Literary Sweatshops, Part II: FAQ about High School Creative Writing Workshops

What are my responsibilities as a workshop reader?

    • Be a receptive reader, and let the writer know her manuscript affected you. For example:“I laughed here . . .”  “I almost cried when. . . ” “I could just see this . . .” “You made this place come alive” “I identified completely with this person”  are all phrases that are appropriate responses to written work.
    • Be an interpretative reader, and let the writer know how you “read” his manuscript — “This is what I saw happening here — ” “You made me hate this person when he said –”
    • Be a specific reader, and let the writer know precisely where the writing is effective or ineffective, where it achieves its purpose, and where the writer might improve it or try something else These are not helpful comments:  “It was great — I wouldn’t change a thing” or “I don’t like stories about puppies” or “I think you should set this story in 1920 instead of the future.”
    • Always, in both spoken and written comments, be kind, understanding, and supportive. We are all on this creative road together.         

What if I hate the manuscript?

Find something to like – – the subject matter, a metaphor on page five, the description of the setting, an image.  In your written comments, try to begin with something positive and then move on to problems you see in the manuscript.  As a reader, focus on the writing and the craft; do not judge the rightness or wrongness of the characters themselves or the morality of their choices.

What if the author is such a good writer that I can’t find anything to criticize?

Telling an author what she did that worked is as beneficial than telling her what did not work.  Focus on responding as a reader, telling the author the effect the manuscript had on you as you read it, maybe giving an interpretation or summary of what is going on. Point out sentences or sections you especially liked, telling why specifically.

What if I don’t know what to say when it comes my time to talk about an essay?

    • Try to understand what kind of story the author is trying to tell. Make notes on the manuscript as you go, and tell the author what you understood about the story she is trying to tell.
    • Refer to the notes you have prepared to give to the author when the time comes to discuss the piece. It is up to the author to do with those notes as she will.
    • Give the author the kinds of practical comments you wouldliketo receive in a tone and manner in which you would like to receive them.  Learn to communicate constructively without being rude, sarcastic, or overly funny.
    • Say what you think about the piece even if it might sound silly or wrong. You have to practice to get better at this. Listen to others in the workshop who seemed to have a handle on this, and learn from them.

When the time comes for my piece to be workshopped, I’m afraid they will attack my “baby”?

It is not easy to have something as personal as writing criticized by a group of people. I’m not sure what advice to give here, other than it gets easier with practice.  One thing that can help is if we are all gentle with one another — not in the sense that we withhold criticism, but that the tone and manner we use to criticize makes it clear we are FOR the writer’s success.

 Do I have to take everyone’s advice?

No. As the author, you are the final judge of your manuscript.  You decide whether to revise or edit, whether to take any of the advice your classmates or teacher give you.  It is recommended, in any case, that you put your manuscript aside for a while, then go through it and see which of the suggestions feel “right” to you.  You may end up not using any of our suggestions, but perhaps we have shown you something about your manuscript that you may not have considered before.

Remember, have faith in yourself and trust your own voice. Writing takes a lifetime, not one year.


Literary Sweatshops: Cultivating Civility in a High School Creative Writing Classroom

In the real world, writers read each other’s works and give critical feedback to each other.  The feedback given to the writer can be invaluable as she seeks to improve the piece.  When several writers get together to discuss a piece and give feedback to the author, the exercise is often formally called a “writing workshop” and the activity itself is called “workshopping” a piece.  This activity might also be called a writing critique or critiquing, but the activity remains the same:  giving helpful feedback to the writer.

Hosting a writing workshop is a wonderful activity for modeling civil discussions and cultivating the kind of generosity and support that is necessary to be part of a functional artistic community.  (Being able to communicate kindly, directly and clearly is also a plus when it comes to being a human as well.)

My classes are held every day for a 90-minute period, so when my students are ready to get feedback from the larger group, we are able to workshop two longer pieces or three short pieces in a day.  I have fifteen students, so we devote one full week to workshopping.  The week is more enjoyable when students have written different genres; when we have fifteen short stories to barrel through, the week can get monotonous.

How does it work?

First, students sign up for workshop slots during the week that I’ve designated as “workshop week.” I have a sign-up sheet stapled to the bulletin board, and it’s their responsibility to sign up for a time slot. Other teachers have rolling workshops, which can occur at any time, but I’ve found it to be more efficient if the class works toward the workshop week as a deadline date for their first draft.  Without a deadline, many student writers, who haven’t developed an internal discipline, never get around to finishing a project.

