Sunday

Should Mentors or Workshop Leaders Give Poor Writers False Hope For The Sake of Building Confidence?

by Michael Neff

Though the blurb below was published in The Onion, it is nonetheless a good jumping off point for discussing how creative writing instructors or mentors should approach students whose stories or prose need extra help:

"CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA—In an effort to help his students develop inaccurate perceptions of their talents, University of Virginia creative writing professor Alan Erickson told reporters Monday that he takes the time to provide each and every one of them with personalized false hope. “Every student is different, and even though there may be 30 of them per class, I feel it’s important that I make enough time to sit down with them individually to let them know they have a unique voice worth pursuing,” said Erickson, explaining that he frequently extends his office hours and often stays after class to meet with students one-on-one to ensure they hear individualized, unfounded optimism about their writing and their prospects within the publishing industry. “It certainly adds a bit to my workload, but providing specific feedback and encouragement really has a huge impact on their confidence. Going that extra mile for your students is what inspires them to follow their dreams.” The professor added that his efforts have yielded some notable results, asserting that a number of his most deluded former students have gone on to humiliating, short-lived attempts at writing careers."
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I have been in the presence of professional fiction-writing workshop leaders who have either falsely praised a writer or else avoided addressing flaws in their work--often leaving said flaws to be hopefully discovered by a member of the workshop instead. In this way, the instructor avoids having to face the writer and discuss the problem directly. He or she lets the group do most of the discovery and problem-solving analysis, thus disallowing the writer in question from focusing potential ire on the workshop leader.

Having been a workshop leader, I can tell you, the above approach would be a lot easier on me. However, even groups that are decently moderated (assuming the workshop leader actually understands not only practical creative writing but the commercial and literary publishing business--which is rare) must endure a good amount of poorly considered, amateurish advice issued from the well-meaning heads of the writers present. 

Godspeed them all! 

But what is a workshop leader to do in the presence of hit-and-miss advice and analysis flowing freely around the table? Various strategies exist, but by and large, he or she (if honest and knowledgeable) must be put in the position of tactfully contradicting much of what the writer group has said to each other (much of which already contradicts itself). And how is that possible in group dynamic situations that might not be conducive to such frank reality checking? 

Answer: it isn't possible.

One can only hope for a group that is receptive. And falsely praising the work of poor writers only enables them to continue to fail. The workshop leader should note what works, and what does not, then delve into strategies for improvement.

Good writers are not born. They are made.

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