Friday, May 06, 2011

Evaluating Writing Workshops

Jonathan asks how well my proposed workshop works in practice. The feedback I get is generally positive, but it is always hard to tell exactly how much of an impact I'm having. Most of what I teach people only "works" if you keep at it, if you practice. So the cases where I'm certain I've had a positive impact on someone's writing are also cases where I've had a chance to look at how their work develops over time. And then it is hard to know whether it was the workshop or the continuous feedback that followed that did the trick.

I have heard that some of the places I've visited now have a writing culture that is "lit" or "coloured" by my ideas. People talk about their "writing self", they keep each other writing every day, they are acutely conscious of what a paragraph is, and how an introduction works. Here the workshop becomes a kind of "delivery vehicle" for a way of thinking about writing. We might say that the practice serves as a "medium" to impart a theory of writing. When I meet people from places I've visited, what they tell me about how they write, and especially how people now talk about writing at their departments, warms my heart.

It's important to emphasize that my "ideas" are utterly unoriginal. My "theory" is cobbled together from the most ordinary of writing manuals and "gathered from the air" of a very established tradition of writing instruction. There is not much of a mystery about what you have to do to improve your writing. But there is, let us say, a "mysticism" about it. How well a workshops works in practice depends a great deal on the personality of the workshop leader (me) and his ability to create the right mood. Since I do have to do a bit of moralizing, and since clear writing does actually depend on clear thinking, and since the participants really do have a lot of work to do (there's a lot of room for improvement), I need to find just the right balance of irony and sincerity to get the message across. This goes both for general principles and specific tips.

One thing I've only come appreciate fully recently is how emotional one can be about one's writing. In a workshop, participants are really discovering their own mediocrity; they are exploring it at what Jonathan calls the "granular" level. They are discovering what they are unable to do easily, what they lack the grace and strength to do well. Crucially, these are things that they naturally would like to do well and easily. Things that they invest some pride in. One does not want to make it an unambiguous sign of success, but when participants resist with anger or with tears I know I'm getting at something important. A workshop is not trying to transfer knowledge, it is not trying to fill a open space of ignorance. It is trying to correct a misunderstanding, to move people from wrong ways of doing things to right ways of doing things. One is trying to get them to see the errors of their ways. People are not naturally inclined to have such visions.

There's one very concrete thing I have learned the hard way, especially from doing workshops at other institutions. Avoid whole days. Listening to me talk is, of course, a very pleasant experience. But after three hours, the charm sort of wears off. And I get tired and therefore unconvincing. Since it is the delivery that matters, not so much the ideas, this is an important thing to keep in mind. That's why I'm now trying to fill the first half day of what might otherwise be a full-day workshop with activities for the participants to do by themselves.

No comments: