Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?
Edited by Dianne Donnelly
(Multilingual Matters, 2010)
Part of a series of books on the analysis of creative writing, Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? is a variably interesting collection of essays surrounding the question posed by the title. It’s unfortunate that the foreword is technical and abstruse to the point of being almost incomprehensible (and certainly not a good example of ‘creative writing’, unless the aim was to create the desire to run as quickly as possible in the other direction). For the most part, the essays reflect the personal responses of a number of creative writing teachers less to that question (i.e. ‘Does the Writing Workshop Still Work’) than to the broader issue of where the teaching of creative writing fits within the academic spectrum, and what are the peculiar challenges facing creative writing pedagogy, now and in the immediate future. Although there are contributions from teachers in Australia and the UK as well as the USA, I found the focus (especially in the recurrent references to ‘composition’ and ‘rhetoric’ studies) a little too heavily biased towards the approaches in the latter. There are historical as well as numerical reasons for this, but it did make for slightly distanced reading. This may also have been the reason for the fairly theoretical lit. crit. tone of many of the pieces.
Having said that, there are a number of essays that had me reaching for my teaching notebook, and a number of interesting and practical suggestions for ways to work around some of the problems raised. (Some examples: the need to actually teach students how to go about the business of making an intelligent and informed critique of others’ work; strategies for dealing with the discomfort many students have of sharing incomplete work in class; the importance of actually examining the basic ways a writer goes about constructing a poem (or whatever), even (or especially) with students who already know how.) I personally would have liked more of this approach – I come very much from what Dianne Donnelly describes as the “untrained creative writers (… not [having] had any formal teaching training in our field) … teaching ‘by the seat of our pants’” side of the equation, and was hoping for practical suggestions for concrete (rather than theoretical) things I could incorporate into my teaching. Large amounts of literary, academic and/or pedagogical theory did have me yearning for some excuse – housework, even – to stop reading.
But all in all, an interesting collection of essays, various enough in scope and approach to provide something for virtually every kind of creative writing teacher. It created more questions than it answered, but I suspect that was the point. Cautiously recommended.