I have begun my study of Narrative Design, the text from novelist Madison Smartt Bell that teaches a writer how to structure a short story and analyze well-written ones. From the very start of the book, Bell gives us notice that he’s not going to shrink from expressing what one of his blurb reviewers calls “candid and idiosyncratic comments.”

Candor, sure. I was struck by how writing workshops — the traditional, old-style kind — get skewered candidly by Bell. He explains what he saw while teaching a few semesters in the workshops at Iowa, whose Writer’s Workshop is the oldest and biggest graduate MFA writing program in the US. Workshops, as most people understand them, are places to learn what is failing in a piece of writing.

This leaves the old-style workshop in something of a point of failure itself. The leader who runs such a 12-writers-finding-faults kind of seminar may fail the author whose text is being probed and prodded — and fail the writer on a very important point:

The fault-finding force of intertia inherent in all workshops [of this kind] means that it will be hard for the teacher to convince all the other students that the work has succeeded.

Only if the teacher “argues skillfully will he probably manage to convince the author, which is the main thing that matters at the end.”

Convincing an author of success, in even the least part of the effort, matters a great deal to me, too, as a leader of an Amherst Writers & Artists workshop. Any writing class, group or workshop that leaves you less motivated to write is the wrong one for you. If being in a tough group that praises only rarely seems like good medicine for you, well, you might be surprised how much you can learn from any other kind, like those that we offer.

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