Monday, October 14, 2019

Zoë Bossiere: A Student-Centered Approach to the Creative Writing Workshop

As a discipline, creative writing has only been taught in the academy for about a hundred years, and during that time not a whole lot has changed. The first workshop class I took as an undergraduate was largely structured after the first workshop my graduate instructor took, which was likely structured in much the same way as the workshops her professor had taken as a student, and so on. While no one knows exactly when the traditional workshop model was created, it is thought to have originated at the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop program. Because of this history, the original workshop is often called the “Iowa model,” a style so ubiquitous in the field that virtually all creative writers today have taken (and taught) workshops based upon it.

The Iowa model has seen plenty of spirited critique over the years. In her essay, “Unsilencing the Workshop,” Beth Nguyen advocates for altering the existing model so that the student whose work is being workshopped (the “workshoppee”) may engage in the conversation with their fellow workshoppers rather than sitting in forced silence. More broadly, writers like Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ocean Vuong have both observed that the workshop’s power dynamics are inherently biased toward white, male, heteronormative, and western voices, as students are more likely to experience dismissive pushback when they submit work that does not pander to these perspectives. Still others—including, recently, Sonya Huber—argue that traditional workshop feedback, such as “show, don’t tell” is harmful to students writing about trauma or from marginalized subject-positions.

Regardless of the critique, all of these writers seem to agree that the traditional Iowa workshop model does not teach students to give culturally sensitive or informed feedback. At its worst, the exclusionary nature of this model can discourage promising writers from pursuing their craft, and cause them to stop writing all together, as described in Junot Díaz’s essay “MFA vs. POC.” Many writers have established that the Iowa model is, at very least, inadequate for the contemporary creative writing classroom in myriad ways. Since the problem has been identified, however, the big question has become how one should address these issues in pedagogical practice. That is, how do we, as teachers, facilitate a creative writing workshop that will work for all of our students?

As a teacher myself, I’ve been thinking about the issues surrounding the Iowa workshop model a lot lately, especially as they concern underrepresented voices in the writing world. I want my students to feel comfortable bringing their work to class, and to feel confident that their peers and I will read the work in good faith and provide them with helpful feedback for revision. Further, I want students to feel their perspectives are heard, respected, and valued in the workshop space. With these hopes in mind, I began to think about what a model that privileges all students might look like. This was challenging work. Every model I came up with or read about seemed to fall short of the universal approach I was looking for. Rather than reevaluating the workshop with fresh pedagogical eyes, many suggestions I read seemed to put a different spin on the same old model—making accommodations for individual student-writers rather than a ground-up reimagining of the workshop process that addresses the power dynamics between student and teacher, majority and minority perspective, traditional and contemporary ideas about what “good writing” looks like, and more, all inherent to the Iowa model.

I had a lot of my own ideas about what works and what doesn’t work in a workshop, which were primarily based on my own experiences as a creative writing student—what I admired about my professors’ workshops or what I wished they had done differently. I felt sure my students also had their own ideas, and I wanted to hear them. So I started doing something a little radical: I asked my students for their opinions about the workshop.


In composition pedagogy, a student-centered approach is one that considers the learning needs and cultural background of an individual student or a group of students. While student writing is the primary focus of any workshop, most workshops are not student-centered in structure. Instead, the teacher decides what the rules of engagement for the workshop will be without input from students, often before meeting the group of writers they will be working with for the semester. From a traditional standpoint, this makes sense. The assumption is that students who are serious about becoming writers will adjust to the workshop and develop the “thick skin” necessary for navigating a writing world full of rejection and disappointment. In practice, however, this one-size-fits-all approach to the workshop rarely benefits all students in the class, and often excludes underrepresented voices from the conversation. Without fair representation in even (and perhaps especially) the most rudimentary aspects of community writing practice, failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for many student-writers. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Applying a student-centered approach to a creative writing workshop means building a workshop model with ideas from the actual students who will be working within it. As Beth Nguyen points out in her essay, most students don’t realize there are alternatives to the Iowa model—their workshop experiences are limited to the methods their creative writing teachers practice. The benefits of student-centered model, then, are numerous. Not only can such a process work to serve students’ specific needs as learners, but it can also give students practice advocating for their own needs in the workshop setting. This, in turn, can help teachers better understand the needs and expectations of their students, unique to the specific makeup and positionalities of the writers in the classroom. As an added bonus, students also tend to be more invested in systems they help to influence or create.

