How to Lead a Writing Workshop with Developing Writers: Advice from Flash Fiction Maestros Gay Degani and Kathy Fish (Part Two)
Today on the blog, we are excited to feature the second post in a two-part series from guest blogger Virgie Townsend, who recently taught a two-week intensive course on flash fiction for American University’s Discover the World of Communication summer program. In Part One, Virgie detailed her experiences working with her young students and provided examples of the work they produced. Here in Part Two, Virgie interviews flash fiction experts Gay Degani and Kathy Fish on how to conduct writing workshops with young and developing writers. Fish founded the American University flash fiction class ten years ago, and both she and Degani have taught the course.
By Virgie Townsend
What are best practices for conducting writing workshops with high school students or developing writers?
KF: It’s good to recognize that the kids are most likely new to fiction writing in general. Some may write creatively on their own or some may have taken a creative writing class at school, but mostly, this is new territory for them. Approach workshopping with that in mind. Recall how it felt to be brand new to creative writing. That huge, huge rush. It’s very likely their first creative expression of raw feelings as well. Remember what it’s like to be a teenager! Keeping all of this in mind, approach workshopping with empathy and compassion. Focus on the positives (and there are many).
GD: It’s important to create an environment in which the students feel it is safe to write imperfectly. One of the great misunderstandings that readers have is that writers sit down at a computer and write good stuff from the get-go. This is just not the reality.
It’s reasonable for them to have this misperception. Even with the badly composed stuff on the Internet, most of what they read has been published (which means vetted and edited) either in the newspaper, magazines, or the novels they read. They assume “this is writing.” What they can’t see is what led up to that finished product.
It’s the responsibility of the instructor to point out that almost no one can put words to paper and have it come out right the first, second, or even third time. There has to be permission to write badly first, and then go on from there.
This means that embarrassment, discomfort, fear of failure all need to be addressed as normal feelings we human beings have when asked to share. Sometimes there is praise, sometimes not. Our intent is to learn why, and what to do next.
Writing is a process and the more students embrace this idea—that we gain skills through practice and repetition and that no one should expect their initial work to be without misdirections, errors, random tangents, etc.—the more patient they will be with their own work as well as that of others. It is the audience of fellow students who are present to offer useful information.
From the viewpoint of the person who is responding (and I like the word “responding” rather than “critiquing” in this context) to someone else’s narrative, they must understand that they offer needed feedback to the writer. They are the shortcut to having perspective on a piece of work.
What challenges do high school students sometimes have with workshops? What are strengths you’ve seen?
GD: The main challenge is to clarify for the student that writing, while it does require a modicum of talent, is also about developing the skills needed to write a clear, coherent, and effective story. Any art is the process of combining talent with skill. Those with much talent must learn how to capitalize on their special view of the world through skill while those who may have “less apparent” talent can use knowledge and skill to bring out their special abilities.
The strength in high school students is their savvy about the world and engagement with that world. They recognize from a young age there are opportunities with technology that can jumpstart their commitment to writing or whatever it is they might want to pursue. They seem to be more willing to let their passion lead them than those in past generations. The rules are changing and the young people are taking advantage of that.
KF: Again, it very well may be their first creative expression of raw feelings and experiences. That’s huge. Students that age have not had the benefit of time and experience to filter their emotions. My own experience with teenagers (both raising them and teaching them) is that they are incredibly vulnerable and strong at the same time. They are also very honest. The challenges and the opportunities for the teacher present themselves simultaneously. Tap into the openness and honesty to guide them to writing strong work while also respecting their newness to creative work, their need to get their hands dirty fearlessly.
Your class may be the first time they’ve been a part of a workshop. How do you teach them to engage in the process in a respectful, but productive manner?
KF: The best way to do this is to model the behavior you expect of your students. Show them first your own responses to the work. Demonstrate how to pick out the positives of the work, the kind of language to use, before they workshop each other’s work. Be very clear about your own expectations. Gently but firmly keep them on track, realizing that yes, workshopping is a skill, too, and they’re learning.
GD: Rules or guidelines need to be specific and clear. After a discussion of the writing process, an instructor might find it useful to ask students to write a short paragraph on what they admire in the work of the authors they read. It could include point-of-view, sentence structure, spacing on a page—mechanical issues—as well as the nature of the protagonist, the focus of the plot and theme, etc., or merely the substance of the story.
