Writing Workshops As DDX and Introspection

DDX: -n.- (DEE-DEE-ECKS): A differential diagnosis; a systematic diagnostic method used to identify the presence of an entity where multiple alternatives are possible (and the process may be termed differential diagnostic procedure), and may also refer to any of the included candidate alternatives (which may also be termed candidate condition).

So first of all, why the hell did I decide to do this? And why did I start the way I did? Well, on one hand I just rediscovered my love for the television show House, M.D.–and on the other hand, I just love acronyms. Second on my list of reasons is that sometimes I get really super dry on these kinds of craft talks. So to have a little fun, I started by having fun. Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

In the world of writing, we are continually asked if it’s possible to teach writing. Many lines are drawn in the sand, so much so to the point that any chance of clarity is eliminated. The best answer I ever heard to that question was that we can teach people what to avoid and what the tools of writing are, but to teach someone to love creating and to stick with it is another matter. I tacked on the depending clause of that statement because I believe it to be true. We can’t teach half of the equation, but with help and especially the process of the workshop, it is absolutely possible to teach the other half.

Now, how to teach writing. This is different-chromatic horse altogether due to the simple fact that pedagogy (the way that teaching should be done) is something that every specialized teacher has a unique viewpoint on. No two teachers agree on the correct way to teach a subject. So how hard is it going to be for not only teachers to agree on, but for a group of teachers who are teaching a subject that half of the practicioners of said subject doubt that it even can be taught? Fucking hell. I think I gave myself a headache with that sentence. But really, how are we to teach a subject that for the sake of argument might not be able to be taught? The answer, I believe, lies in something the awesome Steve Almond said about teaching writing. He said, “Young writers aren’t going to be able to learn to write from reading writers who are already published, because they will already have edited out all their mistakes before publishing. You don’t learn writing as well from seeing things done well as you do from seeing things done wrong. Which means that the greatest well of information for young writers lies in themselves and their contemporaries. Reading the mistakes of your fellow writers will teach you all you need to know.” This is where the workshop comes in.

Above all else, the workshop should be a place where writers bring their best work to a group of contemporary writers and receive feedback on it. This seems like a simple enough process, doesn’t it? If no, you’re right and if yes, you’re right—in a way. The problem with writing workshops is that you have people from any and all numbers of experiences, both in workshops and in writing and people’s responses to their writing—not to mention, different personality types and all different kinds of dynamics within the group. Some people just may not be comfortable in such an environment. This comfort, this trust, is the key ingredient of what makes a workshop. But there’s one more leg on this particular stool, and that leg is focus. A workshop has to have focus if it is to be run optimally, I think. An example. Writer A comes into the workshop with his best stuff and hands it out. Writers B-Z read the story, some read it twice, others go above and beyond and read it three or more times. You love those readers. But anyway, writers A-Z come back to class a couple days later and the discussion begins. The instructor opens the discussion with something like “What did everyone think of the point of view?” Writer A sits quietly and listens while writer B says, “I think it was a good perspective to have because of X reason.” Writer C pipes up and says, “Yeah, it heightens the experience of blah blah blah.” Both perfectly acceptable comments. Then quiet. Then the instructor says, “What did everyone think of the characters?” Writer D then says, “I thought main character was a dick. I didn’t like him.” The discussion suddenly comes to a screeching halt. A number of questions come to mind: What’s your problem? Who says the character needs or should be liked? Who cares? The screeching halt came when Writer D offered a comment that didn’t do something that all DDX’s do—they diagnose a problem and offer a prognosis and treatment. The main thing a workshop has to do is the same thing doctors do when they diagnose a disease. They identify the problems of whatever is in question and offer solutions. Workshops need to present where they encountered problems with the manuscript and provide evidence for the problem’s existence, in order to show Writer A examples of his missteps. Otherwise he will dismiss them rightfully out of hand as just a pet peeve of the workshop member’s—not something he actually has to fix in order to eliminate confusion or make the story better in any number of ways. Ultimately the choice is up to the writer, but if Writers B,C, and E agree very strongly on a problem that Writer E brings up with the manuscript and they each present a different solution to the problem, Writer A should both remember that particular problem and also jot down the possible solutions. Writer A may not end up using any of the proffered solutions at all, instead going his complete individual way in addressing the problem—the point was to identify a problem and show that there are ways to solve it.

