective or where the writer might develop something more. So just basically any thoughts we had as outside readers.
CLAIRE: Yeah, the letter-based format is a sort of staple in the creative writing workshop. It’s a practice that I used from my Bachelor’s all the way through my Master’s program. I think that in my Master’s program the letters became even more helpful and beneficial because we were all learning how to give that, you know, really effective, in-depth feedback. And, it’s a really helpful practice because, as the writer, so you’ve written something for that week, as the writer, you get all these different perspectives. Let’s say you have 12 people in your class, you get all these different perspectives, suggestions, and ideas that you can look at later and sort of sort back through and consider what changes and suggestions you really want to make as the writer So you kind of have that power to decide and you’ll probably get some feedback that conflicts with itself, so having the letters is really nice as sort of a reminder after the workshop itself, that you can go back and reference and think about “what choices do I want to make? What did those people say? What did they think about this thing that I’m thinking about changing?”… And, I would say too that the act of writing a feedback letter is really helpful because it makes you, as the reader, move away from your gut reaction to a piece of writing. So, you might think, “I don’t like this topic, I don’t think is very interesting…They’re using boring verbs…” or whatever your gut reaction might be, it helps you move away from that and really focus on articulating effective, specific feedback that’s going to be helpful for that person as they revise. I think it also makes you more aware of the choices that you’re making in your own work.
KACY: I thought this kind of correspondence workshopping could be really helpful for students who wanted to create a workshop with people they might not be able to meet with in person. So lots of our Walden students have classmates all around the country, maybe even all over the world, and I was thinking that maybe this style could be helpful for them, if they wanted to similarly share work and get feedback from their peers.
CLAIRE: That’s something I would definitely recommend to students who want to exchange work rather than sort of just blindly sending feedback to each other and not really clarifying what you’re looking for or what that looks like. To have that sort of focused letter, that outlines what the person’s overall impressions were, what their top suggestions are, and having a second set of eyes on your writing is just really important in general. And I think that students should be exchanging their work, too, because, even though of course we’re here for you at the Writing Center and that’s why we’re here, there’s a lot of value in getting feedback from your peers because you’ll have perspectives to offer each other that a Writing Instructor might not, because you’re all in the same courses so you know a lot more about the context. Thinking about the models that you all have in common, that shared experience and knowledge, can really help you frame your feedback in a really unique way. It helps build relationships, too. It’s really great to have someone that you know you can reach out to for feedback.
KACY: Definitely, and I also, similarly on that note, think that reading other people’s work, even if it’s not necessarily the exact same topic or the exact same argument, really helps create some ideas for your own writing. I know I definitely found that in my writing workshop. Even though we were writing very different stories on very different life experiences--I was taking a creative nonfiction course--reading my classmates’ work gave me ideas of what I wanted to do as well, in my own writing. It kind of helps, particularly in a scholarly course, to really join that conversation that we’re always talking about in our reviews. That, you know, you’re not writing in isolation. And having that peer-to-peer writing sharing, I think, can be really helpful for that.
CLAIRE: I agree. And I know we’re always kind of talking about using the scholarly writing that you read for your coursework as a helpful tool, but using each other’s approaches and ideas is really helpful too. And it’ll help you to see writing in progress, right? You’re seeing these very polished pieces for your course reading, but to see other people’s writing in progress is really valuable to kind of help you think about the choices that you’re making, the choices other people make, and how you can use things that you’re finding effective in your own work.
KACY: Definitely and, Claire, you have a lot more experience with creative writing workshops than I do; I only took the one. Are there other aspects of creative writing workshops that you found particularly helpful as a scholarly writer? Or in your work here at Walden?
CLAIRE: Yes! And I’ve talked a little bit about this on an episode, a podcast episode, a while back…but I think audience awareness is that really wonderful skill that you gain from a workshop because getting multiple sources of feedback, so not just your faculty or one other person, really helps you understand how a reader thinks. Whether that’s an outside reader, or someone in your discipline. You might feel like you’re being perfectly clear about something, but then if you’ve sent your work to, let’s say, four or five other people and nobody gets it, or only one person gets it, then you probably want to think about revising that. And, especially during my Master’s program, I was really able to hone in on the reader experience, and use that to write more polished drafts that communicated a little better the first time around. So I wasn’t always trying to kind of work on, “well how do I communicate this effectively?” and just being surprised when nobody understood what I was trying to say, instead I got used to and aware of “what are these people going to think? How do they think? What’s really effective? What can I maybe change to try and get them on the track that I’m aiming form?”
KACY: Yeah, I think one of the best tools I’ve taken from that writing workshop and from other writing groups that I’ve participated in since then, has been exactly what you’re talking about, about that sense of audience. And I have really appreciated having other people explain to me exactly what you’re saying, you know, “as a reader, this is where I was confused,” or “this is what I wanted to read more about,” and I try to use that same kind of outlook when I am responding to student papers now. I think that’s one of the best ways that we can help in the Writing Center. Many of us are literature or creative writers, and we don’t have the expertise that our students do in their fields. But we can be that kind of outside reader, you know, who can point out where, maybe—even though it’s very obvious to this writer who is very knowledgeable about this topic—it might be less clear to the reader who isn’t an expert in that field.
