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Are Writing Workshops Essential to Learning the Craft?

Writing workshops

Writing workshops is how I got introduced to the creative writing craft. When I first started off as an aspiring writer a million years ago, I had no clue what I was doing. I’d read a ton of novels and a mega-ton of short stories, but that was it. I didn’t even want to be a writer. I was newly-married at the time, in a new country, and my spouse seemed to think writing was a grand thing.

He ferried me to one workshop after another, and through trial and error, and more misses than hits, I began bumbling about the publishing world.

I believed, up until a year or two ago, that attending writing workshops was the best way to grow your craft–a leader gave theoretical lessons, and then she and your cohort read your work and commented on it while you took notes. Not until I read Matthew Salesses did I begin to critically ponder on the tenets of writing craft, who teaches it, to whom, and why. Salesses says:

“If we can admit by now that history is about who has had the power to write history, we should be able to admit the same of craft. Craft is about who has the power to write stories, what stories are historicized and who historicizes them, who gets to write literature and who folklore, whose writing is important and to whom, in what context. This is the process of standardization. If craft is teachable, it is because standardization is teachable. These standards must be challenged and disempowered. Too often craft is taught only as what has already been taught before.”

And this essay (worth reading in its entirety) seems to express everything I’ve experienced at workshops but was too naive (brainwashed?) to analyze:

“Elif Batuman, in a 2010 essay in the London Review of Books called “Get a Real Degree,” argues that these rules have become so embedded in creative writing workshops that today they are not questioned. Sometimes called psychological realism, the basic canon encourages a kind of writing style that is based on strong individualism, an encapsulated self out in the world. And in fiction, as well as a lot of nonfiction, the name of the game is something we call “conflict.”

You will often hear in writing workshops that conflict is the fuel that drives all story. We are taught to begin in-scene—and then, teachers tell you, “stay in scene”—and to begin as close to the central point of conflict as possible. From here the story moves toward its resolution. Along the way, there must be plenty of “character development.” One of my fiction teachers told me that this focus on character arcs is almost an obsession in American literary fiction.

Americans read far fewer books in translation than readers in places like Japan, Poland, France, or Spain, and the writing workshop is even more insular than the general reading population. My biggest complaint about my writing workshops, shared by many of my cohorts, is that we read the same books and stories over and over again. There is a case to be made that this insularity and practice of narrow reading has helped create a canon of bland and cookie-cutter books.

Throughout Craft in the Real World, Salesses questions the extreme whiteness of creative writing programs. (Tongue and cheek, Batuman, in her London Review of Books essay, places “writing classes” at #14 on a list of “stuff white people like.”) Speaking anecdotally, my writing classes and writing workshops have overwhelmingly been taught by white female instructors. Taught by faculty that is so homogenous—racially, linguistically (teachers have been primarily monoglots with no experience reading globally in other languages), and in gender—the classes present a narrow and skewed system of aesthetic values.”

I’m not allowing myself to dwell on all of this too much. I have a two-book deal for my books, to be published in the biggest English-speaking Western publishing markets : the USA and the UK.

The audience of this blog, and the audience of The Blue Bar is predominantly the West, even though both are available (online) in India, and Asia. In the West, my writing is appreciated often for the setting it describes, and for the issues it addresses, and less frequently for my language or storytelling–which is not ideal for a self-doubting soul. Maybe I’m no good at all, I end up telling myself. Maybe it is all the so called ‘exotic’ setting of my book–a country I call my home, because my commonplace is someone’s ‘unusual’.

A conflict simmers within: the struggle to make myself heard and understood globally contrasted with the question: why is it not enough to just be understood within my own culture? Why am I expected to labor over making my work ‘accessible’ to the West, when the Western authors have never had to bother about their books being understood in India or Asia or indeed, anywhere outside of USA (or UK) ? The simple, brutal, answer of course is cultural prowess. Western cultures have held a hegemony on the publishing world, with English the globally acknowledged leader in the world of publishing.

At the very least, considering all of this has helped me understand myself, my biases, and my blind spots better. I possible recognize the colonization of my own mind the way I hadn’t before.

It is very hard to see something from the outside when you’ve been inside of it all along, especially for a formally untrained writer.

My education in creative writing has been largely self-led, and my craft teachers have been overwhelmingly online, and white–which means there’s so much I have been blind to. To everything I already knew I had to learn, so much more has been added.

Do you consciously seek out books set outside your comfort zone? As a writer, do you ever critically consider writing workshops? Do you read books set in various parts of the world? Do you ever question your own expectations of such a book? Are writing workshops essential to learning craft?