In order to get this idea on the rails, there has to be a tremendous amount of consistency—not just on the parts of the students who get to do lots of the talking—but on the part of the instructor as well. And though not every creative writing teachers is absolutely fabulous, they have to be able to keep that one goal of the workshop in mind in order for it to function as it should. Every question or comment should be through the lenses of giving compliments (these are necessary as well) or identifying problems with the story and ways to fix it. If an instructor would announce that as one of the lone course goals, I believe it would be far easier to make the workshop function the way it should, because instead of having to contend with personality differences and group dynamics etc. it is only the student and instructor’s job to identify problem passages and offer solutions and for the writer whose work is being critiqued to simply listen and take notes on the ideas that are being given.

One last note on the workshop in general and on really unhelpful suggestions in particular. There are always a few members of a workshop who come at it from this angle of saying what they feel about the piece and going no further. It may be laziness or it may just be an inability to see how comments like these are unhelpful. Either way, it is possible for these members of the workshop to improve their workshopping technique with the help of the other students and the instructor. The phrase, “I thought the main character was a dick,” by itself is an extremely unhelpful comment—but with the help of the newly identified focus of the class, that comment can go from that to something like, “I thought the main character was a dick because of Example A, B, and C and I think if that’s what you intended, then you’re doing great. If not, which is what I think you were going for, you could stand to make him a little more likeable. For example, in this situation with main character, have him do this instead of that. It wouldn’t hurt the story and main character comes off looking like less of a dick.” How much more helpful did that just get because of the focus of the class? Immensely. And in order for this to happen, the consistence will have to be there, both with the other students and the instructor. The teacher will most likely have to be the one who cuts off an inappropriate remark with a question about evidence for the statement and a question as to how it can be fixed. When it comes down to it, we are not only supposed to diagnose the problems of the story and provide solutions for it; we are supposed to perform a diagnosis of our own feelings toward the story and thus bring out arguments for where there must be change and how it should be done. This way our feelings are not only our feelings, but they are our path into the piece itself and following that path and studying it, we are able to help fix the innerworkings of the piece and to do a better job of understanding the innerworkings of ourselves.

Writing as Looking Inward To Reach Out

So. This is the third or fourth essay on craft that I’ve written in a relatively short period of time. It may seem weird, I guess, since I’ve only had one story published to be having such firmly put ideas about what writing is and what it should be. But I guess this is a way for me to continually re-evaluate what writing is for me. And I hope that by doing this, I’ll be able to shed some light on it for others. Until I had written the essays, I really had no idea that I believed all these things about writing until I had finally written them down. I’ve been thinking about writing a lot, especially the purpose of it, or our motivations for it and lately I’ve come to the decision that it’s both very simple and very complicated. The reasoning I ran into while trying to wheedle out why we do what we do was ultimately ouroborous-like in nature. Once I had reached the end I had simply found that I had reached the beginning. When someone is foolhardy or sincere enough (not mutually exclusive) to actually ask the question of why one writes, he will invariably be given a list at once pretentious, sincere, ironic, and flippant by getting all different sorts of answers. This is to be expected, especially when considering what a diverse group of people can be found in a writing workshop. This particular question, I believe, is a twin, a mirror of the question, “What do you owe your audience and who do you believe that to be?” These two questions are at the top of a hierarchy of questions that are both posed to writers by others and that writers pose to themselves in quiet moments before, after, or even during the writing process. The reason these two questions are so important is the fact that they’re two separate sides of the same coin that may reveal the real purpose behind writing. By figuring one out, we can flip the formula and figure the second out.

