The Power of Reaffirming Our Core Values in Workshop
In 2014, lawyer-turned-philosopher Dr. Ruth Chang gave a TED Talk on how to make tough decisions. Should you become a banker or an artist? Should you live in the city or the countryside? Should you have a child or not? Her starting proposition is what makes hard choices like these hard is that the options are “on par.” Between two choices, A and B, choices are said to be on par when neither is better in all respects—choice A may be preferable in some ways but inferior in others. What’s more, she argues even if we could see into the future and compare our two divergent lives side-by-side (i.e., the life post-choice A versus the life post-choice B), we still might not know which choice is the right one.
How, then, should we make hard choices? Dr. Chang suggests we apply a values-driven approach to our decision-making process, by asking ourselves: What kind of person do we want to be? Viewed through this prism, our most daunting decisions can be seen not as paralysis-inducing afflictions but as exciting opportunities to reaffirm our core values. “When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are,” says Dr. Chang. “We might say that we become the author of our own lives.”
I started this blog in conjunction with a peer review pedagogy course I’m taking just after leaving a fifteen-year legal career and a few months before I start an MFA creative writing program. Through the course and through this blog, I’m trying to equip myself with the tools to be a better giver and receiver of peer feedback. I have begun to curate a list of resources and know-how by informed researchers and expert practitioners. The deeper I dig into the academic literature, however, the more I’m overwhelmed by the feedback approaches, which, in turn, steer me back to Dr. Chang’s call to look inward for answers.
True, the choices we face during a writing workshop may not be the mega life-altering decisions that Dr. Chang had in mind: participating in workshop isn’t (usually) as dramatic as switching careers, relocating, or birthing and raising another human being. Nonetheless, each time we step into a workshop session and put on our respective hats as feedback giver or receiver or facilitator (as the case may be), we are presented with a series of micro-decisions that, I’d submit, add up to a greater whole. Like a fanned-out ream of color swatches, the wide-ranging selection of decisions we face in workshop—what to say or not say, whether to interject or to let something go, which voices to amplify or hush, whether to insert one’s identities and experiences into the conversation, whether to conceal or expose our rawest vulnerabilities—can be extremely difficult in that two or more options may appear to be, to use Dr. Chang’s parlance, “on par.” But one of the key takeaways from her research is each of us comes equipped with a powerful tool: our own set of ethics.
“When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. We might say that we become the author of our own lives.” - Dr. Ruth Chang
What does ethics have to do with creative writing workshops? Possibly everything. In an essay entitled “Writing Involves Ethical Choices,” in Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, University of Notre Dame professor John Duffy explains how ethics are at the heart of who we are as writers: “[T]o say writing involves ethical choices is to say that when creating a text, the writer addresses others. And that, in turn, initiates a relationship between writer and readers, one that necessarily involves human values and virtues.” Similarly, in Beyond the Writers’ Workshop, a creative nonfiction guidebook, Carol Bly advocates for writers to consult their values in relation to their works just as case workers do with their clients:
Social workers keep going back to the values of their clients. They use empathetic questioning to help people find their backbones. Writers need to check in with their values, especially in our culture where we might go for weeks or years without anyone asking us to state our values and why they’re important to us and how our values are doing.
If we accept Duffy's and Bly’s contentions, then by extension, it's not hard to see how ethical relationships are likewise forged among workshop participants (between peers as well as between students and the instructor). Arguably, the ethical component within the workshop context is even more pronounced than in writing generally, given the direct interactions among workshop participants and the constant shuffling of roles between writer and reader.
I still cringe at myself when thinking about my first poetry workshop last year. Without much prior experience composing poems, I wanted to prove my creds as a diligent peer reviewer, and so, I put on my lawyer’s hat and redlined my classmate’s poem like I was marking up a draft contract. I did the exact thing that professor Richard Straub cautioned against, in an essay entitled “Responding–Really Responding–to Other Students’ Writing” in The Subject Is Writing: “One thing to avoid: plastering comments all over the writing; in between and over the lines of the other person’s writing—up, down, and across the page.” My feedback methods back then—a reflection of my disposition toward my peers’ writing—had privileged accuracy and thoroughness over creativity and empathy.
I got my just desserts when it was my turn on the chopping block. In the poem I submitted later for that class, I used the initials “B.” and “D.,” to refer to my two friends instead of their full names. This was in an effort to protect their anonymity and to add an air of mystery; I had “borrowed” this technique from a George Saunders’ short story. A classmate of mine during workshop said the use of these initials was distracting. I seethed: Heck, I thought, if THE GREAT George Saunders did it, how can it be wrong? Immediately after class, I emailed her a copy of the Saunder’s story as if to smugly say: See, I am right and you are wrong. I see now, though, how wrong I was to react that way. Instead of realizing that she didn’t have the background. Instead of giving her the benefit of the doubt. Instead of recognizing that not everyone considers Saunders as “THE GREAT” authority on craft techniques. Instead of acknowledging that different readers offer different viewpoints. Instead of reacting according to my core values: diversity, inclusion, equity.
My classmate wasn’t the only victim of my fuming in that workshop; I also got frustrated at my instructor. I had struggled to understand why she didn’t intervene and come to my defense, and instead permitted a drawn-out discussion on the topic, as I sat muted, dutifully playing the silent-writer role (see my earlier article re: this traditional style of workshop and its discontents). But only recently have I come to see how it’s entirely plausible the instructor was herself respecting her own core values—and quite possibly, her own version of diversity, inclusion, equity.
It’s worth noting how core values are not to be used: as weapons of self-righteousness. As novelist Randy Susan Meyers once warned: “Beware of workshops that become arbiters of morality.” One’s political ideologies and religious beliefs, while deserving of respect, should not be used to attack a piece, its narrators or characters, or bully another workshop participant. I’ve been fortunate not to have personally encountered such scenarios but have read plenty about them (see, e.g., Meyer’s recounting of a workshop-gone-wrong experience when a fellow workshopper adamantly interrogated the belief system of a character from her then-draft novel).
At the same time that certain judgments are inappropriate for workshop, I'd argue that certain others are downright indispensable – what I call the “non-negotiables.” I particularly appreciated George Mason University professor Shelley Reid’s guide, Solving Writing Problems, where she distills these into three key values (see summary box below).
Does this mean we should focus solely on our core values (plus the non-negotiables) during workshop and dismiss any other guidance from researchers and practitioners? Quite the opposite. You can’t begin to decide among choices if those choices are unknown to you. But going forward, the lens through which I shall evaluate the variety of relatively on-par workshop strategies (particularly in cases where empirical evidence and consensus are lacking) entails returning to this self-reflective prism: What kind of person do I want to be?
Years before delivering her TED Talk, Dr. Chang had left the legal profession to pursue a career in academia (she now teaches jurisprudence at Oxford). As I navigate through a similar professional transition, I shall heed Dr. Chang's advice and consider which approaches speak to the kind of core values I want to endorse and best align with my ethics—as a writer, a reader, a workshopper, a teacher, a human. This, to me, is a wholly energizing prospect.