A Warmer Writing Workshop
and a nod to the people rethinking how we work together
We’re at the height of summer writing workshop season. I never realized this was a thing until the last few years, but basically, a ton of literary organizations host conferences and workshops every July.
This month, I’m auditing the virtual Poets and Scholars Summer Writing Retreat through the Rutgers Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice. There is so much to say about this experience, but what I’ll share here is that one of their principles is to throw out the silent workshop.
Some of you know what I’m talking about and why they might be doing this: in many writing workshops, a group of people sit in a room and discuss a work-in-progress, sometimes overly critically or even cruelly. Meanwhile, the writer sits there under a mandate of silence, unable to say whether or not the critique is on-track, often uncared for, and never centered above the writing.
Many of us know first-hand that the “traditional” workshop can be disastrous, especially if the others in the room don’t understand the writer’s life experiences, goals, lexicons, or the literary traditions the writer’s drawing from. And with the silent mandate, the writer never gets the chance to guide the conversation.
Felicia Rose Chavez wrote about this and offers a new model (closely related to what the Rutgers group is developing) in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Writing Classroom. Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping is another book that offers some crucial insights—and a path forward—beyond this pervasive workshop model that doesn’t work.
(This recent Twitter thread documents some experiences of writing workshop racism and sexism. Post-workshop crying or feeling sick to your stomach or going home with a “can you believe this happened?!” story is not the literary community we are trying to build, right? And too many of us have these stories.)
I feel energized and joyful about auditing the Rutgers retreat. It’s already changed how I think about my own work and how I will teach. The idea of having a writer steer their own workshop, vocally and physically, instead of being a passive actor while their work is talked about changes the power dynamics in the room and how we might think about accountability.
I also think that better work gets done. (Have you ever spent ten minutes in a workshop where people are debating a comma, only to find out after the fact that the comma was a typo and the whole debate was of no use? I have.) I’m excited about these new paths forward.
Join me this summer…
I’m teaching a workshop on Queer Poetic Forms for the Queer Zest Zine Fest on Saturday, August 7th from 2:30-3:30 pm (CST, I think). We’ll write in forms like the ode and zuihitsu! Follow the Fest’s website or social media for forthcoming info.
I had a great conversation about my poetry and writing and teaching practices on Poetry Spoken Here, a podcast hosted by fellow poet and long-time friend Charlie Rossiter.
I still cannot believe that I delivered a sermon last week for the Unitarian Universalist congregation I grew up in. Living in very conservative places since the middle of 2020 has shed new light for me on the importance of these kinds of opportunities. If you’re interested in checking out “Ecology and the Poetic Turn,” here’s a link to the recording.
Want to host me at your organization or literary festival this summer or fall? I am available to teach workshops, give readings, and facilitate!