In a previous post, I compared taking classes in creative writing to taking classes in playing the guitar. This analogy seemed to strike a chord with a few people, both here on the blog and on twitter, so I thought I would offer another such analogy, one that points at my specific complaint about the workshop teaching model.
At the start of the 2012 European Cup, many commentators in the UK remarked on the very different training methods used in England and Spain.
English boys, we were told, learned to play football (soccer) by playing matches. At a young age, they were put in teams and set to play.
In contrast, the Spanish, we were told, learned football by training specific skills. Rather than learn to pass the ball by, say, playing an hour's football, they would spend that hour doing an exercise that specifically taught passing. In the same hour that an English youngster had run up and down the pitch twenty or thirty times, the Spanish youngster would have attempted hundreds, even thousands of short passes.
Now, this binary division between match-training and skills-training is clearly a gross simplification. Clearly, English trainnees also practise skills, and Spanish youngsters once in a while play an actual match.
However, in Euro 2012 it did seem the Spanish method worked a little better: the Spanish not only won the cup, they devastated most of the teams they played against. Much of the time, other national sides couldn't even play against the Spaniards, exhausting themselves running and running, trying to intercept one after another of those perfect short passes.
In comparison, England did pretty well–better than many expected–but we looked in little danger of winning the tournament. So Euro 2012 finished with skills-training looking pretty good, and match-training looking a little suspect.
After the tournament, the sportswriter Matthew Syed commented on the limitations of traditional English training methods:
Without feedback, skill acquisition is impossible… Take the art of the first touch in football. Every time a ball is kicked towards a player and it rebounds wildly, he has learnt something. Even as the ball flies away, the brain and the rest of the central nervous system are subconsciously computing how to cushion the ball the next time around. But when kids play on large pitches, they touch the ball only a couple of times a minutes.
Here's the problem with learning a sport simply by playing it: the unit of training is too large. By the time you can complete the training exercise, you have mastered the sport itself. In the meantime, you are only slowly and haphazardly training each of the necessary component skills.
The point of the analogy is this: learning to play football by playing practice matches is a lot like learning to write fiction by taking short story workshops. The unit of training is simply too large.
The unit of training (the workshop short story) is essentially the same scale and complexity as the actual professional product (the short story you hope someone will publish). You have to practise every single writing skill, all at once, simply to take part in the training process.
Then, once you are sitting inside the workshop, the feedback is so varied and so wide ranging that you struggle to make sense of it. At the same time as someone is pointing out that you didn't explain your protagonist's motivation sufficiently, another person is pointing out that you described the character's truck as a “Ford Silverado”–when in fact that vehicle is made by Chevrolet.
How do you get better at writing dialogue, for instance, when a discussion of your story's dialogue takes up maybe 2% of the workshop's time? As I've pointed out on HTML Giant, even if your teacher notices that you have a problem writing dialogue, how long does she have, in the typical workshop, to advise you on that? Whatever she wants to tell you must be sayable in two or three minutes. There isn't enough time for more.
Instead of specifically learning how to pass, you're running up and down the pitch, over and over, getting worn out, having a great time.
And if you have a thick skin, keen ears, a generous fellowship, and skilled teachers / classmates, you can take a lot of workshops in a relatively short period of time, and by a process of observation, feedback, and trial and error, you can improve.
It does work. I've watched the workshop model help many, many aspiring writers. I include myself in that list.
I suspect, however, that there are quicker and more effective ways to learn to write fiction. And I strongly suspect they resemble a “Spanish” way of learning more than an “English” one.