My lit crime novel, The Blue Bar will be out soon with Thomas & Mercer. It is already available for preorders. Add it to Goodreads or pre-order it to make my day.
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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Janet Alcorn says:

    Thanks for this post. There’s a lot to think about here. I’m somewhat new to fiction writing (only been doing it for 8 years), and I struggle with all the so-called rules. Some make sense to me, and some feel like inflated opinions. All seem like they are, as you suggest, a product of western whiteness.

    Congrats on your novel, and thanks for giving me a lot to think about.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Janet, 8 years is a good while. I’ve been thinking about all of this, and wanted to share them with everyone. Glad it resonates, and provokes thought.

  • hilarymb says:

    Hi Damyanti – I hope this takes … I’ve tried to comment recently and they’ve not gone through. Interesting to read your journey … and you’ve gleaned aspects that have helped – yet your books are great reads … as you’ve realised from your book deals – congratulations.

    I’d refer back to blog posts … there was a sort of suggestion that ‘this is what you’re meant to do’ … I rather gave up on that model and just did my thing … I’m not an author and only blog – but my independency outside the norm is a happy co-incidence for me and for anyone who reads the posts. By attending creative writing classes … I’m there are snippets and ideas one can use … but I’d hate to be too strictured by the ‘tutor’ … we need to be creative. Cheers Hilary

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      You do a wonderful job with your blog, Hilary. It is one of my favorite spots on the interwebs. Thanks for being so very supportive of my work over the years.

  • Great post. I have never felt the pull to writing workshops; back when I took some creative writing classes as an undergrad, I got much the same feeling that only a certain type of writing and even writing style was “acceptable.” Since that wasn’t my style, I came away with the feeling that I wasn’t a “serious writer.” Bah.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Rebecca, I hear you. Literary workshops tend to be quite exclusive, as I’ve often found. There are inclusive ones, too, they just take more looking.

  • mlouisebarbourfundyblue says:

    What a beautifully written and thought-provoking post, Damyanti! I attended a lot of writing workshops during my career as an elementary teacher. I always learned something in them that helped my students and me, particularly since my background was in geology and petroleum. Salesses’ comments on standards and standardization are so true. I was really critical of the formulaic approach recommended for teaching writing to younger children. I thought it destroyed the authenticity and voice of the writers. There has definitely been a bias toward whiteness in writing, but during my teaching career I’ve seen a big and encouraging increase in the availability of children’s books representing children from other ethnic and cultural groups. For me as a reader, one of the great joys of reading is experiencing other parts of the world through reading books written by writers who live there. I’m monolingual, something that has always bothered me, but I was hopeless at learning languages. But I enjoy reading books that have been translated. I do seek books outside my comfort zone. Lately I’ve been reading philosophy books which have been stretching my brain, so very different from books about rocks and earth history. You are obviously doing something right as a writer. You have the book contracts to demonstrate that. I’m looking forward to reading your next book. I certainly enjoyed “You Beneath Your Skin.”

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Thank you for your thoughts on this. I agree that there is much that has been done to increase diversity in reading. More is needed, perhaps, as you point out. I love that you experience other parts of the world through reading books written by writers who live there.

      Book contracts are a whimsical thing. A publishable quality of writing is a given, but the rest of which is luck–the right book at the right place at the right time.

      Thanks for reading You Beneath Your Skin. I hope The Blue Bar doesn’t disappoint.

  • First – your prose is gorgeous. I may not say that often enough in reviews I write because I often think of what readers might want to hear, so I jump into words like intriguing, action-packed, character depth, etc.

    Having read this, I wonder if I have been reviewing in a way that insults readers… not what I meant to do. Surely, there are readers who love gorgeous prose? Why have I not commented on that?

    I have questioned workshops. I’ve even questioned my own write to teach them, but I hope I can encourage my students to become teachers, too. I think the healthiest way to see a writing workshop is as peers coaching peers. I know that’s not normally the way it’s set up. Often the workshop teacher is set on a pedestal of sorts, but I’m not comfortable with that. Maybe that’s a Western discomfort, or a discomfort of my background – my parents taught me by example, words, and actions never to treat anyone as lesser or greater. I still had a hard time letting this sink in, but it has – mostly. If I’m backed into a corner by someone behaving arrogantly, I defend myself with arrogance that borders on ridiculousness – it’s a bad habit of competitiveness from my childhood at school which I hope to eventually break.

