Beware The Writing Masterclass

This article, from AL Kennedy, originally appeared on the Guardian UK Books Blog on 7/7/09.

Workshops are a delicate business, and calling them masterclasses is unlikely to improve them.

Workshops – I’ve mentioned them briefly in this blog before, but they are currently much on my mind. Increasingly such things are being called Masterclasses, which sound much more impressive and buzzy and vaguely as if they’ll involve an opportunity to be in an airless hotel function suite with a minor deity. I’ve been giving workshops – and now Masterclasses – in prose fiction for a period of time I will not mention for fear of feeling wrinkled and reflecting that I had a bloody cheek to try telling anyone anything for at least the first decade. Then again, giving workshops to people who can’t yet write while you can’t yet write either, is a traditional way for nascent writers to earn their crusts. And it means we can meet people we didn’t make up, and learn, and consider overviews, and be near the process in others and see how lovely it is and how a person can light up when all goes well and a penny drops and so forth …

Of course, having no time of my own and not being the sociable type, I rarely do anything that involves a bunch of strangers and a flipchart, unless I’m the one inhaling the delicious marker pen fumes. But, only last night, I was reflecting with a chum on a masterclass I attended which did absolutely make me reassess how I run my workshops.

First, let us think of the horrible temptations within the workshop scenario. There you are, alone with a largely or wholly compliant roomful of people who offer themselves up to your help, perhaps harbouring a curiosity about the writing life (such as that which fuels this very blog) and perhaps also a touching belief that there is a Golden Key that will make all well and effect immediate change in their putative vocation.

The workshop leader’s power can be huge, given that writing is so intimate. Although the scale is tiny, the possibilities for wrongness and corruption can be appallingly extensive: ideas can be mocked, weaklings can be bullied, tired or apprehensive participants can actively encourage the tutor to blather on about his or her self at revolting length and offer all the worst sorts of admiration. The nervous and self-critical (many good writers are both) may not express needs which therefore go unfulfilled, or problems which therefore continue to fester unexamined. Participants may have no idea what to expect and could be fobbed off with any old nonsense.

With the best will in the world it’s difficult to describe a mental process to someone usefully without requiring at least a tiny bit that they think like you – when they should ideally think like themselves, only more so – and that’s without mentioning the possibilities of technical failures, the restraints of time pressure and the intrusion of acts of God (I once ran a workshop during which a shrew ran up a participant’s leg. Things ended badly for the shrew, much to everyone’s dismay, including the owner of the leg).

Read the rest of the article on the Guardian UK Books Blog.

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