I sat and watched my Creative Nonfiction class critique drafts this week and told myself, "This is how a writing workshop is supposed to work." I brought a list of things I wanted to point out in each draft, but by the time all the students had had their say, they'd made all my points and even more. Great! Their diligence freed me up to ask big-picture questions like "What happens if we throw the whole thing into present tense?" or "What are the pros and cons of using real people's names here?" or even "How do we feel about the title?"
Critique of drafts is where a workshop class stands or falls. Each class has a different chemistry, and students bring different skill levels to the table; if one or two students can't offer or receive constructive criticism, if they get belligerent or defensive or argue or cry, they can put a damper on free discussion of writing.
So I was a little nervous at the beginning of the week and then a student admitted that he finds it harder to critique nonfiction than fiction because he feels that he's critiquing people's lives. So we talked about this a little bit: we pour ourselves into our writing, but my writing is not me and your writing is not you and if we can't separate our writing from ourselves, we're in for a world of hurt. A few times over the course of the week a student would say something like "I feel like a heel for saying this," but we had no tears or trauma or running from the room.
And their suggestions were fantastic--specific, insightful, encouraging, creative. When a workshop is running well, it develops its own jargon, its own in-jokes that serve both to lighten the tone and to build cohesion in the class. Before this week none of my students would have recognized the phrase "three-dot essay," but now it's part of our shared vocabulary--and don't even ask them about "a hug in a bowl" unless you want to hear some guffaws.
The best kind of writing workshop should take the teaching out of my hands, setting students loose to provide all the feedback needed to help each other become better writers. My role is to create the circumstances in which this can happen--and then sit back and watch it work.