    This is all food for thought as I prepare to start teaching on Monday to high school students and as I prepare for the next workshop I teach in November. My students, even when they are decades younger or older than me, are often talented, highly intelligent individuals and I try to remember to respect that as I “teach” them certain skills and work on specific ideas. But then, what of the materials I use, and the way I teach… it is all very Western.

    I do read outside of my comfort zone, and while I have only been able to read a few things in French (my high school French teacher started us on Les Miserable in French for our advanced class), I do read translated work. I don’t think it’s quite the same when it’s translated, but it does expose my mind to different ways of thinking about the world and relationships.

    • I didn’t mean to write this much. Possibly I should have written a blog post and linked it back here…

      • Damyanti Biswas says:

        Tyrean, thanks for the kind words on my writing–that was a lovely thing to say. I do love reading gorgeous prose, but have never had mine described that way. So, thank you.

        I think you’re doing your best to be the most engaged and insightful teacher out there. We can’t be who we are not, but you’re doing your bit in remaining open, respectful, and introspective.

        The world has changed a lot in the last few decades–people affect each other more than ever in a globalized world, and thus, perhaps need to gain empathy and understanding through fiction that is not set firmly in their own experience. Wide reading helps with that, and reading translated fiction is such a good place to start.

  • Pam Lazos says:

    When I was trying to get “Oil and Water” published through the usual channels I heard this that and the other about what I should and shouldn’t be doing, how the story didn’t “fit” into the formula, and blah blah blah, hence I self-published and while I didn’t reach the kind of audience I would have with a behemoth publishing industry behind me, I got my words out, the way I wanted to say them, with my own vision for the book rather than a watered down version or some other editor’s vision. Did I wish for a bigger audience? Of course. Would I do it again this way knowing what I know? Yes, I would. I read a LOT, and I know good writing from bad. So much out there today is not very good or original. I’d rather be good or original than someone’s tamed and toned down version of myself. Write on, Damyanti. Keep doing you. I loved your first book and I’m sure I’ll love this one. You are an awesome writer with great vision. Stay in that lane as best you can. ;0)

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Pam, I’ve followed your blog for so long–you’re a wonderful writer who needs to be read far and wide. I do agree that a lot of what sells today is neither good, nor original. Publishing sells art, but is focused on the money–more and more so as the days go by. I’m doing my best, but I do wonder sometimes–about everything.

  • DutchIl says:

    Thank you for sharing!!.. perhaps workshops can be of some help but what comes from within is what matters.. and do not let the actions and thoughts of others bring doubt about your ability as a writer, just follow your heart for it knows.. “Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.” (Roy T. Bennett ).. 🙂

    Keep your fingers doing the walking and your heart doing the talking and until we meet again..
    May the sun shine all day long
    Everything go right, nothing go wrong
    May those you love bring love back to you
    And may all the wishes you wish come true
    (Irish Saying)

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Be led by hopes and dreams, not pushed by fear. Very well said, Larry.

  • literarylad says:

    I’ve never been to a writing workshop. I learnt to write from the authors I read, from Mallory and Marlowe, to Ballard and Burgess, and I’ve subsequently tried to develop my own style. I’ve no intention of putting my writing in front of someone who wants to mould it to fit a formula. We all learn our own way. Personally, I’ve always been autodidactic.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Reading is the best education in writing–can’t argue with that.

  • This is really interesting, Damyanti. Reading the article by Ogasawara, I wondered if the recent wave of indie publishing may have to some extent introduced works that break some of the accepted writing rules.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Yes it absolutely has. Indie authors are doing some fascinating work in genre fiction.

  • Denise says:

    Interesting points… Validating my opinion that writers don’t necessarily need formal training (unless you want to be a journalist); as artists, the skill is there, we just have to find it or allow it to bloom. Thanks for sharing!

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Yes, nurturing talent without oppressing the voice is a rare skill.

  • Your post touched a nerve for me. I am a product of the writing workshop method (a BA and an MA in creative writing). I started becoming disenchanted with the whole workshop experience in grad school and completely broke away from it after I had been teaching for a number of years. The problem with workshops is that the focus is on finding something wrong with the story–and the way to right the wrong is to write the story as the workshop member giving the feedback would have written it. “What’s wrong with this story?” is the wrong question to ask. It’s much more useful to ask “What was your intent with this story, and what kind of feedback would be most helpful for you at this point in your writing process?” Don’t get me started . . .

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      “What was your intent with this story, and what kind of feedback would be most helpful for you at this point in your writing process?”

      Exactly. So much more nurturing, and validating, and useful.

