"You're too gentle. Are they learning anything?"
I like to think I am (almost) always open to critique and question about my methods and choices as a teacher, a coach, a writer. This comment from a friend and peer after a workshop experience in Iowa City last summer elicited a good conversation around how a workshop operates, where different writers are at any particular point, where given drafts or ideas are at any particular point, and how group bonding takes place in a necessarily limited time frame.
With time, I've been able to formulate a deeper and more personal answer to the charge of being "too gentle" and the question of what people "learn" in a workshop with me. Here are my thoughts as they currently take shape, on this cloudy morning:
PROCESS OVER PRODUCT: I am always more interested in helping people deepen their engagement with their own process, than in the given poem or paragraph in front of us. One of my core beliefs: the piece we are working on exists to move us more deeply into our creativity. Our writing (or painting, or dancing, etc etc) teaches us more than the "teacher" at the front of the room. This is what I seek to facilitate. Even those of us who have been writing for decades know, there is always something new to be learned, discovered or uncovered or recovered, and mostly that is a personal adventure, equipped with a few tools we pick up along the way.
RESIST THE FIX: It is tempting to try to "fix" another writer's words on the page. What is crucial to remember is that whenever a workshop peer suggests a cut, a new word, or a change of any kind, we are putting ourselves in the place of the writer. We can't help it. It's natural. That may or may not do the real writer of the piece any good. In the end, they have to come up with the solution for THEIR work. The suggestion you make to cut line 6 may ultimately tell them something about line 4 or the indefinite word "blue." It is equally helpful (and perhaps more helpful, often) to simply tell the writer where you didn't understand something or what part of the piece seemed weakest to you. Ask questions. They'll come up with the right answers.
"LEARN" IS A BIG WORD: So, are they learning anything, in a workshop with me? The evaluations I get would suggest so...my own thoughts on the matter? Workshop circles are a safe space in which people learn to: read more deeply and open-heartedly; listen to peers; rethink and reframe their own assumptions and choices; make deep cuts; weave disparate ideas together; find their own voice; stretch their working vocabularies; play more; worry less; take each individual piece less seriously and their own commitment to the work more seriously. And along the way maybe they pick up a few tips on line breaks, forms, punctuation, language choices around voice, rhetorical position, figurative language, submission habits, and all the myriad tools we have at our disposal, as working, growing, writers.
A few places to join me at the workshop table this summer (links in the text):
I'll be co-teaching with my mother, children's book author Jacqueline Briggs Martin this summer in Iowa city.
I'll be participating in an online sampler series Loft.
I'll be running an online six-week workshop in poetry and short form for beginning/intermediate writers starting June 5.
And I'm always available to writers who want to work 1:1 to deepen their practice, bust through blocks, shape their next ideas or books.
Summer is a perfect time to dive in to the next adventure, creatively. I hope to see you soon!