Dispatch from AWP: The Fine Art of Constructive Praise

file4211283523276There are workshops that tear you down for sport, and there are workshops that build you up with meaningless praise. Somewhere between these two extremes exists the sweet spot of the creative writing workshop, where, as four panelists from Grub Street in Boston put it, the “poetics of generosity” exist to provide writers with the space, encouragement, and advice they need to grow and improve.

What do these panelists mean by “poetics of generosity”? Writer Ron MacLean says it’s about “finding what resonates in a draft and encouraging writers to do more of that.” MacLean stresses that a workshop need not be punitive to be rigorous.

In workshops, MacLean encourages writers to “let go of the notion of [themselves] as the gatekeepers of good writing.” Perhaps one of the most helpful things a writer can say to another in a workshop is, according to MacLean:“Here’s what took my breath away, even if I can’t say why.”

Some panelists acknowledged the widespread (and misguided) belief that a workshop must toughen writers with blunt, harsh criticism. Not so. “I have come to believe that [the poetics of generosity] is the most rigorous form of teaching,” says MacLean.

“We have an innate fear of the irrational in writing workshops,” says Grub Street instructor and author Christopher Castellani, who explained how, without a careful and conscious effort on the part of the participants, workshops can become a forum in which writers evaluate drafts based on how well they imitate and execute tried-and-true techniques. This stifles innovation. Workshop participants and instructors alike must get over that fear.

Kate Racculia offered “Five Ways to Be” in a writing workshop.

1. Be hopeful. Look for the potential in every draft. There’s no need to look for flaws. “The flaws will not hide themselves,” she says.

2.  Be honest. In this case, “it is cruel to be only kind.” Give your honest reaction, even if some of it points out perceived flaws.

3.  Be open. “Be a friend of the new,” says Racculia. New ideas and ways of writing come up in workshop all the time. It’s our job to be mindful of them and appreciate them when they appear.

4.  Be separate. You are part of a larger entity when you’re in a workshop, “but you’re also you,” Racculia reminds us. Share your individual thoughts. Do not succumb to groupthink.

5.   Be human. “If you really believe in the culture of criticism, you must engage with the work,” says Racculia.

After the discussion, an audience member recommended Catherine Wallace’s essay, “Care and Feeding of the Work in Progress,” which can be found here.

Learn more about Grub Street.

About Peter Biello

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered on New Hampshire Public Radio and a writer of short stories, novels, book reviews, and essays. He's also the host of The Bookshelf, a series of interviews with authors from or writing about the Granite State.
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