The first time I attempted a student-centered workshop model was in an introduction to creative nonfiction class at Ohio University. I walked into the classroom on the first day of the semester, and that more than a third of my students were writers of color. I learned more than half the class identified as women, and several students identified as queer. I had been interested in exploring workshop alternatives, but had neglected to consider, until that moment, the parity of perspectives on my reading list. My syllabus incorporated some of these voices, but relied on a dated anthology of primarily white and cis-male essayistic perspectives. I realized immediately that I was unprepared to teach this group of students. Something had to change. I thought about the books and essays I was most drawn to, who wrote them, and why. I thought about my own workshop experiences, good and bad, and considered how those same situations might have felt for students who do not share my subject-position as a white, cisgender woman. It was an uncomfortable but necessary reckoning, and one I hoped I could use to ultimately benefit my teaching.

One source of inspiration for me then was Peter Elbow’s seminal text, Writing Without Teachers. In it, Elbow writes extensively about power and methods of achieving a more equitable writing workshop—namely, by removing the “teacher” figure all together. Contrary to common beliefs about the goals of workshop, Elbow asserts that “[t]o improve your writing you don’t need advice about what changes to make; you don’t need theories of what is good and bad writing.” Instead, he says, students need to understand how readers perceive their writing in order to make informed choices in revision. While I wasn’t sure all of Elbow’s ideas would be workable in practice—in most classroom settings, a teacher is necessary to grade assignments, direct the conversation in class, and hold students accountable to one another—I wondered whether it would be possible to get students invested in a workshop-building process akin to Elbow’s teacherless writing classroom. I was determined to give it a try.


To prepare for our first discussion about the workshop model, I asked students to read the New York Times article “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” as well as Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay “On Pandering” from Tin House. (I would have liked to include Beth Nguyen’s essay on unsilencing the workshop, but it had not yet been published.) Because around half of my students had never taken a creative writing workshop before, it was essential for them to read these ideas and to consider similarities to past peer-review experiences. For those students who did have prior workshop experience, the readings introduced them to workshop power dynamics they may not have been aware of before, enabling them name their past experiences. Students responded to the texts both through their own writing and an in-class discussion. On this day almost everyone in class had something to contribute, and several students (particularly those of color) spoke up more than once about painful workshop experiences they’d endured in the past and their hopes for our workshop in the future. The students engaged in this discussion for so long we ran out of time; their eagerness to share made it clear that no one had asked them for their opinions about the workshop before.

At the conclusion of our discussion that day, I asked the class to write one question, one concern, and one suggestion for our workshop model on post-it notes and collected them. For the sake of transparency, I typed up these anonymous student responses into a single document and shared it with the class. Then, from these responses, I created a draft outlining a potential workshop model based both on students’ ideas as well as a few additional implementations specific to the genre we were working in. The latter included a stipulation of mine that students not refer to the writer on the page by name, instead using “the speaker” or “the narrator” in order to create distance between the writer sitting in the room and their version of themselves on the page. The draft was distributed to the class and we spent part of a period discussing further ideas for improvement. At the conclusion of that discussion, students were asked to write another round of anonymous questions, suggestions, and concerns; I made revisions to the draft accordingly. After this final step, we were ready to put our model into practice. Below are the parameters for our agreed-upon workshop model:
1. The writer will have an opportunity at the beginning of their workshop to speak for up to five minutes about the literary tradition they are writing from, the intended audience, and anything else the writer would like readers to understand about their essay before discussion begins. The writer should take notes and practice active listening during their workshop, but also feel free to speak up at any point if they feel it is necessary to do so. 
2. During our discussion, readers will have opportunities to speak to what the essay is about, what is working well, and what aspects they have questions about. Readers should direct comments to the writer and to each other rather than to the teacher. The teacher will act as workshop facilitator, posing questions and offering occasional comments in order to shape and give direction to the discussion. The workshop facilitator will also act as timekeeper. 
3. Though nonfiction writing can be highly personal, the person the writer has crafted on the page is a persona—one version of the true self. Please do not refer to the writer by name during their workshop. Instead, use language such as “the speaker” or “the narrator.” 
4. Please use positive language when discussing aspects of the writer’s essay you had questions about or did not understand. Couch observations and suggestions in questions (“I was curious about the section where…” or “I wonder how the essay would read if…”). Speak about the essay and the writer with respect. Finally, please be mindful of tone when providing feedback, avoiding statements that begin with “I wanted…” or “I didn’t like…” 
5. Readers may choose to speak, or raise their hand to join the conversation—whichever method feels more natural. Those who did not have many opportunities to discuss the essay during the workshop may be invited by the workshop facilitator to pose a question to or share an observation with the group to ensure they are not left out of the conversation. 
6. After the workshop discussion, the writer will again be invited to speak and pose a final question to the group. The group will clap in recognition of the writer’s work before readers pass their letters and the essay back to the writer.
Using this new model as a guide, the workshops themselves were a highly successful exercise. Even my initially skeptical students reported mostly positive experiences with both building the model and putting it into practice. Most unexpectedly, however, the process of creating the model fostered a close-knit writing classroom community where students felt comfortable bringing all manner of essay into class. Many students reported that the feedback they received from the workshop discussion was helpful in revising their work, and almost all communicated—either verbally in class or through their exit survey—that the way they conceptualized the goals for a creative writing workshop had changed. Rather than ideas about what “good writing” should look like and worrying about whether their essays made the cut, students were more focused on what they wanted their writing to achieve, and what audiences they wanted to reach.


