If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop or class, or been part of a writing group (whether you liked it or didn’t) you may wonder if, why and how Fearless is different.
Will you learn anything new?
Will your writing grow stronger?
Will it work? How?
Does it offer anything you haven’t already experienced?
PART 1: nine ways Fearless is one-of-a-kind
Fearless differs from the three mainstream methods in which writing is taught. If you’re familiar with the Iowa Writers Group Style, the “safe & supportive” style (such as those taught by Julia Cameron or the Amherst Writing Workshops), or the Big Famous Writer’s Workshops (such as Robert McKee‘s “Story” workshops) what follows will make
immediate sense to you. If you don’t yet know these three individual approaches to the teaching of writing, they’re described in Part 2, and you might want to read that first and then skip back here.
- Fearless teaches self-mentoring; it does not foster dependency on the teacher or
fellow students (though everyone helps everyone — usually very
enjoyably — during the course of the workshop).
- Fearless is real-world; it depends on neither artificially heightened tension
(Iowa-style workshops) nor lowered tension (“safe and nurturing” style). It acknowledges and works with student’s fears, neither amping them up nor repressing them.
- Fearless addresses students’ vulnerabilities with respect, but draws on and
develops the best and strongest in students. It calls forth who and what
they most want to be and do. It assumes students are more powerful and resilient
than they may yet realize, and speaks to this.
- While Fearless uses prompts (as do most “safe & supportive” style workshops), it assumes
writers must and should learn to ability to self-prompt: to start, carry
through, and complete their work without group or teacher.
- Fearless offers a universally accurate working map of the creative process, applicable to any student, at any level. Fearless attendees pinpoint their current location precisely, identify possible destinations and select one or two, choose their route, prepare for their journey, and make the trip. They also learn that “the map is not the territory.”
- Fearless is about the writing process, the student, craft, aspiration, and developing an ongoing practice of writing (habit). It is not about perfecting an individual piece of work (Iowa style). Not about or getting published (Iowa style, implicitly, Big Famous Writer style and most writing conferences). Not about how smart the teacher is (Big Famous Writer style). Not about having a wonderful, affirmative experience while the group convenes (“safe and supportive”).
(That many Fearless alums do go on to publish, and that the experience of Fearless is almost invariably fun and affirmative, are happy side effects).
- Fearless is concrete, not analytical, abstract or academic. Rather than analyzing or studying “story structure” , “narrative arc,” “character motivation” (common in Big Famous Writer style workshops and Iowa-style), Fearless creates an atmosphere in which students experience these things naturally, as they write, and as they follow the Fearless map.
- Fearless works. Its teacher believes that every writing workshop ought to be held to the simple business standard of keeping its promises. That’s why it is the only writing workshop in the world with a ridiculously audacious money-back guarantee, as follows:
Crescent fully and unconditionally guarantees Fearless Writing. If, after attending
all sessions, I am not replete with satisfaction, insight, and the ability to write with greater ease and pleasure, I will email her a request for a refund, with the address
to which a check should be sent. She will gladly refund my registration fee in full
- Fearless is both tough and tender.
PART 2: other ways of learning to write: what else is out there
Virtually all writing workshops out there except Fearless fall into three categories. If you’re an experienced workshop-goer, you’ll recognize at least one of them.
- The “big famous teacher on an ego trip” workshop
writing teachers of large repute have a fixed and undeviating
curriculum, their workshops are static, stale and non-interactive. Such
workshops are not
responsive to individual students and their needs, and are all
pretty much the same, a single unvarying performance or lecture.
Sometimes the atmosphere is intimidating; sometimes boring. About 20
years ago, I took Robert McKee’s famous “Story”
seminar; it falls squarely into this category and was wholly unhelpful
(from what I hear, McKee is still giving the identical workshop.)
Though I haven’t taken with
them, I hear similar complaints about several other well-known writing workshops which differ from McKee’s only in that there are small break-out groups, in which aspiring writers attempt peer-to-peer mentoring.