If Sarah reserves a time slot for her short story to be workshopped on Monday,  Sarah then sends me her draft via email Sunday night, so I can make enough copies for each student to have his/her own copy of her story.  Sarah would also attach an author’s agenda to her piece, detailing what specific elements she would like feedback on.

Different teachers may deal with the distribution in different ways, such as posting the pieces online and having all the students read the work and come to class prepared to discuss, but I have found workshops run more smoothly when students 1) have the story in hard copy directly in front of them during discussion, and 2) immediately discuss the story after they’ve read it and made notes on it.

By this time, I would have already reviewed the rules for writing workshop, and I would have given them the FAQ for Writing Workshops, so students would know what to do when they get Sarah’s short story, but here are the basic instructions I give students:

  • Read the piece—completely, slowly and thoughtfully—one time.
  • Read the piece through a second time and make notes all over the hard copy, specifically addressing the concerns the author has requested you respond to.
  • If there is a proofreading error that is consistently wrong, mark it once and make a note of it, but it’s not necessary to line-edit every single grammar or usage error.
  • During the discussion, students need to listen to one another, so the same comment is not made over and over.
  • During the discussion, you are not responsible for providing any “fixes” to the issues of the story. That’s the author’s job; merely pointing out that the dialogue seems neutral and the characters seem flat is adequate.  Providing prescriptions for how to develop the characters is not necessary.
  • During the discussion, stay on the page, stay with the story and the characters. You are not there to debate the ethics of one of the character’s occupation, for example.  Do not embark on some random discussion about socialism merely because there is a character in the story who is a Socialist.
  • During the discussion, the author remains silent and takes notes on the comments she finds helpful.  (Note: I ask the writer whose piece is being critiqued to remain silent throughout the discussion and take notes on comments she finds helpful.  Some workshop models allow the writer to interact with the class, but in my experience, high school students have a tendency to want to justice their creative choices instead of listening to a reader’s honest reaction. The writer’s explanations and justifications sometimes derail a lively discussion.  However, if there is a point of clarity that needs to be made by the writer or if a workshop member asks the writer a direct question, I do allow the writer to clarify or answer the question.)

I usually allow the discussion to continue until I feel like the group has said all that they want to say about the piece, and then I would ask the writer if she has any additional questions or comments she would like to make.   All the hardcopies are then passed down to the author to aid in her revision process.

Poetry Boxes: From Concrete to Abstract in Poetic Persona

In Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful poem   “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” she says that “poems hide” and that we must “live in a way that lets us find them.”  At the end of the poem, she urges:  “Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us/we find poems. Check your garage, the off sock/in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite/And let me know.”

In my writing classes, I urge students to live in a way that lets them find their stories and poems:  to be open, hopeful, observant, humble, and awestruck by the world.  For this poetry box activity, I want them to image a life that exists in the cast-off items that one might discover in the garage or the sock drawer, to create a life from those items, and to imagine a narrative relationship between the items and this fictional character.

When I ask students to write, they often want to write about the big abstracts (LOVE DEATH FEAR JOY WAR), but I am continually urging them to pay attention to the little concretes.  To shore up my argument, I invoke Anton Chekov who said, “Don’t tell me about the moon. Show me the glint of light on broken glass” or Tim O’Brien who beautifully describes the big abstraction of War by saying, “And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”

And so we start with the concrete. I plunder Goodwill stores and antique haunts for things I can stuff in a gift box and wrap up.  Six or seven things go in each box, including one natural thing in the collection, such as a pebble or a pine cone.  I put in old pictures, charms, trinkets, glass and several item of ephemera. Then I wrap the boxes in whatever gift wrap I have stashed about.

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Once students select a box and before they open the box, I ask them to write about what they think is in in the box.  I give them about two minutes of writing time for this.  Then they open the boxes and catalog each item and describe it as objectively as possible.  I urge them to look over each item and detail it exhaustively, using both sensory details and cultural or social associations.  This usually takes about ten minutes.

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Once all the pieces have been placed on the table in front of them, cataloged and described, students write a character sketch about the person who owned these items.  I give them about seven minutes to write a fully-fleshed out profile of this person.  After they do this, I ask three or four students to share their character, using the artifacts as evidence for particular personality traits and/or lifestyle choices they have given their characters.

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Then I ask them to focus on one particular item in the box, the one thing in the box that was the most precious to their character. “What is the item that this person carried with them through every move,  every bad marriage, every child, job, house? What item was this person holding, in her hand, his wallet, her purse, his backpack, when he or she died?”   They select the item, and I ask them to jump or wade out into a poem that tells the story of this item and its relationship to the fictional character who owned it.

