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  • What's Right and Wrong with the Workshop:A New Collection of Essays Examines the Effectiveness of the Creative Writing Workshop
  • Adam Breckenridge (bio)
Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? Edited by Dianne Donnelly. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters, 2010

Ever since its rise in popularity after World War II, creative writing has been a contentious field within English studies. While it has become a considerable source of income for departments and continues to attract an ever-growing body of students, creative writing faces scrutiny from prominent authors such as Donald Hall and critics in literature studies, who tend to view the field as antiintellectual and lacking in any real academic substance. In the last twenty years, however, creative writing studies has emerged as a subdiscipline of creative writing, whose interest is to look at issues of pedagogy and the process of creative writing with all of the academic rigor we would normally associate with literature and rhetoric and composition. It has also given creative writers a means of exploring the questions so often raised by critics: Can creative writing be taught? Can students ever really hope to imitate great writers? Does the creative writing process practiced in universities actually produce great writing, or does it only lead to what Hall (1983: 4) notoriously referred to as "McPoems" and "McStories"? Most significant to this collection is how effective the creative writing workshop is. The workshop is, of course, of [End Page 425] particular interest because it is unquestionably the most important element of creative writing pedagogy and therefore the most heavily debated.

A new collection of essays, Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? edited by Dianne Donnelly, looks to provide an analysis of the workshop from multiple perspectives, ranging from spirited defenses, to arguments for changing the way workshops are taught, to reflections from the essayist on his or her own experiments with the workshop model. The title of the book suggests that the very value of the workshop is being called into question, though the essays lean largely in favor of it. Most of the authors focus not on what is wrong with the workshop but on what potential can still be unlocked in it, which should make the book an enlightening read for both critics and supporters of the workshop.

Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? includes contributions from the most prominent voices in the field, including Patrick Bizarro, Katharine Haake, and Anna Leahy. In the foreword to the book, Graeme Harper suggests that we need to rethink the workshop because we are too focused on output rather than the human experience inherent in art. An introduction by Donnelly sets the historical context by laying out the development of the workshop since its origins at Iowa State University in the early twentieth century. She also explains the structure of the rest of the book, which divides the essays into four sections: "Inside the Writing Workshop Model," "Engaging the Conflicts," "The Non-Normative Workshop," and "New Models for Relocating the Workshop." In the afterword, Joseph Moxley, often considered the founder of creative writing studies, follows up on his previous research on creative writing pedagogy from his landmark book Creative Writing in America (1989).

The first section, "Inside the Writing Workshop Model," contains five essays that each look at what makes a workshop successful or unsuccessful and what an instructor can do to make his or her workshops as effective as possible (though some essays explore this question to a much greater extent than others). On one end of the spectrum, Stephanie Vanderslice points out that the workshop evolved under circumstances that no longer fit the needs of current students, since it became popular in the post-World War II era and mostly serviced veterans. She argues that, because of this, it must change or die, though she leaves it to others to determine what exactly those changes need to be. On the other hand, Willy Maley gives a spirited defense not only of the workshop but of the still contentious niche creative writing has carved out for itself in the academic realm in England, where creative writing has gained far less respect at the university level than it has in...