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Workshop Drop-Outs

A student has dropped out of my class. She says she has scheduling problems but I don’t think this is the real reason. Class #5 and #6 are the most difficult: my students hit a wall. The wall is different for every writer and every student writer. We begin in a state of bliss, keeping our journals, beginning a piece of work, enjoying ourselves. A melody of language pours out of us onto the page, we are released, we are free, we are transported. But as all this happens, students are also becoming better at critiquing—and I am getting tougher. There is potential in the work and my mandate is to suggest ways to lift the manuscript out of discovery draft into a final draft—or project—strong enough for submission.

So the weeks pass and the critique becomes deeper and more telling. Where are the holes in the story? Why isn’t this sentence or paragraph working? In order to sustain self-esteem in this open, demonstrative environment, a writer needs courage, flexibility and patience in equal measure. Some students aren’t ready for this, or they get rattled, or refuse to listen and become defensive. We study what is on the page and how to make it better. That is all.

I make phone calls, have more discussions, write personal emails of encouragement. I do my best. Years of experience in the workshop setting have taught me a great deal about becoming a writer in the most existential sense. I watch with pleasure as my students begin to think of themselves as writers. And though I am deeply sorry when someone drops away, I don’t take it personally, and hope they will not abandon their writing lives.

A critique is not criticism. By creating a warm and considerate environment with firm rules, I can only do so much. The rest is up to the student: s/he has to meet the workshop, and the workshop process, half-way.

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