Bad Advice Wednesday: Un-Workshop!

categories: Cocktail Hour


 I’ve grown pretty weary of teaching workshops in recent years. There’s a rhythm to them, a sameness, that has started to wear on me. On the other hand, I have a job, and when I was assigned to teach a grad workshop I couldn’t really say: “I’ve grown weary of teaching workshops in recent years.”

So I’ve tried to un-workshop it a little. Below is my rough syllabus, an attempt to come up with a new model, or at least a brief break from the old. I’d like to know if other teachers and students are trying to mess with the old model. I think some messing is long overdue…..

Workshop in Creative Nonfiction


 This workshop is going to be a bit of a strange beast, really only half workshop, half something else. You will only have one traditional workshop each and therefore only one complete piece required. All of these traditional workshops will occur after the break in the first week in March. The rest of the writing you do will be a series of assignments in different forms during the first half of the class. These will be work-shopped in small groups in the classroom, groups run on more of an editorial model.

This is an experimental class, but it is an experiment with a purpose. For a long time now I have come to believe that the traditional workshop is a pretty limited thing, and that it doesn’t focus enough on really teaching new possibilities, new modes, new types of writing.

 Forms, Shapes, Modes:

             When you write a letter of condolence, a Facebook post, an editorial, or a journal entry, you are writing in a form.  You are also doing this any time you are writing an essay or section of memoir, not just as a whole but within the piece, operating in different modes: scene, condensed scenes, explication, thought/idea sections, lyric descriptions, etc… My goal with this class is to challenge you to become aware of your own prevalent modes, and to perhaps prod you toward not just more awareness but more variety. We will do this through specific assignments, through our reading, and through one-on-one conferences.  

 Jan 15-Feb 19: First half of class:

             You need to complete the short assignments. And you need to do the reading. Neither will be onerous, but the class doesn’t work if you don’t.   

            We will discuss the pieces in groups of four within the class.

            For each piece reviewed by each group of four there will be an editor, a heavy, and a civilian.

            The editor’s job: to get the piece ready for publication, to come in as a professional and suggest changes, deletions, thoughts.

            The heavy’s job: be critical.  Don’t be scared about being mean. Everyone knows it’s your job.

            The civilian’s job: regular bland workshop participant.

            The roles will shift with each piece.

            And the foursomes will vary (though if someone is being a particular help to you let me know).

            These pieces need to be e-mailed to your small group on Sunday by 6.



Pulphead by John Sullivan

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Temple Stream by Bill Roorbach (who is this guy?)

Suggested (on form and genre):

Samuel Johnson and the Art of Writing by Paul Fussell


 1. January 15:  Class introduction.  I go on and on.

Description of Coda or Open Space

In class reading of Feet in Smoke

Journalism and personal linked in “Upon This Rock”

January 22

Reading to have been done by today: Read my two versions of “The Wired Woods.” 

John Sullivan’s “Upon This Rock”

Writing due today: 

*E-mail your example of a Coda or Open Space to your mini-class. In this piece you will have taken some of your own long material and condensed it to fit the space. 1000 words max. 

*Have rough notes ready for a piece based on “Upon This Rock.”  Talk about this in your mini-group.  Give yourself an assignment.  Where would you go?  What would you throw yourself into? How would you weave your personal material with your journalistic?


Simple and complex:

Action and thought.

*This I Believe.

Thinking on the page.


Tobias Wolfe and scenes in Sullivan.

Discuss “Upon This Rock”

Play by play and condensed.

What happened and what happened squashed together.

Drunk stories, family stories.

3. January 29:

Reading to have been done by today: John Sullivan’s “Mr. Lytle,”  “Michael” and “LA*HWI*NE*SKI.”

Writing due today: 

*Your “This I Believe” Piece for mini-workshop

* The same scene extended (play by play) and condensed.


Profiles and biographies.

Other human beings.

Making a profile dramatic.

Profile and place: first four pages of The Meadow in class.

