Reginald Shepherd was kind enough to send me his essay on "Some Issues in the Teaching of Creative Writing," which he has been quoting from on his blog recently. One passage that he did not put on his blog struck me (I hope he does not mind my quoting it here): "When I read a poem, by a student, in a literary journal, in a collection of poems by a single author, or in an anthology, I want to enjoy the poem, to immerse myself in the poem’s world."
This reminded me of my time at the Spoleto Writers' Workshop (summer 1998). On our last full day in Spoleto, the writers went to the master class of the Spoleto workshop on bel canto singing, which we had been invited to observe.
In the singing workshop, each singer would sing an aria or a song which he or she had prepared, then the teachers (Judith Coen for the women, Bob Shewan for the men) would comment on the singing and work with the singer for a while. They would grab the singer's face in mid-song; they would have them sing while flapping their arms like birds; once, Bob even made faces at a singer in the middle of his aria! (We couldn't actually see Bob's face because his back was to us and his face was literally in the singer's face.) What was most striking to me was the metaphorical meaning of all this for writers who had just been workshopping for ten days: the workshop leaders had been doing the same to us the whole time — but the writers (including myself) tended to respond differently to our teachers' proddings than the singers did. If they seemed to take it all in a fairly professional way, we would often take it all in a very emotional way, as if the teachers' criticisms were personal. As Judith Coen said to one of the singers: "I'm pushing you so hard because I want you to thrill me."
I have told that story to students over and over again in the past nine years: if I criticize their writing (whether creative or scholarly), it is because I want them to thrill me.
Reginald's essay also reminded me of another anecdote. Reginald wrote: "One student rather disarmingly admitted during a class discussion of Shakespeare’s sonnets that 'I can understand this when I work at it, but I don’t like having to work.'" I had a similar disarming remark once: while I was discussing essay writing with students (quite advanced ones), one of them said, "So what you are saying is that you want us to think about we write." Bingo.