October 21, 2010

Choosing a Beginning Writing Course: Composition vs. Traditional Workshop

Imagine being back in those wide-eyed undergraduate years with that shy temperament and the great American novel churning in your brain. You consider taking "English 101", a composition course taught in the lecture hall that seats hundreds of students. "Creative Writing 101", a workshop course taught in a small classroom with a maximum enrollment cap of twenty students, is also available. The requirements of the workshop may seem more of the freestyle-nature, right? You know in the composition course you will write essays on assigned topics complete with designated word counts and that the instructor will most likely be your only audience.

While disciplines taught in ENG 101 are necessary for learning rules of writing, how much more of your novel will CW 101 extract from you? You are sure to get more chances to workshop some of it. But what if your peers and instructor don’t like your story? And is there a possibility somebody will steal your ideas? 

Fears turn people towards safety. The comfort in composition is that it contains creativity within structure. Creative writing classes offer a counter to that structure in the workshop. For students, creative writing classes introduce different expectations. These expectations mix aspiring writers' apprehensions with the excitement of knowing that much of the course material is crafted and shared by its own participants. 

As for professors, they don a different cap when teaching workshops. Shedding the "power of the instructor" is necessary. This role could ease the judgmental worries prospective creative writing students may feel, as the the classroom is more student-centered.

Creative writing teachers, much like their composition counterparts, must somehow use the workshop as a means of assessment for each student’s growth as a writer. The challenge of extracting text from the students can be similar, but the text with which the creative writing students work is less prescriptive academically, favoring a more raw, progressive approach to the craft. Theoretically, the creative writing workshop is also ever-evolving; and thus, instructors must be open to the changes that such ideas as New Criticism, feminist theories, poststructuralist criticism, etc. introduce into each new class of students.

The traditional workshop model works successfully because it adds a social obligation to that of an academic one. In a composition class a student writes in an objective manner, following formatting and topical guidelines to achieve a high mark and meet a due date. In a workshop, students share texts with their circle of peers for the goal of receiving input to better their text, their overall craft while simultaneously developing their own feedback skills. The workshop fosters a sense of community, one that is unmatched in other academic settings.

My experience in an undergraduate workshop setting felt liberating because I wrote for me rather than to appease the standards upon which I would be graded. Sure, I wanted my writing to impress others into thinking I was the next Anne Rice or Allen Ginsberg. First, it had to communicate my message in a clear manner. My desire to do so amongst my peers provided me a different kind of motivation. The experience showed me that the traditional workshop model exemplifies what seem to be some universal understandings in the world of writers. First, the majority of us feel insecure about sharing our work. Second, having readers to share work with fires up more ambition to produce. Last, the writing community is more encouraging than competitive.

Comfort is a necessity for creative writers in a workshop setting. Without it few would attend, preferring instead to remain unnoticed, in the back of a lecture hall, amidst hundreds of other hungry-for-the-security-of-structure writers. This is in no way a knock on composition classes. I love taking them. I love teaching them. If I had to start again, I would still take the composition course first. Just a structure first, creativity later-type of guy, I guess! 

All writers are different. If you are choosing a beginning writing course, research the requirements of the course. Know your own writing level. If you feel strongly enough about your mastery of the language, go for that creative writing course. You won't regret it. But remember: there is always much to be learned in a composition course.

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