4. February 5:

Reading to have been done by today: Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” and Reg Saner’sTechnically Sweet.”

Writing due today: 

*Your profile piece for mini-workshop

* The same scene extended (play by play) and condensed.


Braiding essays.

Juggling—two balls or three

Van Gogh, Herring and Me

5. February 12 (Lincoln’s Birthday):

Reading to have been done by today:

Begin Wild by Cheryl Strayed through page 176.

Writing due today:

Rough draft of three pages of braiding

Rough thoughts on longer braided essay



Elements to braid.

Place and the personal.

Journalism as an element

 6. February 19:

Reading to have been done by today: Finish Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Writing due today:

Six pages of your choice (Something you have written since the class began)


Wild by Cheyrl Stayed

Where are we?  Surveying the wreckage.

What are you excited about?

 7. February 26: No class.  Research Mission.  Here’s what I am doing. What are you doing?

A three day assignment. Just as important as sitting down at the desk. Reporting.

 Half Time: 

 March 5: No class.  Vacation.  Go to AWP!  (Boston is good.) 


  1. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Great syllabus, Dave. For the This I Believe piece, do you give them examples or refer them to a website or some such? I know it’s gotten popular but maybe not among that demographic as listeners, however many twentysomethings do them. I had the idea to try the NYT’s Modern Love form for a class, but reading a bunch of them, I’m not sure. All the ones I read were by much older folk. Not that that’s insurmountable, but so far I have failed to come up with one published by someone their age, to provide greater identification for them. OTOH, we are always teaching them work by older writers to give them models. And yet . . . it would be fun to say, Look, here’s what a kid YOUR AGE did with his or her material, using this form.

    • dave writes:

      I didn’t print the second half of the syllabus because we will devolve into a normal workshop. I will actually give them a chance to vote and decide if we should keep going with shorter forms but my guess is that the momentum (or is it the inertia?) of the workshop model will win out.

      I was very impressed with the codas. I’ll let you know about the “This I Believes.”

  2. Nichole L. Reber writes:

    Would love to have the description of coda.

    • Dave writes:

      Here you go:

      Hi, David. A Coda can be hard to pin down, but I’ll do my best…

      At less than 700 words, they have to be sharp and tight. Many writers accomplish this by keeping the piece very focused, zooming in on one thing (skimmers, for example?). Being on the last page of the magazine, Coda holds an exposed place, so it has to grab the reader somehow, and leave them feeling satisfied–whether it’s because they laughed, or saw something differently, or were moved. In order to do this, I think, the piece has to go beyond the writer and their personal experience. It also has to have an extra little lift or zip to it (for lack of a more concrete way of saying it). And this leads me to my last point, which is style. A flat or overly expository style probably won’t do much for a Coda. The best Codas have a real sense of voice, a freshness to them. Think of Brian Doyle, who apparently writes Coda-like pieces all day long…

      • Brian Doyle writes:

        Haw — not all day long — just early in the morning. I love the firm. One of the best things that ever happened to me as a writer (along with being a dad, and being a doofus, both of which humiliate you on a refreshingly regular basis) as being an editor, and so a man required to write an editorial essay, which teaches you to write less, which is very often how you can write more. To say something real and piercing in a short space is a lovely and difficult craft. Any idiot can wite long; writing short is harder. Thesis for discussion today: a short glorious thing is better than a long one. More memorable; easier to access and digest; harder to forget, there not being much of it; and you don’t even have to turn the page.

        • Dave writes:

          I should have mentioned that the description above comes from the Orion folks.

          I agree with Brian and will add: once you get good at the short stuff they work real well as individual parts of the long stuff.

  3. Tommy writes:

    Hey Dave, I think I’d have no problem keeping up with all of this…… if it was my only class.

