Thursday, May 19, 2011

Traditional Workshops vs Freewriting Workshops and the Amherst Method

The structure and goals of the writing workshop have changed a great deal over past hundred years.  To benefit the most from a workshop, you should familiarize yourself with the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of workshops.

Traditional Workshops: Refining the Writer through Sharing
My first experiences with writing workshops came as an undergrad at Case Western. Like most academic institutions, Case Western uses the Traditional Workshop Approach to teach creative writing. Relatively speaking, the traditional workshop is a "new" approach to learning creative writing. It first began at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, evolving during the 1930s as established writers tutored students of writing.

The traditional workshop is different from most academic courses because most of the "study" comes not from reading established works of literature, but rather from reading and responding to pieces recently written by classmates. Through this model, students learn to see their stories and poems through the perspectives of outside readers. They learn how to identify the strengths and weaknesses in creative work and - ideally - they become adept at revision.

The traditional workshop method is, however, still chained to the scholarly approaches from which it evolved. The structure, meaning, and style of individual pieces are dissected and analyzed. Given the diversity of writers present, most workshop participants are exposed to a variety of critical perspectives. Additionally, any "errors" of personal style can be corrected - if you're a wordy writer, or if you've used images of ravens in just one too many poems, you'll hear about it. The downside, though, is that there is little time allotted for learning "what" to write about, or for figuring out how to find your personal writing focus. Students are taught not to evaluate the author's personal growth as a writer, but rather the work alone.

Freewriting Workshops: Spilling Your Story Across the Page

More recently, freewriting has been popularized as a way to break through some of the barriers which prevent writers from getting their stories on the page.  You may also be familiar with this as writing from your stream-of-consciousness - basically, writing whatever comes to mind, and writing it as quickly as possible.  Books such as Peter Elbow's Writing without Teachers and Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way have pushed many writers away from trying to "plan" stories.  With freewriting, the goal is less to develop a finished product and more to harvest ideas from your life.  (from Wikipedia)

The primary advantage of freewriting is that it helps you dig deeper into your own well of memories of emotions in search of material, as best described in Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones.  Indeed, Goldberg's focus has been on writing as a personal journey, and she remains one of the strongest proponents of memoir writing.  (read about her take on memoir writing in Old Friend from Far Away)
The problem, though, is that the work produced in this process is not very polished. When done correctly, the first draft may filled with all the common mistakes of rushed work: typos, incomplete sentences, and unresolved elements of story. Because of this, freewriting is rarely promoted under the traditional writing workshop. Instead, students do their best to turn in coherent stories which are well-structured - stories which are invested with meaning, but lacking the emotional power to really hold a reader's attention.

Amherst Method Workshops: Building Confidence to Feed the Story 

Writing Alone and with Others My first exposure to freewriting came through an Amherst Method writing residency with Pat Schneider.  After returning from Afghanistan in 2006, I took her workshop as a way to "get away" from Fort Bragg for a bit and learn more about writing.  And it was, I admit, an eye-opener.  As a university-trained creative writer, I was very well-versed in grammar, style, and structure, but I had always had trouble developing the conflict in my stories.  I always found myself writing characters who danced around their issues, avoiding all the pitfalls of fears and relationships.
Pat's workshop helped me overcome many of these issues because the focus was less on how to "tell" and story and more on how to find the story.  And her main priority here is creating an environment in which it's safe for the writer to write and (if he or she chooses) to share that writing.  Through her Five Essential Affirmations and the Five Workshop Rules, Pat creates a welcoming environment for creative exploration.  In her workshops, you can write anything - anything at all - on the page.  If it's something you'd rather not share with your classmates, you're not required to, and no one will pressure you.  And only positive feedback is permitted, and all feedback is focused on the work itself.

The advantage to this approach is the amazing encouragement - the ideas and themes that come out are often surprising, and they affect you on a very deep level.  But this approach is very limited in terms of time and revision.  Because the writing takes place during the workshop itself, you're only analyzing snippets of rough drafts.  Granted, a ten-minute exercise can yield two or maybe even three incredible pages, but most of us also need a workshop for the long-haul stories, or for the poems which are worked and reworked until each word carries the weight of years.

12Writing: Inspiration, Writing, and Ongoing Community
Our goal at 12Writing is to combine the advantages of the traditional long-term workshop with the encouragement of freewriting workshops.  I use writing prompts and the opportunity for revision to help each writer bring out his or her best stories.

To find out more, please take a look at our Workshop Philosophy page.


minty said...

i really like iti want to write

Ryan Edel said...

Hey Minty - thanks for your comment! What types of writing do you enjoy?

If you like, we're also offering daily links to other resources to keep you writing. If you stop by our Facebook Fan Page, I think you'll find some additional ideas to keep you going.