Charles Holdefer teaches at the University of Poitiers, France, and at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Rosemont Writers Retreat and elsewhere. He has published four novels with the Permanent Press, including The Contractor, which was also translated into Italian and Russian. His essays have appeared in The New England Review and World Literature Today, his reviews in New York Journal of Books and Dactyl Review, and new short fiction is forthcoming this fall in Chicago Quarterly Review. This is his blog.
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“The Blind leading the blind is how Flannery O’Connor once referred to writing workshops. O’Connor is arguably the most important writer to emerge out of an MFA program, and her opinion is not something I take lightly.
“For most of the year, I don’t teach writing. I’m a literature teacher at a French university, and despite their tradition of écoles des beaux-arts, French institutions do not welcome “creative writing.” It’s viewed with suspicion as a dubious “Anglo-Saxon” import, a sort of New Age intellectual junk food. I’ve been here long enough that perhaps some of that scepticism has rubbed off on me. (That’s surely why O’Connor’s remark resonates.) When it comes to literature in the classroom, we tell ourselves that we are defending a sort of rigor.
“In the summer, though, I board an airplane and come back to the U.S.A. to see friends and family and, yes, to lead writing workshops. The experience is a marked shift, like switching into another language.
“Workshops are fundamentally different from literature classes because they address the question of process. From a teacher’s point of view, it’s messier and requires improvisation. How do you stoke the creative impulse? Is it possible to generalize for a group of individuals with different tastes and experiences in life?
“This is a slippery zone, and perhaps because I hear O’Connor’s voice at the back of my mind, I’m at pains to warn students of common stumbling blocks: issues narrative arc, characterization or word choice. I also give manuscripts some hardnosed line editing, in defense of a kind of rigor which, truth be told, is sadly lacking in much academic writing. (It’s the profs who are a bunch of snowflakes, in my opinion, not the novelists.)
“Still, these are only first steps, encouraging competence. But there’s more to writing than competence. Truly excellent writing—this is what O’Connor is concerned about—must push beyond the comfort zones of competence and take risks. It has to dance along the precipice of conventional expectations. It cannot play safe and it might need to offend. It has to push toward something unknown.
“And this is where process comes into play. A workshop is not really a class that a writer completes and gets a grade. (Even if some institutions like to pretend otherwise.) Rather, it’s a moment that a writer passes through, engaged in a highly personal exploration that only he or she can pursue. No teacher or peer can tell the individual where to go next or what the “answer” is. (Or what merits an “A”.) But the group situation can make an individual more aware of this predicament, of this artistic solitude. This, in itself, is pedagogical.
“Usually, I try to plant questions, to steel the writer for the sterner tests ahead. What are you going to do when you leave a cozy workshop circle where people readily agree to read and discuss your work? What are you going to do when you’re denied the comforts of groupthink? What the hell is driving you? What are you looking for when you face the page, alone?
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“Here’s a true story: when I was getting an MFA at the University of Iowa, one of my odd jobs to support myself was in the Special Collections department of the university library. I was briefly assigned the task of organizing the personal papers of Paul Engle, who’d served as director of the Iowa writing program for many years.
“These papers were a terrible mess. They’d been kept in a ramshackle barn in Engle’s back yard that also served as his office. I remember personal correspondence with Robert Penn Warren covered with bird shit. There were letters from W.H. Auden, Carl Sandberg and a youthful Gwendolyn Brooks.
“My assignment was simple: to shake off the bird shit and other detritus and put the materials in chronological order. An easy task, really, but I was a bad worker, because I got distracted and spent a lot of time reading the correspondence. (That wasn’t supposed to be part of the job, but snooping in someone else’s mail can be irresistible fun.) Eventually my supervisor grew impatient with my slow pace and shunted me off to another task.
“There was one letter from the late 1940s that made a strong impression on me. Engle was away from campus and spending a sabbatical in Florida, and a colleague at Iowa sent him a chatty update about goings-on at the workshop. He dropped various names of writers clearly considered as hot prospects (none of which were recognizable to me) and it’s only later, buried deeper in the letter, that there’s an allusion to a certain ‘Flannery.’
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“Well, she did all right. Too bad this teacher appears not to have fully recognized her gifts. (Though it should be said that others in her workshop circle realized she was someone special, and championed her work.) In the end, though, her achievements remain the idiosyncratic artistry of someone who learned and then moved on.
“And what do I mean by moving on? It’s not necessarily a simple symbolic break of leaving home or school or a writing circle. O’Connor, after a brief time in the northeast, resettled on the family farm near Milledgeville, Georgia, where she spent the rest of her life.
“Geographically or professionally, she didn’t go far. Failing health, sadly, was one reason. But it was also because her personal exploration had attained another level. She was working through answers to the question, “what the hell is driving you?”
“It’s well-known how important O’Connor’s religious convictions were to her fiction, but it’s also worth saying that a reader or aspiring writer doesn’t have to share those convictions (I don’t) in order to learn and delight in what she accomplished.
“Such a powerful yearning to make sense! Yes, it’s an imperfect, sloppy, perhaps “fallen” world. This is blatantly obvious in our institutional settings. Yes, blind lead the blind.
“But isn’t that a testimony to how much we want to see?”
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