The first question, why we write, is just almost too overwhelming and multi-faceted to even begin to wrap our heads around. For example, every writer probably has a different reason and most likely will have a host of different reasons all in descending order in his head–some reasons may be more powerful for others–but the first thing that happens with every writer occurs by himself with a blank page. I think that’s the first thing to consider. Before asking anyone’s permission to write, before we say that we wrote a story, before we say that we like writing, we first encounter the blank page and we learn the pleasure that it is to un-blank it. To fill it in, to decrease the negative space of that blank page. When we fill this negative space, we do so with things dredged up from within us. Each word is something we feel, think, wonder, posit, and on and on. And seeing this page become filled, in a way, legitimizes what we have felt and provides a way for us to look at ourselves in a new way, in a safe light that is free from judgment or from the fingerprints of anyone else in the world. This document and every one after it we create is, in a way, a piece of the last untouched soil in the world. The blank spaces on the map have been filled in, there are no more horizons to expand or explore, except for the ones that no one else can touch–until we let them. That’s step one. I believe, in a way, that’s why we write. We write to look inward. To bring the most honest parts of us to the surface and to fix them there and hold them up as artifacts of what we believe and who we are and what we value.

And so we then move on to the idea of what reader comes into our minds when we are working on our artifacts that we have dredged up from within. Normally, the answer that is given is usually along the lines of “someone who likes the same kind of works as me”. This probably isn’t too far from the truth, and yet, when we’re honest with ourselves, (literary writers, at least) we are usually meaning that the readers we imagine we are writing for are other versions of our very best selves. What I mean by this is that when writers put something down and before asking anyone else to read it, they decide that it’s good without asking for a second pair of eyes. They do it with only the judgment within themselves that the piece before them is up to their standards of what is good and that if they were the reader of the piece, they would find it worthy of their time and effort. And so if we writers are writing and judging a piece ourselves, where does the actual reader come in? Why is he necessary? Is he necessary? What responsibility does a writer have to the reader? I believe that where the reader comes in is right there—when the work is ready to be read, not only by the writer himself or his close friends, but by the public at large. When the writer’s book goes out into the world, the writer has essentially polished that original artifact from within and made it as perfect as it was possible to make it. Now, given that the writer has given this to the reader in order to make of it what he will, the question must be asked as to what the writer expects from the reader, which I believe to be the real question, or even what the asker of the question actually means when he asks what the writer’s ideal reader is, which is “what does the writer expect from his reader?” I believe that the writer expects the reader to be someone who is willing to put aside a great deal of time in order to read what he has written and to make a sizable effort in order to ascertain what it was the writer was trying to say with this piece of himself. Now, in order for this to occur, the writer must ascertain what it is he owes to the reader. This is, I think, ultimately the most important question regarding the writer/reader relationship. The writer has to determine what responsibility he has to his ideal reader. It is in this final decision the writer makes that determines how his writing will be seen—the object of writing as I see it, the purpose of it is to look inward to reach out. The whole act of writing is an act of introspection. In writing, we hold up that piece of ourselves to the reader and it is in that last holding up that we reach outward, letting the reader be the judge of that piece of ourselves we hold most dear, most secret, most sacred. And that is what the writer owes to the reader. The writer’s responsibility to the reader is to make that piece of himself that he has put into his book to be the truest, most honest piece of himself he can dredge up. No more, no less. The writer should not be glib, should not be flippant, should not be egotistical in his writing—he must write as if talking to a lover, as if talking to a best friend, as if talking to himself.

This was probably way too long of an essay in order to explore this pretty simple concept, but I’ve spent way too many nights and moments before, between, and after writing solely to contemplate this issue. After reading interview upon interview with authors in which the author is asked about his audience as well as the reason behind his writing, I think I actually came to a conclusion about how one can answer one question in order to get to the answer for the other.