Though it requires a bit more in-class work to facilitate than the traditional workshop, a student-centered workshop building process is a valuable alternative to the Iowa model. First, it gives students the tools to think critically about the biases inherent in the creative writing workshop. Such a model offers also students the opportunity to become members of a writing community and a chance to advocate for their own workshop needs as well as to speak up for those with less privilege than themselves. Though I recognize the workshop building process may be challenging in some contexts—especially if students disagree with one another—this method allows for a greater flexibility than a traditional model. For instance, I could envision an even more radical individualistic student-directed approach to the workshop in which each student constructs, with guidance from the teacher, a model unique to their own needs.

The student-centered model is one actionable way to break the generational cycle of the Iowa workshop model, allowing teachers an opportunity to think critically about their pedagogy—how they teach creative writing, and why. With so many writers and educators speaking out against the creative writing workshop model as a harmful means of perpetuating discrimination, creative writing teachers must take it upon themselves to model new ways for students to critique one another’s work if we truly want the writing world to change for the better.

Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and the co-editor of its forthcoming anthology, entitled The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). She is also a podcast host for the New Books Network's Literature channel. Find her online at or on Twitter @zoebossiere.

Monday, October 7, 2019

**Int'l Essayists** Marcela Sulak on The horrific Stranger and the Self: Two New Israeli Lyric Essays (that do not look like essays)

Israeli publishing houses and literary journals don’t usually distinguish between literary fiction and literary nonfiction—it’s all simply prose. Possibly a greater distinction would be made between journalism and literature, although even here sometimes there is cross-over; for example, Assaf Gavron’s funny and over-the-top newspaper column which was later collected for publication as a book, Eating Standing Up, a review of Tel Aviv falafel stands.  Within the “prose” category I’ve noticed an emergence of flash experimentation: Alex Epstein’s single-page, single paragraph meditations published in English translation as Blue Has No South (marketed under “fiction” in English translation) or Yoel Hoffman’s flashes of meditative memoir, Moods (also marketed as “fiction” in Peter Cole’s English translation). The lyrical essay which does not look like “prose” on a page is rare in Hebrew. But I’ve encountered two extraordinary examples this past year.  Both are book-length lyrical essays which contemplate what it means to give shelter to a potential enemy and the role of poetry, religion, and art in our mediation of insider and outsider, past and present. They are Sharron Hass’s THE DAY AFTER: An Essay on Sophocles’ Farewell to Poetry (Afik books, 2018) and Adi Sorek’s essay in nine tiles, City of Refuge, which was not so much published as exhibited in a bomb shelter in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2019. These multidimensional works unlock the doors of times past, and draw attention to the materiality of words. Indeed, their efforts do not actually look like prose at all. Hass’s resembles a collage/poem and Sorek’s resembles a page of the Talmud framed with the lid of an archival carton.

“It is highly political to discuss Athens and the fragility of democracy. It is complicated and not altogether complicated, the ways that theater and democracy grew up together,” Sharron Hass tells me one day in July about THE DAY AFTER: An Essay on Sophocles’ Farewell to Poetry. “My project was also an implicit projection of these discussions onto present day Israel,” Hass adds. This essay follows the literal and stuttering footsteps of Sophocles, who at the end of his life, in his last play, retraces the journey of Oedipus Rex to Colonus, a village just outside of Athens. It is the birthplace of Sophocles. Hass notes:

Oedipus is the horrific stranger who comes and asks for shelter. How do we treat the outside world, horrific (so we imagine) strangers, enemies whom we believe are dangerous to our existence? I hold this up to present-day Israel not exactly like a mirror, but as a kind of scaffolding.
But this essay does not look like an essay, a fact that Hass, who has published five collections of poetry and has garnered Israel’s most prestigious awards for them, including the Amichai Prize in 2019 and The Bialik Prize in 2012, brings to our attention. Her fourth stanza proclaims:

I’m not confused: this isn’t poetry

this is an essay on Sophocles’ farewell

to poetry; and nonetheless I’m writing

in short lines with gaps. This is another way

to sit on a rock like the aged


A short line is far more similar to a rock

than a long line.