Most the poems that are born in this activity eventually become swallowed up by something longer – a piece of flash fiction, a short story, the beginning of a one-act.  I might tweak this assignment in the future to start with the items first and ask students to write from the items or about the items instead of developing the character first.  Students become attached to the character and the story leads from that.

There are a lot of variables that could be used with this lesson.  You could give students boxes and ask them to create their own “artifact box,” collecting five or six items that are emblematic of their own life, to generate writing for a memoir or vignette.   Some teachers have used the idea of items in a box to create “Me Musuems” for first-of-the-year ice breakers or to use boxes as a means to analyze literary characters.


Hand Poems: Tools of Industry or Works of Art

My Creative Writing 1 and 2 classes participate in two exploratory units on writing poetry.  During their freshman year, they focus on imagery and language, and during their sophomore year, they focus on different forms.  Even though they will be exposed to a variety of poems through poetry transcription and reading for poetry for pleasure, which is a daily activity in my classroom, the poetry unit concentrates on writing poems, not analysis.  While we discuss and share poetry as models or as inspiration, the writing, not analysis or explication, is the goal of this unit.

A lot of student poetry leans toward the clichéd, the obscure, and the abstract. To that end, this unit is designed to encourage students to plant their poems firmly in the concrete as a way to explore the abstract, to dig into fresh and original language as a way to dispel with the clichéd, and to spend time revising for clarity and sharpness to negate the murkiness that students often believe substitutes for profundity.

The body is great inspiration because we carry in the body the memory of trauma, genetic matter from ancestors, scars, tumors, cells, blood, etc.  We carry the germ of life and the hands that can extinguish life.  We carry glorious things like our pumping heart and sieving liver and inglorious things like pores that explode with dirt and puss-corruption.

The follow-up lesson to the Body Project is an activity where I ask students to look at one part of their body for an extended examination – their hands, specifically their non-dominant hand, since they will be writing with their dominant hand.  We read “Hand” by Jane Hirschfield and Dylan Thomas’ poem “The Hand That Signed the Paper” just to get us thinking about the power of the hand and its role and utility.

Then I ask students to examine their head line, heart line and life line on their non-dominant hand and respond in writing to what they believe their palm is telling them about their dreams, personal relationships and emotional struggles.  I give them about seven minutes to write this up, then we discuss our “fortunes,” which is always a creative and ridiculous conversation.

Then I ask students to start distancing themselves from their the hand.  To enhance this disconnect, I give each of them a mirror, and they must view their hand objectively as if they were viewing a tool or a piece of art impartially either in a hardware store or in an art gallery.  Students write for about 3-4 minutes, describing the item they see in the mirror, then we discuss.

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Then I ask students to wrap their hands in chicken wire and observe the metal-wrapped hand in the mirror, which will further distance themselves from their hand and hopefully provide them the necessary objectification to write about this  body part, not as a hand, but as a tool of industry or a work of art. Students write about 3-4 minutes, describing the item they see in the mirror, then we discuss.

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In the final step, they add to their wire-bound hands some element of plastic, either a plastic bag that I’ve given them or a green Starbucks stopper-stick.  We repeat the process, observing the hand in the mirror as either a tool of industry or a work of art, and we describe what we see in the mirror, then we discuss.

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Then I ask students to look back over their list of descriptions and select one or two lines that seem to have a lot of energy or lines that startled them or lines that unveil a particularly fresh or interesting image, and to write a poem using those lines and images.

Inevitably the poems become something other than about hands, but they benefit from specificity and concreteness that the objective description of the tools and art has  given them.

Here are some of their first drafts:

 Dog Eye Knuckles by Colin

The red dirt of my hands

always gets stuck

in the gears in my head

these spider fingers

always turn up

in the wrong place

and the scales

at the reach of my grasp

grow without my eyes looking

but I like these railroad veins

and these bass string tendons

caked between deep sand dunes

and the knobby knuckles

that pop out of my fist

like bulging dog eyes


Lost and Found

By Meredith

The person you almost like

but not quite.

The glove fallen behind the washer

The unfinished heart

drawn on a math book.

Left behind, like

ink running off your skin

during a hot shower after

a long day.

Spiraling down the metallic


The blood stained panties

abandoned in a school


The feeling of uneasiness,

swept under the

oriental rug.



