You need writing in your workshop

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On the very first night at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, our professor Lon Otto explained why we were going to be writing, rather than reading, through our class “The Novelist’s Tools.”

“I don’t much believe in the worship of literature,” he said, but added, “Reading has been the way writers have learned to write since before there were classes in writing. When I started out in the Festival, I just did manuscript review.”

The drill, in case you haven’t endured it, is to read 15-20 pages per workshopper — as many as 11 other souls — then comment on the page and in class on the manuscript. You can do the math and see that’s at least 165 pages of stories, or something on the order of 40,000 words to comprehend and comment on.

All that critique just doesn’t teach a writer the way that writing does, Otto said. “Unless new writing is happening, you don’t learn in the same way.”

This is why we stress generative writing exercises in the Writer’s Workshops I lead. Doing teaches more than watching. It’s not like we’ve got dangerous power tools to wield that require safety training and observation, either. Otto was all about release, being “Blake-ian” and giving things a try.

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