Being a creative writing teacher means reading a lot of bad writing. I mean, A LOT of bad writing. Unconvincing narratives, unbelievable characters, contrived dialogue, haphazardness grammar: I’ve read it all. But before any former or current students go off in a huff, please let me explain. Bad writing is what these sorts of classes are all about, and I would have it no other way.
As much as I like to claim that I treat each class differently, and attempt to vary my syllabus, there are certain elements of creative writing that must be tackled in order and are not up for variation. For example, I will always broach the topic of character development before dialogue, and — with few exceptions — reserve workshopping individual stories for the end of the course. It’s hard enough to get students to feel comfortable sharing on the last day of a six-week course, no one would return if I asked them to cough-up a short story in week two. Additionally, it’s common sense to place workshopping towards the end; the students want to craft their story using the information, discussions and new techniques gained over the entirety of the course.
However, here is where the problem lies. Three full days, five weeks, six weeks, twelve weeks — no matter how long the course is — it’s never enough to perfect your work. You’ve scribbled down 6000 words in notes, you’ve changed your protagonist twice, you started writing a conversation between two villains before we discussed dialogue, and we spent so much time talking about genre we had to push the discussion on editing to an online forum. And now, as you look down at your story, you’ve got to take all this information and use it to create this one perfect piece of fiction that you will share with your fellow students, many of whom claim to be published writers. This is a near impossible task.
So, you put off working on the story, for procrastination is fear’s best friend. And, then, before you know it, you have to submit your work. So, you apologise profusely and send in the 6000 words of notes.
As the teacher, I would have it no other way.
In fact, when a ‘perfect’ story comes tumbling in for workshopping at the end of a course, I know that this piece was not conceived during the course, but it is a story that has been lovingly worked on for days, months or even years before the class even began. And, if truth be told, I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to see perfection in workshopping. What’s the point?
Workshopping exists so that a group of writing cohorts can help you sift through those 6000 words, point out the strengths you didn’t realise you had, suggest cutting superfluous aspects of your narrative, remind you of previous discussions regarding your protagonist, and give you the support a pile of bad writing needs. Workshopping is like group therapy for a story, and only beneficial if there are problems in the first place.
So, the next time you’re asked to workshop at the end of a creative writing class, please stop fretting that your writing is not up to scratch. Stop apologising. Instead, hold your head up high, and say, ‘This is a pile of shit. Help me fix it.’ Believe me, you’ll be amazed at the rewards.