It’s hard to lie. And not only because of the lack

of comfort.

Of exhaustion.

The translation in progress is by Gabriel Levin. The rock in question is in Colonus, where Hass has traveled to be near Sophocles as she writes. She wishes to leave far behind  “the wretchedness of theory.”  Indeed, she seems to exchange this wretchedness for the misery of sitting without shade, with no water or food. Hass’s line is filled with stones and the natural elements, the body of Sophocles and that of Oedipus, their defilements, drawing attention to the way the flow of language and thought is dependent on the free movement of the body within the arrangement of its physical surrounding.  

But why isn’t Hass writing “poetry”? A few pages later, she explains:

Lyrical poetry is ahistorical, it aims

to stabilize the present moment appearing in the first person singular

with the help of transformation and rupture.

Theater is, I believe, different. It’s hard to know where if at all meaning trails off between

            the bodies that are speaking. The instability

allows for freedom of movement, a feeling of expanse,

a horizon, and even a glimpse as such conversation sound   

                                                                                                                        judgment –

and perhaps every so often tragedy will deny us all of the above?

Hass is writing neither lyrical poetry here, nor theater. Her goal is to disrupt the very idea of genre in order to arrive at unknowing. She explains in her interview with Aya Elia conducted in June and published in the Israeli daily paper Yedioth Ahronoth:

Look, every genre picks up a certain theater of consciousness, to organize reality in a certain way, and to organize the ability to interact with reality and experience it. Tragedy knows one thing, epic another, and comedy another. They can correspond, here and there, but genre is a kind of knowledge. It's very difficult to know beyond the limits of knowledge. So it’s true I wanted to disrupt something, but I also know: genres are stronger than you and me, they're older than us. I'm not sure one person can disrupt a genre.

 This distinction of genre is one to which the reader must attend, Elia notes: 

[On the page] there are various phenomena: cropped rows, fonts of different sizes, short columns indented to the margins, and also highlighted and aligned paragraphs. This is not just an eye-catcher. Hass talks to Sophocles, but also hears and replays Nabokov, Avot Yeshurun, Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi, and others. The voices that come, come from all directions. Maybe that's why writing from right to left is not enough…This is not a typographic image but an oceanic structure—different depths that are constantly in motion. In order to pass the reading you need swimming skills, it is impossible to float unawares, anyone who falls asleep may drown.

Hass’s goal is to arrive at a conscious unknowing, an open-minded ignorance, a curiosity, which is the only place from which one can truly encounter the wretched and sublime stranger. In Sophocles and his Oedipus we have humans the gods themselves observe to discover themselves, as Hass would have it. And perhaps because of this extremely powerful self knowledge, which required a break with human law to obtain, both are cast out of society.  
“There are those for whom nothing is worse than not having a country,” Hass notes of them.  But they are blessed, in the end, if we can use the word “blessed” in this context, for death is a kind of knowledge, as well, and earth welcomes the body and its mysteries.  


As different as the essays appear to the eye, and as different as the sources upon which they draw, Adi Sorek’s City of Refuge shares the preoccupation with who is a stranger, what is a refugee, and how must we behave, given our responsibilities for the talents and wealth that we posses. Sorek, who is a “prose” writer and who is writing her doctoral research on Talmudic laws governing Cities of Refuge, has created a series of nine “tiles,” which look like the pages of the Talmud.

Sorek explains in an essay I translated with her for the journal The Ilanot Review:

In the Talmud, a City of Refuge is a city in which someone who has accidentally killed another person can claim asylum, or find refuge. In Hebrew, the words for “refuge” and “shelter” are the same. Therefore, this project arose from intertwined questions: What is a shelter? And what is a City of Refuge? 