It’s theoretically possible that
an aspiring writer could get something out of a workshop which rests strictly on a brilliant or charismatic teacher/lecturer. I’ve just A) never seen it happen and B) suspect that even so, the student would leave with no idea
about how to make it happen for his or herself.
This Big Famous Writer syndrome is often at play in summer writers conference workshops.
My own experience as a student: I attribute McKee’s ongoing success to his gift for self-promotion and the “Emperor’s New
Clothes” syndrome; no one wants to be the dummy who says, “Hey… this
sucks.” Well, I’m happy to be the dummy: I still consider that weekend a waste of time
and money, and it was, I felt, grossly disrespectful to students and the
writing process. Its cost and the fact that it was so oversold are, in part, what led me to institute Fearless’s money-back guarantee.
The Fearless Difference: Promises are kept, backed up with a money-back guarantee. Relationships within the workshop are collegial and interactive, not lectures in the “this is the truth passed down from on high” mode. Craft and narrative are learned experientially — quickly — through writing, not academic study. Students begin learning self-mentoring, an essential skill, from the first.
- The Iowa-style group critique workshop
The most widespread form of
writing workshops until recent years, these were developed at the
University of Iowa in the late 1940’s by Verlin Cassill. They’ve been
described, accurately, by the New Yorker, as “a combination of
twelve-on-one ritual scarring and group therapy where aspiring writers
offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers.” The
teacher mostly facilitates, offering only general comments on form.
Obviously, the idea of a
heavy-duty critique, which would include negative as well as positive
comments, is terrifying to some people. But it’s tantalizing in its
possibilities — might you actually learn to write better? The answer
is a qualified maybe: it depends on the make-up and experience of fellow aspirants in your
particular group, and on your temperament.
But, a particularly brutal
critique, which may or may not be accurate, can also shred people
up so that they never write again. And because the Iowa style emphasizes the individual
pieces of writing being critiqued, rather than the writing
process, it may leave its students with one good workshopped piece but more or less
clueless about the next, or how to work without the help of a group. It can fostering an in-crowd feeling and/or a deep dependency.
Too, some writers get addicted to writing for the writing critique
group; how do they continue when they don’t have an entity for whom to do assignments?
Many critics feel, too, that the writing produced by students who come out of Creative Writing MFA programs has a recognizable stylistic and structural similarity, a less-individual voice.
My own experience as a student: Because I’d heard so much about this classic approach, and because I’m
always up for learning more about writing and teaching writing, about twelve years ago I went to two University of Iowa summer workshops,
one 5-day workshop in fiction and one 2-day workshop in poetry. I
enjoyed them much more than the McKee workshop, and I did get some
interesting comments on pieces I was working on. Did they give me
anything of lasting value, either on those pieces or about writing, or
teaching writing, generally? No. But I can see where with just the
right dynamic, and over the period of an academic year, they might be
truly helpful to some students.
The Fearless Difference: In Fearless, the writing process, as well as habit and craft, are emphasized; learning takes place through a combination of interactive lecture, writing, and reading aloud, not peer-to-peer critique and analysis. Thus, students leave with much more than one or two good workshopped pieces. They’re clear on the next step, clear on what’s needed for the long haul, and they have tools to help them regardless of whether or not they have a “writing community.” Although Fearless uses — indeed, delights in! — the energy of the temporary group, it does so lightly and non-aggressively. Again, self-mentoring rather than group dependency is key.
Fearless is also works more quickly, and costs far less, then getting an MFA in Creative Writing.
- The “safe, positive environment” writing workshop
partially in response to the brutality of the “ritual scarring” in the
Iowa-style writers method, softer, gentler, and more process-oriented
writing groups and workshop began to develop. The workshops taught by Nathalie Goldberg and Julie Cameron fall loosely into this category, though each has their own twist. One of the best known of these as a system is
the Amherst Writers method, pioneered by the kind and brilliant Pat Schneider, author of
“Writing Alone and With Others” (a fine book) as well as several memoirs and books of
poetry. This method addresses many of the problems inherent in the
first two styles. It goes out of its way to be non-intimidating. It respects the students — their vulnerabilities in particular — and the writing
Here, briefly, is how the Amherst works:
1) a group (again the magic number
is 12), meets together, either over a few months time, on an ongoing
basis, or for a retreat.
