By Dimitri Keramitas
I’ve participated in numerous writing workshops, taken writing classes going back to university days, and been part of several writing groups. I think I know the differences between them, but sometimes they can be fluid, even ambiguous. The aspiring writer has to decide what’s best for them, especially when they pay hard-earned cash for the privilege.
The writing workshop favors a Socratic approach, teachers and students discussing, asking questions, offering possible but never definitive answers. It’s most fruitful when the number of participants is small, which is why the Paris Writer’s Workshop is limited to relatively small groups. It’s important that the teacher lead the discussion, albeit in an unobtrusive way.
The workshop format focuses on work submitted by students. Aside from the thrill (and fear) of your work being discussed, is the constructive nature of talking about projects still in progress, how they work or don’t. The line between workshop and class blurs when the teacher has the class analyze a finished piece of work, typically by a classic or at least exemplary writer. The teacher may also have student do exercises, and offer lectures about elements of craft.
At the Paris Writers Workshop we refer to “master classes”, underlining their hybrid nature. But the core of the master class is the work of the participant, and the concrete challenge of improving it. This is why, in addition to the group experience, teachers offer students a one-on-one session.
The pure writing class may not deal with the student’s work at all. The teacher is freed from the hard work of reading, analyzing, commenting on, and correcting submissions. For this reason, a writing class may hold well over twenty students, compared to the PWW seminar’s twelve. The teacher may teach several such groups. Lectures, exercises, and discussion of classic literature make up the content. This is a perfectly good system, especially for young students new to writing. Many students may not have written anything yet. A college class can last one or two semesters, while private courses can take the form of one-shots or last several weeks. For the more experienced writer or even the writer who’s inexperienced but with something concrete to show, this format may not be the most satisfactory.
Some aspiring writers who aren’t predisposed to the Socratic method, or have taken part in workshops where the teacher didn’t sufficiently lead the discussions, may feel that the workshop is a glorified writers group, an expensive one at that. Writing groups can be an excellent way simply to make yourself write. When you belong to a group there’s group pressure to produce something, anything, every week or so. Practice, practice, practice is essential to any art form. And it’s only by producing that you can experience the initial shock of seeing what your strengths and weaknesses are. We can’t always see them, however. And that’s where having another set of eyes is essential. If the other members have a modicum of intelligence and talent, they’ll point out things you perhaps only vaguely sensed. Still, the other members are only aspiring writers like you, and while Flannery O’Connor was a bit harsh in referring to groups as the blind leading the blind, I’ve found that there’s no comparison with having a workshop leader who is a talented, experienced teacher and writer.
There’s something to be said for the very shortness of the workshop or class. It’s intensive, with a definite beginning-middle-end structure. I’ve found that groups can drag or lack evolution. Sometimes members get used to your faults and ignore them—or else grow irritated and overreact to them. Writing groups inevitably evolve into groups of friends, who can offer each other support, encouragement, and useful information. That’s a great thing, but there’s something to be said for the more impersonal, objective nature of the class or workshop.
A positive feature of a group is that it doesn’t cost anything. Actually, this isn’t always the case. Some individuals have founded groups, lead them like teachers, and charge for “expenses”. I tend to look askance at such set-ups, but I can’t judge what works for others. But even when a writing group is free for all concerned, time, as we say, is money. In fact time can be a precious thing more valuable than money. When I participated in the PWW myself, I not only had to pay the fees, but also cancel professional activities for the week. But I always found that week incredibly productive (not to mention fun), and so the cost/value ratio wasn’t bad at all.
Dimitri Keramitas is director of the WICE Creative Writing program and this year’s director of the Paris Writers Workshop 2018.