  • I loved hearing your thoughts on this, Damyanti. To answer your questions: yes, yes, yes, no, no. 🙂 I would love to expand a full discussion on each one, but a blog comment isn’t the place. All I will say is THIS is why it is so important to study languages from authentic resources. Authenticity is priceless, not only when it comes to literature and languages, but in anything related to intercultural communications. You can’t HEAR what the other person is truly saying, if you’re constantly filtering it through your own customs, culture, language, etc. Grant it, human beings can only filter life through what they have experienced themselves. So, if I am a white, American female there is absolutely nothing in my experience that can identically match the life experiences of someone who is not also those things. And, honestly, not even two white American females have lived the same exact experiences in their lives. Someone else’s story will always be different from mine, no matter what we have in common. But this is exactly why it’s so important to practice active listening with no expectations as much as possible — that is as close as we can get as human beings to saying to each other, “I see you. I hear you. You are human like me. We need to understand each other better. How can we solve our shared problems and help each other?” And so on. And this is what has always pushed me to step outside of my own culture and comfort zone as much as possible to reach out to people who I can learn from.

    And by “learn from” I don’t mean workshops. As a new writer, I also absorbed every bit of “wisdom” from “expert” writers out there. And it didn’t take long before I realized that, not only did they often contradict each other in their advice, but also … I just didn’t want to do that with my writing. My voice, my experience, my books, my writing … those are authentically me, even if they don’t fit trends, expert advice, or whatever. And that is more important to me, both for myself and the books that I read … in whatever language I try to read them. Always. I don’t read for conflict. In fact, Japanese literature often leaves conflict out completely, and they have a name for conflict-less stories: kishōtenketsu. 🙂 In this type of literature, the author relies on the writing itself and other literary devices to hold interest. And my experiences with this kind of literature are that they are quite peaceful, but also very deep and contemplative. I come away from them thinking, “Yes, this is what life is all about,” or some such reflection. So … I appreciate very much hearing your perspective on this. We need MORE authentic voices in literature, especially in homogenous, monoglot cultures. And while this is changing from times past, it needs to be supported by readers everywhere as necessary and normal, rather than falling back on “always English, always western, always (insert stereotypical standard here).” The world can’t afford to let diverse, authentic voices get lost in translation.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Melody, you say so much here that I absolutely agree with, especially this bit , “that is as close as we can get as human beings to saying to each other, “I see you. I hear you. You are human like me. We need to understand each other better. How can we solve our shared problems and help each other?”

      This is part of why I read, to experience lives that are not my own.

      I also resonate with your thoughts on kishōtenketsu.

      There are various modes of storytelling, and as you rightly point out, each of them needs to be given equal importance.

  • I suspect that all writers find their own way. A way which may or may not include writing workshops. I do think that reading (and preferably widely) is an essential part of the journey.

  • There is a lot to think about in this article, Damyanti. I will be pondering this for a while! One comment that caught my attention is the ‘whiteness’ of writing, ‘white’ being a topic that headlines so many conversations lately. I recently toured the Library of Congress, America’s oldest and largest library, located in our nation’s capital. The tour was free, open to all, but I couldn’t help but notice the group of attendees was 99% white, maybe more. Didn’t know what to make of that. Still don’t! Maybe it’s part of “stuff white people like”–free tours of libraries.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Jacqui, this post came from things I’ve been thinking about a lot in this past year. Whiteness did not concern me at all before I started writing, because I didn’t have the problem of translating my experience so as to be accessible to a white person. I’ve spent my life reading about the white experience, because where I grew up, the only way to ‘improve my situation’ was to learn English and one of the best ways to do that was with books.

      I grew up with tonnes of books written by white people, and I lost touch with my own mother tongue and still cannot write it because my parents were obsessed with making me learn English. I taught myself how to read my mother tongue, and learned to write my national language in school–but my training has been utterly white-centric, and this is something I’m taking cognizance of only now.

      How it will affect my writing is something I’m not yet sure of, but I do find it exhausting to have to explain myself and my way of life to an audience. It starts with telling them how to pronounce my name, and ends with re-structuring my stories in ways familiar to whiteness.

      I too have seen groups of white people taking part in cultural activities–with me the only brown one in a totally white group. I’ve often done it with some guilt, because in the background of my consciousness is always my parents’ voice that I must do something ‘useful’ with my time.

      For a poor family in a poor nation, that meant doing something that would earn money, to ‘improve the family situation.’ A lot of non-white people may not be on these free tours because they’re either busy earning a living, or being the way I was–reading and writing or pursuing art in the face of criticism or laughter, because none of it is considered ‘useful.’

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