2) after the briefest of discussions, the
teacher offers a writing “prompt” — in effect an open-ended quote,
idea, or object — and then, individually and quietly, the group
writes, taking off from this prompt in any way they feel called. For
half an hour or 45 minutes, everyone just writes, and there truly is a
heightened, almost magical atmosphere: all the quiet work of creation
going on, privately yet within the group.
3) After a brief break, anyone
who wants to reads what they just wrote aloud, and others respond to
it. The rule is, however, responses must be only positive and non-judgmental: no
criticisms, no “you lost me when the protagonist said …” Pat’s phrase, in asking the
group’s response, is “What stays with you?”
4) After all who want to read have done so and been responded to, there’s another brief break. Then, there’s either a second go-round with a prompt and reading aloud, or a discussion of pieces of one or two student’s longer works in progress (which have been previously sent to everyone in the group).
My own experience as a student: It’s been my privilege to study with Pat. I participated in one of her 12-week groups. I’d do it again in a minute if she didn’t live quite so far away from me. Not only does some fairly
remarkable writing surface in this environment, it’s just flat-out fun.
Fun to write, fun to listen, and, as intended, the “safe, supportive”
environment allows for a great, feel-good sense of “it’s okay, you can be
vulnerable and you and your writing will be nurtured.”
What’s wrong with that? Nothing! But there are, I believe, a few missing pieces.
The Fearless Difference… and a few sames: First, the sames: like the “safe and supportives”, Fearless does incorporate prompts, encourages reading aloud, and has an atmosphere that is respectful, decidedly not brutal.
But Fearless respects not only students’ vulnerabilities, but their strengths and potential strengths. It respects, as well, the power and unpredictability of life itself. It is not within a teacher’s power to create an environment that is, objectively speaking, “safe and positive”, only one which feels that way. While very pleasant, and even productive experientially, such an environment is an illusion. It doesn’t exactly do a disservice to those who must work in a world shot through with difficulties, conflict, and criticism as well as joy (that would be all of us) but neither does it prepare a writer to navigate through such a world. To quote the opening line of one of my own poems, “Safety went to work one day in the World Trade Towers”.
A core principle of Fearless is that we all need the ability to be both tender and tough. Writers need to grow their own capacity for resiliency, self-soothing, self-encouragement and courage both in and outside the workshop. In the Fearless approach, students’ latent strengths are played to as much as their fears and vulnerabilities. Young plants may need, and thrive, in the tender and protected care of a greenhouse. But to get hardy, and ultimately bear fruit, sooner or later they need to be field-grown, to thrive, at least up to a point, even in extreme heat or cold, wind or rain, and to have room for their roots to spread.
Field-growing, in Fearless, means becoming friendly with rough weather, ceasing to fear so-called negative emotions, and not pretending that it’s possible to press “delete” on life’s conflict and difficulty. Fearless emphasizes learning how to use anxiety as a source of energy and power. By not looking at unpleasant-to-feel emotions,or by judging them strictly as negative, bad, and repressive, such emotions are, paradoxically, given strength…. and the writer is subtly told that she or he can’t, or shouldn’t have to, write outside of the greenhouse of positivity.
Too, there is again the “group” syndrome. It’s easy to get dependent on the group: for praise, for an enjoyable experience, for a prompt to act as a starter pistol. Fearless’s gifts, method, and map hold up at the times when no one is standing up applauding one’s work, when there is no nurturing teacher or group. In Fearless, students learn to write under less-than-ideal circumstances; to get started, and keep going, without a prompt or a teacher.
And to do this over and over again. Long after the workshop ends.