  4. Misty Beck writes:

    I was briefly afraid. Part of my job is to drop into other faculty’s classes and give “workshops” on writing. I thought I might be sunk. One of my routine sessions is to teach students how to do effective peer review — how to be critical and why it’s a namby-pamby waste of time to settle for “supportive” comments. (They are generally not well enough endowed to need support — not that I’m able to say that as a classroom guest!) But I love the roles — “the heavy” in particular, nicely coupled with “the civilian.”

    Come to think of it, the inadequacy of the civilian in a workshop mirrors our political life pretty damn well.

  5. Joan writes:

    Thanks much for this. I teach a fiction workshop in a master’s program and would love to get away from the standard model. Ever see the movie “The Way We Were”? (Streisand and Redford). Remember the college writing workshop they’re both in (or at least Redford’s character was in it, don’t remember if Streisand’s was). Anyway, the way the workshop is conducted is that Redford reads his story aloud, or maybe the professor does. But that’s it. A few student murmurs, some praise or scorn from the Wise Writer Professor, and they’re done.
    I once heard that the best writing workshop was conducted by Katherine Anne Porter. The apocryphal version was that she’d meet alone with each student and read his/her story aloud to them. That’s all it took for the student writer to flee the room, mortified, realizing exactly what was wrong with the piece.
    Thanks for the reminder to risk a little horror from expectant students and try things differently.

    • Debora writes:

      Joan, I’m with you on this. Streisand IS in the workshop, the instructor reads, “In a way, he was like the country he lived in, things came too easily…” Redford squirms uncomfortably and glances around the room, slinks down in his chair. Streisand is mesmerized, but after class she runs down the campus sidewalk to a trash can where she rips apart her own piece and throws it away, weeping. One of my all time favorites. Saw it for the first time on a 747 bound to or from Germany. Been deeply in love with Redford ever since. And Streisand, although differently.

  6. Carol McGorry writes:

    This past term, I gave more weight to responding to creative non-fiction blogs….including yours…which got them thinking more about forms and possibilities and writing issues and then Sandy blew our due dates out to sea. I’m calling it, the “It’s Okay” approach. And the work grew better…took different shapes more organically. Thanks for sharing the assignments; and I like the idea of the Big Read up front..

  7. Nancy writes:

    Thanks for helping me with my syllabus, Dave.
    But you left off the last line of the final syllabus entry. I think it should read:
    Meet Nancy Bout for a few beers at the Bar in Boston. Or betta yet, meet me at Charlie’s Beer Garden behind Charlie’s Kitchen in the Square (but say it all without the Rs and pronouncing “square” with a long “A” and then a short “a” in two syllables: “squA-a). Yes, Boston is good!

  8. Eva Saulitis writes:

    Thanks so much for sharing this, David. I’ve been messing with the workshop format for years. Inspired by Don Snow of Whitman College, I taught nature essay last year by starting with three weeks of a “big read,” immersion in fat packets of essays of varying forms and voices. Writing/workshop started only after that. In general workshop classes, I assign a particular assignment (usually an example of a form) based on a reading assignment/prompt each week. Participants start on it in class, writing for 20-30 minutes. And I’ve cut back on the number of workshop pieces each student submits.

    • Dave writes:

      Yup. I like the idea of assigning partic forms. More real world–which is where I’ve learned most.

  9. watson writes:

    Oh. There’s a delay.

  10. watson writes:

    what happened to my comment? It disappeared.

  11. watson writes:

    I love it. I did an unimaginative version of it for an advanced undergraduate fiction workshop last fall and all but two loved it pretty much. My only beef is with the “This I Believe” assignments, which I know you like but which I fear may be embarrassing and/or tedious — as are most of the “This I Believes” on NPR (if they still do it).

  12. Debora writes:

    Hahaha! Really, I had a good laugh about, “I’ve grown weary of teaching workshops in recent years.” Sometimes you come up with the best stuff! I think it’s the perfect response and perhaps belongs on a t-shirt! Was it Bartleby the Scrivener who kept saying, “I would prefer not to?” It’s great to change things up. Personally, I like nothing more. Hmm. I think you must own a pair of rock star shoes.