The How of the Writing Workshop

Early in my workshop career, I wrote an essay about how easily I cry. On a swampy July morning in Houston, I met with a group of strangers to discuss it. After a few thoughtful commentaries, the conversation turned from my essay to myself:

“You’re just really strange. You shouldn’t cry so much,” one woman said. We had recently read her essay on premonitions.

“Um, that’s a judgment,” I said. I looked at our workshop leader, Hank. He was scratching his beard.

“No, you’re actually very strange,” she continued.

Suddenly, everyone was discussing whether I was, in fact, strange. Needless to say, I cried as I biked home. Needless to say, I expect more from a workshop. Needless to say, I give more. (And needless to say: I am strange.)

My workshop journey began with Andy Mozina at a small liberal arts college in Michigan, continued in Texas with Tiphanie Yanique and Miah Arnold (then MFA candidates from the University of Houston), and Max Regan, co-director of Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program. My journey/not destination expanded into expat territory with the Geneva Writers’ Group in Switzerland, and exploded in a firework finale at my own MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.

Our workshop leaders asked us, “What is truth in nonfiction?” They told us that Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy about the conquest of the Spanish in Latin America was sometimes taught as fiction, sometimes as history. I realized that the line was blurred, giving me space to move my essays into the subjective.

They asked us: What was this essay about? When we read the beginning of Stephen King’s On Writing, ostensibly about King’s near-fatal collision with a drunk driver, they said, “This is an essay about writing.” I understood that my essay about volunteering in southern Mexico was actually an essay about erasure and trust.

They asked us: What would you steal? If you were plagiarizing this essay, what word, what sentence, what paragraph, would you want for your own? With this question in mind, I could appreciate the prize-winning portions of an essay even if the piece failed as a whole.

At Vermont College of Fine Arts, every discussion opened up into something larger: What is the difference between action and movement? How do we blend the voice of the mature narrator with the voice of the innocent narrator? When is it useful to drop a reader into a story through scene and when is it useful to provide context? Is writing in present tense essentially lying?

I believe in structure and stability. Not free for all. Not say whatever comes to mind. We have an obligation to be better than that, to think harder than that. This isn’t a 2:00 a.m. diatribe over Bulleit Rye. This is a focused period of giving and receiving. As Max Regan said, few words are less helpful than like/dislike. If that’s all you want, post your essay on Facebook.

Does the AA adage “Take what you like and leave the rest” apply? Of course. As long as you add “Take what you loathe.” I learn something when I ask myself what I reacted to and why, if not in the days after a workshop, then in the weeks or months.

When one workshop at VCFA veered back into the direction of “You’re strange,” faculty Douglas Glover said, “Let’s take the attention off the writer.”

We are evaluating a piece of writing. We are not evaluating a person. The least we can expect is civility. The best is epiphany.

This October, I will be teaching a creative nonfiction workshop with the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. We’ll talk about your writing. We’ll leave strange up to you.

***

— Erika Anderson teaches at Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, contributes to Hunger Mountain, and tweets for the Franklin Park Reading Series. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn.

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