The central text is a diary that Sorek wrote over the course of a year, during time she sat in the center of Tel-Aviv at Habima Square in the mornings and recorded what was happening before her. The diary begins in the fall of 2014, at the end of the last Gaza War, and ends in the summer of 2015. Surrounding this text are quotations from the Talmud, Sorek’s Ars Poetica, meditations on the language of the Talmud, on the laws of the City of Refuge, and imagined questions and encounters of the visitors to the exhibition which was held in a bomb shelter in the summer of 2019.
Originally, the frame of a tract of Talmud was a part of a weaving loom, Adi Sorek informs me over espressos at a café on Habima, and her tiles reference this frame. Like the Talmud, Sorek’s tiles are also a kind of time line, or archeological trove, with layers of content in various languages. Since Sorek’s essay hung in a bomb shelter, space here is integral to the project.

Sorek chose Habima Square because it has a hidden fallout shelter dug beneath it. In her Ilanot Review essay about her project she says,

I began by attending to the outline of the doors leading to the underground bomb shelter—doors designed as part of the plaza floor and therefore paved in tiles, covered, like secret doors. They open during wartime and close in times of “peace”.

In wartime, the underground area is supposed to be a shelter. At other times, it is a parking lot…

I perceive the texture of the resulting text as a kind of tile, or mosaic. During the process of writing, the tiles of Habima Square merged and separated repeatedly from those of the City of Refuge, and the oscillation between them led to a mental wandering that inquires about the connections, gaps, and passages that exist or have the potential to exist between the text and the everyday space.
One day, Sorek tells me, during the Gaza War, the missile siren sounded and she picked up her daughter, who was four at the time, and ran into the shelter. As she held the soft body of her daughter, she began to think about the mothers and their children who lived in the Talmudic cities of refuge:

It is written that you could see mothers bringing food and goods to the refugees in the city of refuge, so they won’t want the Chief Cohen (who governed the city) to die. Because at the death of the Cohen, the refugees in the city of refuge are set free. So mothers would give clothes and food, to help the refugees feel good. They took their children with them to teach them to do this, too.

Sorek’s thoughts follow the women from the public squares of the Talmudic city of refuge back home:

When you think of the role of women at this time, you realize their main domestic duties included weaving cloth to make clothes. In fact this was the case throughout the Mediterranean region, and in the Greek stories, too, women were weavers. We think of Penelope weaving and unweaving her shroud, and of Philomela [who, when her tongue was cut from her mouth, wove the story of the crime into a tapestry] and of Arachne. In Homer, Ovid, and all the Greek male poets, we think how the quality of a woman’s weaving and its purpose will determine the social fabric, in a way.

Women as weavers are a counterpoint to male poets, Sorek says. And she thinks there is something to be said about the page of the Talmud as physically framed with a line from a weaving loom. About the Talmud itself evoking a textile. 

Just as Hass seeks to avoid genre labels, to get at a basic unknowing and deep attention to truth, so does Sorek strive toward avoiding the way we associate distinct languages with their attendant kinds of truth and knowledge. The Talmud contains various languages: Hebrew, different dialects of Aramaic, and Greek, among others. And so Sorek also meditates on and mediates among languages through the image of the sabra, a succulent which was originally introduced into the region by the Spaniards who brought it from the New World in the fifteenth century.  It is featured in the Habima Square sunken gardens, where Sorek would sit.

In Arabic the meaning of the word Tzaber (صَبَّار) is related to patience, tolerance and endurance. In Hebrew Tzabar (צבר) is a verb that means to accumulate (Litzbor) and is related to the Tzabar plant (or Sabra),* perhaps due to its ability to accumulate liquids. Or perhaps because of the web of entanglements in the word as it appears in the Semite languages of Ugarit, Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic (Ivrit and Aravit) with regard to gathering and congregation. In Modern Hebrew “Tzabar” is the nickname for a Jew born in Israel; and also a plant that is associated with the emptied Arab villages – for generations dense fences of the Tzabar have marked the village boundaries.
Sorek sees the modern high-tech city of Tel Aviv, with its high-rise glass buildings reaching for the heavens, Habima Square’s sunken garden piping in symphony music, with its bomb shelter parking lot and hidden doors, its inhabitants of locals and refugees, bracing against a real or imagined enemy, the enemy within the borders or the one without, its laws rooted in the Talmud, and its language rooted in the Bible, as a sort of hypertext. What the mothers of the Talmudic City of Refuge are actually giving us is the way to interpret, to weave into the story cycles of voices, she says. And in her own essay tiles, Sorek, like Penelope, sees a purpose behind their unweaving, and their weaving back again.


Marcela Sulak's third poetry collection and first memoir are forthcoming with Black Lawrence Press. She’s co-edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. A 2019 NEA Translation Fellow, and a 2017 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation finalist, she’ translated five collections of poetry. Sulak is an Associate Professor of Literature at Bar-Ilan University.

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