MFA in Creative Writing - Suzanne Matson
The workshop is a place where writers have a chance to make actual the internal notion of "reader" that we all harbor in our consciousness as we write. As a group of readers, the workshop can function as the Reading Public in microcosm - one reader will be drawn to a particular text more than another, some will see meanings that others don't, not all will bring the same associations. There will be disagreement, sometimes plenty of it. The writer can't possibly write for each reader in the group - nor should she or he want to - but it can be hugely instructive to witness individual readers making sense of and reacting to one's work.
My role as workshop teacher is not to dominate this process, but to manage it. I usually begin with a focusing question, or describe a readerly response I had, to open up the discussion. These aren't random openers, but points that in my own mind get at central issues in the text. As discussion perks along I try to synthesize the comments at certain stages - frame the debates, make notice of consensus around certain reactions. I want to help the writer make a map of what's being said. I also will have opinions, and I will lay these out. At the end of a good workshop discussion the writer will know three things: What it is readers have gotten from the text, where the revision needs to happen, and some possible solutions. I've done my work right if the writer can't wait to get back to the writing desk by the time we're done.
As an individual mentor, I work with students to draw the best out of them. This begins by letting them know where I find the writing most alive, fully voiced, and memorable. From the high points, it becomes easier to see where the language isn't doing all the work it could be, where an idea or character needs fleshing out, or where using an image might be more vivid and suggestive than making a statement. I describe the work back to the students, which generates questions we can answer together: Here's the structure and how it fashions our understanding - is it the right organization? Here's what this passage is saying to me - is that the resonance you want? "Teaching" writing feels like a misnomer in that the process is, and has to be, collaborative. I can shine a light on the process, but the students will only grow as writers and self-editors through internalizing the questions and conceiving of their own next steps. That said, I'm a pen-in-hand reader and provide lots of suggested line edits and marginalia.