Reimagining the Writers' Workshop
Breakwater Review fiction editor Suchita Nayar explores a practical application of Matthew Salesses' Craft in the Real World
Picture this: Your short story is up for review in an MFA workshop, and no sooner do your peers make the turn toward criticism than it goes off the rails.
“This __________ is implausible in real life.”
“This __________ didn’t feel earned.”
“I wish the author had shown, not told.”
And so it goes for the next thirty-forty minutes. It might appear to you like everyone is taking potshots at your work, even if some of it may be well-intentioned, while you, its “nameless” creator, must stay mum the whole time in the “cone of silence.” Not the most helpful, creative writing professor and author Matthew Salesses would say. Why? Because a workshop isn’t about a group of people preaching their opinions, an evaluation, and/or suggestions. It is about generating engagement and conversation with the work. Your goal is to help the writer to make discoveries that would inform what they can do next to revise the piece as soon as possible, he told nine graduate students over Zoom in March 2021. His latest book, Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, was prescribed reading in the graduate-level “Teaching of Creative Writing” course. Here are a few of his workshop do’s and don’ts that he shared in class during his guest appearance.
During the Workshop:
Things we always do:
Author reads favorite passage
Describe the piece (and its audience)
Author responds to description and asks questions
Ask the author questions
Author chooses when to talk and when to listen
Workshop leader reframes comments and guides the workshop rather than the story
No repetition of feedback letters
End with author naming what they will try next in revision
Things we sometimes do:
Go page by page and offer questions and suggestions if author wants
Discuss process through specific and individualized revision strategies*** (see next column)
Author may ask to "redirect"
***Possible revision strategies:
Draw the story
Map the story
Cut up the story
T charts/Venn diagrams
"The Big Thing" (Cathy Day)
Plausible/not plausible ("this wouldn't happen in real life," etc.)
X character would/n't do this
Buy it/earned/pay off and capitalist evaluations of fiction ("the ending paid off")
Fiction can't/has to/should/shouldn't
"Show, don't tell"
"Melodramatic" (unless to refer to the conventions of melodrama)
"The author" (talking about the author instead of addressing them)
You should/shouldn't/need to/etc.
I want/I need/I would like/I feel/I find/I relate/etc.
This reminds me of when I...
Repeating what is in your letter
Questioning and observing, as opposed to identifying "problems." (Note the sequential order below, as Salesses introduces this feedback strategy through a cyclical rotation of the following.)
Describing the ideal audience
What would the story be like if...
How would the story change if...
What do you think about.../Have you thought about...
Could X do more for the story?
I noticed (on page X)...
"The first time I read the story..." + "vs. the second time I read the story..." (include this comparison of multiple readings)
This reminds me of the story X...
Finally, MFA students Mary Atwood and Alexa Koch tried out an alternative model during their own workshops. Here is what they told me via email about this experience.
Q: Why did you experiment with an alternative workshop method? What was your goal?
Mary Atwood (first-year fiction MFA): On the philosophical level, I believe the traditional workshop model carries real risks of further suppressing and sidelining the voices of marginalized writers. As a teacher, I'm always interested in exploring pedagogical methods that center student voices and destabilize the traditional top-down power dynamic in which the teacher is seen as the sole nexus of insight and authority in class. For me, the writer is the ultimate authority on their own work, informed by their own experiences, identities, background, and goals for their work, and that the workshop should work in service of the writer's own vision for their work, not the other way around. So, it just makes sense to me to build my future classes around a workshop model in which the writer is not stripped of the authority to direct the conversation around their work; having never experienced such a workshop model for myself, I wanted to see what it might feel like in the student's seat before implementing it in my future classes.
Alexa Koch (second-year fiction MFA): I have an especially clear vision for the story that was to be workshopped, and I did not think that the traditional model would yield as productive of a discussion as an alternative model might.
Q: What method did you choose and why?
MA: I was inspired by writer-centered workshop models suggested by Felicia Rose Chavez in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom and Matthew Salesses in Craft in the Real World. From them, I drew the idea of opening my workshop with a few guiding questions for the workshop to discuss, focusing the conversation on what I most hoped to accomplish via the story I presented and where I felt the story was currently weakest and could benefit from suggestions.
AK: I went with (Salesses’s) “only questions for the author” model because it allowed me to both get an idea of others’ perceptions of the story through the kinds of questions asked and to shape additional questions through my responses.
Q: How did it go?
MA: I think it went tremendously well! In the writer-directed workshop model, I felt that every moment was fruitful for my own understanding of how the story was working so far and how I might best approach revising it. Because the workshop participants were working in service of my own vision and priorities for this piece, every piece of feedback felt like something I could truly use to hone the story. It was also wonderfully liberating to know I was able to jump into the conversation at any point if I felt the need.
AK: I was really pleased with how it went!
Q: What would you say to your peers in favor of Craft in the Real World and/or the specific style you tried?
MA: The writer-directed workshop model places power back in the writer's hands. For example, in the story I brought to workshop, I wanted a dislikeable character to get a bit of a redemption arc. If I had brought that arc to workshop without preamble, I may have faced a long debate about whether redemption arcs are ever worthwhile in a short story. Prefacing the workshop with a question like, "Whether or not redemption arcs are something you love or loathe, do you find this one plausible and compelling for this particular character?" allowed me to take the pulse not of the workshop audience's general opinions but on the degree to which this particular arc was working and where I might adjust it to bring the readerly experience closer to the vision I had for the piece.
AK: Craft in the Real World generated productive questions for me from the first few pages, so much so that I have new ideas for my proposed doctorate studies. Salesses’s approach to craft and the reworked definitions that he offers challenge ingrained academic ideas of what writing is and should do. I was especially interested in his comparisons to East Asian literary traditions and the idea of de-Westernizing the writing classroom. Highly recommend for anyone facilitating a creative writing course in today’s world.
Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses is available now in independent bookstores and your local public library.
Suchita Nayar is a first-year MFA student in fiction writing at University of Massachusetts, Boston. She began her career as a financial journalist and then worked in finance. She is the fiction co-editor for Breakwater Review.