Just In Case

By Strand


you are living a torture worse than

the iron maiden

the brazen bull

the heretics fork

the judas cradle

the breaking wheel

it’s an unmistakable sound,

glass hitting the floor,


hearts sound like that too

only as they hit the ground,

they bounce a little

roll under the cabinets

sit alone for days, weeks

shrivel up

and shatter

you can’t take a step back,

weigh your options,

and get it through your



that this is not healthy

your brain stuck in

eternal turmoil

your heart stabbed with

six thousand  ruins of glass,

a pocket knife,

and the needle you used

to tattoo my initial on your thumb

and yet you stay

you stay, holding onto hope, just in case

i change my mind, and

choose you.






Body Project Poems: Addressing the Abstract through Fleshly Concreteness

Lesson: The Big Picture

In order to generate a greater awareness of concrete language and clear images in their poetry as well as provide students an opportunity to celebrate their bodies, I start this lesson by dividing Walt Whitman’s nine-part poem “I Sing the Body Electric” throughout the room to discussion groups of two or three with a couple of questions to get them started.   Then we continue the discussion by reading a series of poems about the body and discussing the tone, whether the poem portrays wonder at  the body’s utility or fury at its betrayal.  I use Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Anodyne,” May Swenson’s “Question,”  “Homage to My Hips” by Lucille Clifton, and “Epidermal Macabre” by Theodore Roethke.

Then students draw outlines of their bodies (or parts of their body) on paper, and I give them a box of words and lines of poetry to place on their outlines.  They use the words or images to generate new images, lines, or poems that may or may not be about the body. The object is not to write a poem about the body, but to write a poem using clear expression and fresh images, possibly using the body as a way to enter the abstract and universal through the particular concreteness of flesh.

 Lesson: The Nitty Gritty

First I picked up an end roll of newsprint from my local newspaper because the rolls are free, easily cut and manageable in a large class, but you could use any paper source. You’ll need enough paper to allow students to roll out a length as tall as they are.  (The average height of my students was 64” and they need about six inches of white space on top and bottom, so if you have 20 students who need 70” each, you’ll needed a source that would provide about 116 feet of paper.)

I let students pick their partners because I want them to feel comfortable with the person drawing the outline of their body. This is a project I do late in the school year because tracing someone’s leg is too much intimacy for an ice breaker.

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Once students have secured partners, we trek to a vacant space and cut our paper and start the outlining process. It helps to have a long hall with no traffic.  Our interior courtyard halls at LHS work perfectly for this.

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They then decide how they’re going to position their body on the paper, and working in pairs, they trace the outline of their body or body parts.  For example, one kid did her feet in shoes, then in socks, then barefoot across the paper.  One student did only her hands and feet.  One did a series of outlines of her legs in cross-legged position.  Another student only did her legs, along with her hands at the top of her hips and then an outline of her hips floating above the legs.  Students traced out full body designs, frontwards, backwards, sideways, fetal position, half bodies.  Two kids did a Twix version – Colin’s right side matched Meredith’s left side.

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By having a concrete body traced on their paper, they deal with the disembodied symbol of their body instead of their body itself, which creates the dissonance necessary to write about something as abstract as, say, longing by using the specific image of a grasping hand.  After drawing, they open their Language boxes that I’ve given each of them. In the Language boxes, I have placed ten words  (the more concrete, the better) and ten images/lines of found text (I used highly figurative passages out of the Old Testament, but you can use anything), and they tape their words and lines on their outline and start writing.

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Here are some of the first drafts of their work:

Same Me is She

by Jamin

Those birthmarks that no one else can see

are for me, and only me.

I got kissed by an angel where I breathe;

he still sticks with me.


That small dot on the bridge


Matches the ones who share what makes me, me;

that truly this person

that is she.


The curve that sticks out from my face

Has two worlds that it’s carrying,

Waiting to give them out

for the one who was made for me.


Most of my cavities got

covered in silver and pulled out.

This cavity holds what keeps;

As she,                 being me.


That same me looking back in the mirror.

That same me that could put lights out.

That same me stomping through dreams.

That same she.




by Taylor

a chest with no vessels,

meat with no bones,

fingers without nails and

a heart missing its throne.

loose yellow skin,

a ghostly lack of blush.

If you listen, there’s no rush

of blood against the walls,

no thumping against my chest

no watering eyeballs.

Someone spooned out my muscles,

And plucked out my bones.

My organs are all gone –

all except one.

My poor floating heart is still

beating on.


Salmon Lines

by Colin

Salmon lines webbed out

over yellow galaxies

ripples of skin

boiling out to blue parts

skipping over the seams

of two pieces scored together,

creaking to touch the other

knocking at the knobby core

floated in place by the gravity of blood.

Too many arms

and rips and rifts,

and waves sprawling out

scratching at another universe.