Then have them write a second paragraph explaining what they would like to learn about their own writing. What works and what doesn’t work. There will probably be a strong connection between what they want from their personal reading and what they want to put onto the page. The response of the other students will lead them where they want to go.
Have you seen high school students’ writing evolve from taking a class with a workshop? If so, how?
GD: Absolutely, 100 percent of them, because there is always growth to be gained from experience, whether they are willing to believe that or not. Everything they do connects them to the world and helps to create who they are. Workshopping can be disastrous if not done properly and should always be conducted with careful explanations and clear understanding about what is gained. However, the skills learned from the process of workshopping inform students not just about the writing, but also about themselves. If handled properly, the students will be more confident because they will begin to understand that there is no such thing as immediately achieving “success” as a writer or an artist or most jobs worth doing.
What is important is the experience of writing—that search for inner truth through learning and striving, and then conveying that to someone else. This “conveying to someone else” is what workshopping helps them learn. It is a skill we all need in our lives, the ability to help others, learn from others, and put those lessons to use.
KF: It is always easier to “see” objectively another writer’s work. The value for students in workshopping is that they learn by “teaching” in a sense. When you start with intelligent, sensitive, perceptive individuals, the learning can be exponential. That has been my experience. The quality of the work from the first free-write on the first day of class compared to the final, polished story after an intensive two weeks of class and workshopping is frankly breathtaking.
The main difference I’ve noticed in my teaching is that they learn quickly the importance of specificity, how to use sensory detail to create strong, resonant fiction. There’s this huge “ah-ha” moment for students when they see how much more powerful their stories become when they make the transition from the abstract to the tangible.
Do you have any final thoughts on workshopping flash fiction with young or developing writers?
KF: What I learned most from teaching flash fiction to teenagers (and really to writers of any age) is that it’s absolutely essential to have the basics of writing itself down first. You can’t teach concision until you’ve demonstrated the importance of show vs. tell or the use of subtext or how to write a good opening. It’s important also to note that flash fiction is not merely a truncated short story. It is its own unique form. For me, flash is still wide open. Who knows how new writers will innovate and invigorate the form? What I want most to convey is that feeling of opportunity, of newness, and excitement.
GD: I’d have them read Malcolm Gladwell’s essay from his book Outliers about the “10,000 hours of practice” rule. There is some controversy about this oversimplification regarding practice, but it does stress the need to understand becoming good at something is a process. It rarely comes instantly.
Gay Degani has published over 70 short stories in different genres online and in print, three of which have been nominated for Pushcart consideration, another awarded the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. She blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her work can be found. Two of her characters are amateur detectives. The first is Nikki Hyland, Slacker Detective, who appears in the anthologies, Landmarked for Murder and Little Sisters. Her mystery novel, What Came Before, is about empty-nester Abbie Palmer tracking down the secrets of her mother’s past and finding a murderer instead. Her novella, The Old Road, will be coming out from Pure Slush in late 2015 and she is currently subbing her collection, Rattle of Want, to publishers.
Kathy Fish’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in THE LINEUP: 20 PROVOCATIVE WOMEN WRITERS (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), Guernica, Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is the author of three collections of short fiction: a chapbook of flash fiction in the chapbook collective, A PECULIAR FEELING OF RESTLESSNESS (Rose Metal Press, 2008), WILD LIFE (Matter Press, 2011) and TOGETHER WE CAN BURY IT (The Lit Pub, 2012). She has recently joined the faculty of the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver, where she will be teaching flash fiction. Additionally, she has begun leading unique, two-week intensive Fast Flash© workshops. For more information visit her website: kathy-fish.com.
Virgie Townsend is a fiction writer and essayist from Syracuse, New York. She has contributed flash fiction to such publications as Tin House’s Flash Fridays, Gargoyle, and WhiskeyPaper, as well as the anthologies SmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First Ten Years and Best of Pif, Volume One. Her essays have been featured in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and The Toast. She lives in the D.C. area with her husband and their moderately stinky dog. Find her online at www.virgietownsend.com or on Twitter @virgietownsend.