CLAIRE: It can be so refreshing to work with other scholars and work with other writers, because it can feel really isolating, especially online. So, I definitely really recommend that writing group and maybe it’s…maybe it’s people you met at residency or maybe just people in your courses, or I know there are some Facebook groups out there, but once you have that group of people that, you know, you know them and you’re comfortable with them, then you really can depend on them for that effective feedback. Because you’ll know who tends to see things what way and who is best at giving feedback on, say, the overall picture vs. more line editing…and you can send your work to them, or share it with them and rely on that relationship that you’ve built together. So, rather than sort of sifting through a big workshop full of various feedback letters, you can say, “I trust this person, and if they didn’t get it, then I need to change it.” And that comfort level of being able to ask specifically for what you want from that person, once you’ve kind of built that relationship together, is really, really valuable too, because you can ask each other questions like “this didn’t work for you, so what do you think about approaching it this way?” or “what if I use a different piece of evidence?” or “what if I move this section to later in the paper, do you think that works?” And really being able to ask those direct questions, because you’ve built that relationship with this other scholar in your field who you trust their opinion and advice, is just invaluable.
KACY: I really love your point about creating relationships, Claire. I think that’s so important when you are working on any kind of project in a group, but particularly when you’re sharing writing with people. I think that can be something where we can maybe feel a little bit more vulnerable, and you want to know that the people that you’re working with are going to put time and energy into what they’re reading and how they respond. Claire, you have so much more experience in this area…do you have any suggestions for people who might want to set up their own kind of creative writers style workshops? Or any pitfalls that they want to make sure they avoid?
CLAIRE: Yes! I love this question! Because, it can happen, right, if you don’t have things set up effectively or, you know, your chemistry’s just not right in the group, then it can be less than helpful. And writing groups take effort, so it’s good to have a plan or sort of a rules or format that you want your feedback to take, that everybody follows every time. Because, a pitfall I’ve seen is where you don’t set those clear expectations for feedback, then some people in your group might offer some information and ideas, but it’s not very helpful because they’re not in-depth enough. Whereas other people might get really picky about grammar or APA when you’re really, you know, in the drafting phase. So, to help avoid this, agree as a group on, like, a format and a plan. You might want to ask for two things the reader thought were effective and one they have a question or suggestion about, for example. And it’s important to keep your tone professional and congenial. So, even if you disagree personally or think a writer should change their whole paper, you have to step back and offer objective advice like, “this aspect didn’t work well for me because of this specific reason.” So, you want to really focus on that cause-and-effect phrasing in your feedback. Because that helps it be more helpful to the writer. Just hearing “I didn’t like this” or “it didn’t work for me” isn’t very helpful because then the writer doesn’t know, “well, should I just disregard that because this person just didn’t get it?” But understanding why it didn’t work for them is really valuable. So, you want to be really specific and give concrete reasoning behind your feedback. And, in a peer group, I’d also suggest avoiding directives like “fix your grammar,” “revise for APA,” instead, you might want to say something like “grammar was distracting for me today, you might want to consider revising for that in the future.” So really kind of having this supportive, helpful tone rather than going into sort of an editor mode…thinking about it as a collaborative group that is working together to best help and support each other. You mentioned that you have had these writing groups in the past, and I’ve done creative writing groups, but not so much scholarly writing groups. So how was that for you?
KACY: I’ve been in a number of writing groups and some of them have been really productive and helpful and others have been less so, and I think the biggest piece of advice I have is to find a partner or group that you are going to be very accountable to. I think that, in the past, I’ve had some of the biggest difficulty when my writing groups have been composed of very close friends, because we kind of look at our writing group meetings as social gatherings or as less formal. And so, if somebody doesn’t make the deadline or feels like they have something else they have to do during that time, we would simply cancel and not hold it against each other or anything. And I think it’s so important to really make those meetings a priority, if you want to get the most out of them. Because that way, you know, you’re not only keeping yourself accountable, but you’re helping to keep your workshop group accountable as well.
CLAIRE: That makes a lot of sense. I’ve been really lucky in that my writing groups have been structured around the coursework that I did, and since then it’s been a little bit more informal because I had those relationships already built on. But, just like anything, like planning to write your paper, you want to be sure to schedule things out and make time to really, yeah, like you said, you know, support each other because you’re going to want to be supported when you have something you want everybody to read, too.
KACY: Absolutely. Thanks so much for listening today! We hope you will try out some of these creative writing techniques for yourself!
CLAIRE: And you can check out some of the resources that we’ll have in our show notes.
KACY: So, until next time…keep writing,
CLAIRE: Keep inspiring!
KACY: WriteCast is a monthly podcast produced by the Walden University Writing Center. Visit our online Writing Center at academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter. Find more WriteCast episodes on iTunes,Stitcher,TuneInor your favorite podcast app. We would love to hear from you. Connect with us on our blog, Facebook, and Twitter, and at [email protected]. Thanks for listening!