I just spent a wonderful week at the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference. I’m thinking about a lot of things from the conference, but today I want to think about writing community. I always think of community as something that is built and developed over time, but in my workshop, led by creative nonfiction author Alison Hawthorne Deming, there was a feeling of community by the second day. I’ve been trying to figure out how she did it. Certainly it was partly the serendipity of the class make-up, but mostly, it was her choices as a writing instructor. There are some things I hold sacred when it comes to building community in the writing workshop–writing together, for instance–that we didn’t do a single time!
What I usually do: Start each class with writing.
What Alison did: Started each class with talking.
Each morning, Alison had a different question or prompt for us–but instead of writing about the prompts, we talked about them. We went around the circle and discussed the question. We didn’t write about it. This felt very strange to me at first. It took up a large chunk of valuable class time, and since there was no writing connected to it, I wondered if it was a waste. But it was invaluable in helping students make connections with each other and discover shared histories and interests. It was invaluable in creating a portrait of each person as a writer–goals, past experiences, hopes. The questions were always related to writing, so we were processing and growing as thinkers about writing.
What I usually do: Use texts as the common shared experience
What Alison did: Took the class on a walk as a common shared experience
After introductions and a brief lecture on creative nonfiction, Alison invited us to leave the classroom and go outside for a walk. The focus of this workshop was place, and we were at a wonderful place to write about in Bemidji, where the college campus is right on Lake Bemidji. There was a writing assignment attached to the walk: notice and try to capture sensory details. It was extraordinary how often the noticings of this walk showed up in people’s writing and conversation throughout the week. We also shared plenty of texts throughout the week. But I think the walk mattered more, as we were all moving and seeing and thinking together.
What I usually do: Focus on building student-teacher relationships
What Alison did: Provided space for student-student relationships
I have always thought that the quality of a writing community is largely the result of the effort the teacher puts into building relationships with the students and creating a safe space for writing and sharing. But in a weeklong workshop with a visiting faculty member you’ll never work with again, teacher-student relationships just aren’t the focus. There is a general feeling of good will and care, but the teacher doesn’t make an effort to get to know you outside of class and there is no expectation that they will. That leaves a lot of space for students to connect with each other both inside and out of class. When students take ownership of their learning experience and feel engaged in a common purpose, the teacher just isn’t as necessary for building community.
What I usually do: Start by having students write to me
What Alison did: Started by having students write for each other
If you wanted an individual critique, you could pay extra and sign up for that. But otherwise, Alison never collected our work and didn’t provide any feedback beyond some comments and questions in class. It was our fellow students who were reading our work very closely and providing detailed feedback. As much as Alison was a generous, wise ear for our writing, shared incredible insights and asked really good questions, it was the other students in the class we were writing for. I feel like I spend a lot of time in writing classes trying to redirect students’ focus on me as their audience to each other, trying to help them write for each other. Sometimes I never get there over an entire semester. I wonder if I would be better served by changing my students’ first writing assignment so that they aren’t writing a letter to me but writing to each other. I also wonder about one other sacred practice of writing workshop classrooms: the teacher writing alongside students and sharing her work with students. Alison didn’t share any of her writing. She didn’t even talk about her writing that much. And that provided so much more space for student work to be the center of the class.
What I usually do: Give students time to generate, write, and revise before sharing
What Alison did: Asked students to share work on Day 2
Naturally there is a sense of urgency and compressed time frame when you have one week to write together instead of the fifteen weeks of a semester. But something interesting happened when homework was assigned on the first day and expected to be shared on the second. People wrote–and they wrote well. We didn’t need two weeks to generate and produce a 500-word piece of writing. I’m not sure my students do either. By the end of the second day, we knew so much about each other as writers, and we also knew so much more about writing from the experience of reading and critiquing those pieces.
What I usually do: Remove the constraints from assignments
What Alison did: Added constraints to assignments
I resist giving assignments or even word counts. I find the perennial question of “How long should this be?” quite tiresome. It should be as long as it needs to be! Ask the writing, don’t ask me. But creativity is a funny thing: constraints tend to spark more of it. Some of Alison’s assignments were very constrained: our first 500-word assignment, for example, was 200 words on our nature walk by the lake in Bemidji, 200 words on a place that was meaningful to us, and 100 words connecting them. I would never dream of assigning something like that to my students. And yet, it was incredibly generative for every writer in the room. Of course we all knew we were free to go in a different direction if the writing demanded that–and many writers did. But it was the initial constraint that provided the spark. There was very specific homework every night–not just word counts but what to do within those word counts–and every night, my writing surprised me. I was able to think more and do more as a result of the constraint.
What I usually do: Celebrate but always seek improvement
What Alison did: Simply celebrate
Katherine Bomer would love Alison’s style of giving feedback. She focused on what she loved and didn’t usually even mention what wasn’t working about a text. She was an incredibly generous reader. There were a couple of pieces shared over the week that I didn’t see much in. But Alison managed to find their strengths and beauties and celebrate the pieces as writing. And it was interesting to observe what happened to those writers who received that warm praise: they were so eager to go off and write some more. By the end of the week, several students were skipping the conference extras (craft talks and author readings) just to have more time to write. And of course by writing more, they are improving. Praise helped the writers focus on what they needed to do more of. There was a choice to focus on the one moment where a writer slowed down time and provided the rich sensory details that made the piece come to life or to point out the ten times she summarized and got us all confused about the time frame. Alison focused on the craft specifics of what made the moment of slowed-down time work so well and never mentioned the messy parts that took the reader out of the narrative. In that writer’s next piece, there were several of those slowed-down moments and it was a much more effective narrative. I have always believed that we can grow writers by only talking about what works, but I often feel this pressure and unspoken judgment from others to make sure I’m also sharing one thing the writer needs to work on. But after seeing what Alison was able to accomplish just through focused and thoughtful praise, I’m going to feel more confident following my instincts in how I critique student writing. Her careful words of celebration made the writing seem necessary, needed, important.