In the March/April 2009 issue of the Writer’s Chronicle, Renée Olander interviews poet Baron Wormser, who says of writing programs, “[w]hat a writing program shows you is what’s involved with trying to be a good writer. I don’t think that’s the same thing as pumping out writers. Writing is a daunting task; one thing you learn is that it’s daunting.” One caveat: Wormser does teach in a writing program, specifically the Stonecoast MFA Program in Maine. But what he says is so simple, so “of course, that’s the reason anyone should enroll in a writing program.” But how many writing programs sell themselves by implying (or downright claiming) that, if you become their student, you too will become a published author? What I like about Wormser’s comment is that it is focused on writing, on learning the craft. Here’s what he says about writing workshops: “The workshop as a forum where people deliver ad hoc judgments isn’t a lot of help, obviously, because–unless you have some notions of what a good piece of writing is, can point to good writing, have a sense of what inspires you as a good piece of writing, what’s the point?” Indeed, what is the point? I’ve been to good writing workshops, and I’ve been to some truly awful ones.
The best writing workshop was taught by the late Wendy Bishop. It was an article and essay workshop, and I was a master’s level student. The workshop was configured into small groups and the class at large. We worked out the drafts of our essays in small groups and presented the final to the class. I was fortunate to have doctoral students who were also teaching assistants in my small group. They taught me that, yes, writing is daunting, but you must be true to yourself. I had written an essay in the typical academic third-person voice, and I was actually a bit proud of it. I thought I had managed to make myself sound like I knew more than I really did (I was a coward and words were my shield). [The essay was a book review of Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Virginia Woolf. No wonder I felt intimidated.) Fortunately, the members of my small group had no interest in revealing me for the fraud I was. Rather, they hesitated and avoided my eyes until they were able to tell me, in as gentle a manner as possible, that my essay was … boring. Boring, boring, boring. Can a writer be told worse? I was devastated and had to struggle to keep my composure. But, they wanted me to rewrite the essay. Don’t give up, they said. It’s the voice that boring, not the content. We want to know what YOU think, they said. And I naturally wondered, “Why would anyone want to know what I think?” That is probably my greatest barrier to becoming a successful (i.e., paid) writer: even today, I still wonder why anyone would want to read what I think.
But in the case of this pitiful essay, after a night or more of crying and feeling sorry for myself, I trashed the whole essay and began anew. I told them exactly what I thought about Gordon’s book. Not only was this new version of my essay widely acclaimed by the class when it came for final review, but a year later, it was published, with virtually no edits, in a small literary journal. Yes, seeing my writing in print was wonderful, even though I was paid only in copies. It was like icing because the real value from that workshop was learning to write in my own true voice.