05 November 2021 Update: This was written as a student to other students. Now that I’m an instructor of writing workshops, I would probably word these tips slightly differently, but I still think these tips are useful.
After I earned my undergraduate degree in creative writing, I started taking craft classes and writing workshops in 2016 at the Writers Studio Tucson and the University of Arizona Poetry Center. These classes are generally open to writers and poets at any level, while some are tailored especially for beginners. Well into my third year of taking advantage of these local writing resources, a few general tips come to mind that I think can help writers new to writing classes and workshops. How you participate in class can mean the difference between a rewarding learning experience and an utter waste of your—and everyone else’s—time and money.
Defer to the Instructor
There’s invariably one student in class who arrives fully prepared to monopolize the conversation and argue with the instructor at every opportunity. When it’s a male student interrupting and challenging a female instructor, this behavior is often the result of misogyny, patriarchy, and paternalism. As men, we often challenge female authority without even thinking about it.
I think it’s helpful to remind yourself occasionally that you’re attending class for the opportunity to learn from an expert, and you’re there as a learner and a listener. You may be welcome to participate in class discussions, but remember that you’re just one of several participants. We’re all there first and foremost to learn from the instructor.
Classes have a scope. When an instructor assigns an essay to read or an exercise to complete, it’s almost certainly within the scope of the class and relevant to the topic at hand. When students derail the ensuing discussion with asides about their own beliefs and political views (which frequently leads other students to chime in with their own, taking the group even further away from the topic at hand), this suggests to me that the students have lost sight of why they signed up in the first place. Let’s be clear: craft classes and workshops are about writing, the elements of craft, and constructive feedback. Before you speak up, before you express your opinion or relate a personal anecdote, ask yourself if what you’re about to say is on topic, helps further the discussion, fits in nicely with what the instructor is trying to teach, and can be expressed quickly and concisely. Can it wait until break or after class? Do you need more time to think it through? Would it be better expressed as an essay or blog post on your own website?
Fellow writers often chime in about whether or not they liked an assigned reading or exercise. But the instructor does not assign these to gauge how much you like them. She’s not keeping a tally. She assigns readings because these texts include valuable information. She assigns exercises because they may improve your writing. There’s almost always something useful for you to glean from each text and exercise, even if you don’t like them.
In one workshop I took, the instructor assigned two essays about poetics by a well-regarded poet and teacher. The discussion began with students complaining they didn’t understand what they had read, but then their tone turned mean when the same students suggested the author was being willfully opaque, had an awful style, didn’t, in fact, know how to write, and certainly didn’t know how to write for an audience. Their dismissal of the author and his work was also disrespectful to our instructor, who had assigned the reading in good faith because she knew it contained useful information and perspective. Our instructor responded with calm and respect and she attempted to turn the conversation back to what might have been useful to us in the essays, but the nastiness of the students continued until her only recourse was to move on to the next topic.
I attend these workshops because I’m interested in the subject matter and because I desire to learn everything I can from that specific instructor in our short time together. I assume and value her expertise, whether or not I end the class with a favorable opinion about her, the content we covered, or the effectiveness of the class. That is, even the worst teacher has something valuable to teach. I always attend these classes to learn and I participate in discussions as led by and at the whim of the instructor herself, not me or the other students.
Defer to your instructor. Take notes, read (and engage with) what she assigns, and do your exercises. When there’s class discussion, keep your comments within the scope of the class. Stay on topic. If you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. You signed up for her expertise; get your time and money’s worth by being a respectful student focused primarily on listening and learning.
I’m always shocked when other students in class—all these adults who should know better—carry on side conversations while the instructor is speaking. I’m mortified and appalled when I’m trying to listen to the instructor but someone leans over to loudly whisper something in my ear, usually a dumb joke, a personal anecdote, or a question that has just been or will likely soon be answered by the instructor if they would just shut up and listen.
I do enjoy listening to and conversing with my classmates before class, during group discussions, during breaks, and after class. But when the instructor is speaking, my attention is on her. Again, I signed up for the instructor’s expertise and I intend to listen to learn as much as I can from her.
Don’t be Negative
You didn’t like the essay we had to read before class. You hated the exercise. The poet we read makes you want to rip your hair out.
Now is not the time to rant to the rest of us about it. Now is not the time to be negative about our instructor or other classmates. And when it’s your turn to introduce and share your own work with us, do not start by being negative about yourself!
I know there are personality types who tend to be self-effacing; I’m one of those people. I have learned, however, that this kind of negative behavior toward yourself actually causes harm to the class as well. Whether this is your plea for sympathy or truly an expression of self-loathing, such negativity undermines the reasons why we’re all attending class. Introducing your own work with a litany of its failings and your own changes the mood in the room and can cause other students to start dwelling on the perceived negative aspects of their own work, as well as the work of others. I’ve attended classes where the instructor had to reset the mood in the room because everyone was following one negative and self-effacing student down a well of shared despair.
The act of creation is positive. The very act of attending a class to listen and learn is a positive one. It’s a constructive step we writers take to improve our craft, to share with others, and to become part of a community. Be kind to yourself and be kind to your own writing.
Certainly don’t be negative to your instructor and other classmates. Refrain from being so behind their backs. And please don’t dwell on how much you hate a reading or exercise. I can understand a brief comment about how difficult but rewarding your experience was, but spending time blasting something you didn’t get anything out of is disrespectful to the instructor. Even if you didn’t get anything out of it, you might get something out of listening to other students who did.
You’re There to Learn
Whether you’re attending your first-ever craft class or regularly attending writing workshops, I think it’s always important to reevaluate your behavior and reasons for being there. Have you reminded yourself that you’re the student, the listener, the learner? That you’re there to learn from an expert? That this isn’t a space for you to monopolize the discussion, rant, or be unkind? That even in the worst class taught by the worst teacher, you can learn something of value?
A little introspection and a few adjustments in behavior can make class more rewarding for everyone.