The Circle, or, How We Teach Art Through One Another

Last month I had the good fortune to be a member of Lan Samantha Chang’s fiction workshop at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. We met in two different locations—two days in a living room setting dubbed “Dragon’s Den,” and on the other days, a large classroom. But at both locales, as participants trickled in and claimed chairs, the same ritual took place, automatically and without discussion. We formed a circle. At times the circle needed to be widened, or adjusted; certain members needed to switch spots because of the late afternoon sunshine scorching their necks. And yet, the circle remained.

On other afternoons, faculty and fellows taught craft classes in the Barn. There, too, participants arranged seats in a similar fashion—if a full circle wasn’t possible due to the number of attendees or size of the room, then we would inevitably form the chairs in a horseshoe shape.

I’ve participated in creative writing workshops for nearly fifteen years now, and “the circle” as writers universally and casually refer to this seating arrangement, hasn’t been an aspect of the writing life that has piqued my attention. During Bread Loaf, however, I couldn’t help but take note. Time and again, whether one enrolls in a university writing course or journeys to a far-flung conference and sits beside strangers, awaiting the arrival of a much-anticipated instructor, the participants form a circle. Sometimes the decision is obvious, should the room contain a conference-style table. But when the arrangement isn’t decided by the furnishings, and space and seats abound, why, indeed, do we form a circle?

Perhaps I find this curious because the circle exists in bellydance, too. “Form a circle!” the instructor will call out cheerily, five minutes left to the hour. We’ve been sweating and grunting through drills and combinations, and despite our love for dance, groans and sidelong glances are exchanged. Traditionally, this is the way Bellydance and other folk dances have been passed down through the generations: the older practitioners “teaching” (i.e. dancing) in a circle, the new generation of less-experienced dancers emulating the moves. In a modern studio like ours, the circle is an improv exercise—the instructor will play a song, start off by inventing a combination for maybe eight or twelve counts, and then turn to the next dancer, who comes up with her own moves, and so forth. By the end, the song has been “passed along” the entire circle, each dancer “feeling the music” and forming her own choreography on the spot.

Dancers sometimes refer to this group exercise with dread, those who dislike spontaneity and all-eyes-on-them. For others, it is an opportunity to creatively release after an intense sequence of drills. But what I find most intriguing is how, somewhere along the line—probably after the first few times the teacher beckoned us to “form a circle”—that the ritual became known among us as the circle.

The Circle. Why and how do we arrive, by tacit, collective agreement, to this term? Just what happens in The Circle to warrant the definite article before the noun, rather than indefinite? And why does The Circle, in its various forms and incarnations, show up in the teaching of more than one art form—a spatial arrangement which has pervaded the decades-long culture of creative writing in this country, and for centuries, enabled dances rooted in the folk tradition to be passed down and preserved.

This leads me back to Bread Loaf, the mental snapshot of our workshop group. What happens in a writing workshop? Members offer up their work-in-progress for feedback and discussion. Not only their creative work is on display, but the writers themselves are on the spot as they jump in to illuminate points, raise questions, even argue. Ideally, the teacher leads but allows the discussion to take its own shape as well; members, ideally, are as engaged by each other’s work as much as their own. On a more obvious note, The Circle’s structure eliminates a pedestal position of the teacher as All-knowing Master and Keeper of Knowledge—although students may find themselves looking to the workshop leader for clarification or approval, essentially, the spatial relations determine that power among members is shared.

Everyone has something to learn from one another.

In my recent workshop with Lan Samantha Chang, I found this resoundingly true. The more committed the participants, the more experienced they were as writers and thinkers, the more passionate, engaged, and respectful they were toward another’s creation. Were some of them a little intimidating at times in their technical proficiency, their performance on the page as well as on the spot, defending or peeling away the layers to a story or novel chapter? Sure. But the critique they offered was thoughtful and honest, and I paid attention to the varied responses of my peers as much as Sam Chang’s.

I left our final session thinking, This is how we learn art—from one another. The masters take their lead, but in The Circle, there truly is no hallowed point. Each member has his or her say; each artist’s work gets equal time in the spotlight. Sometimes the creation put forth shines, and at other times falls short, as a work-in-progress is permitted to do. True, The Circle is a sort of “test” before one’s artistic peers—and hence the anxiety we may feel as our turn approaches, the care we take in selecting which piece to obtain feedback. But such pressure is a sign of opportunity in the best sense—to show what we’ve got, when it counts.

We should remember, though, that what happens in The Circle is a practice test, the place to experiment and make mistakes before we publish, or take the stage. What better place to do this than before our peers who walk in our shoes, share our doubts and triumphs, and realize the praise deserving of talent when it meets hard work, who are dedicated and forthcoming enough to say “this piece just isn’t there yet”? Who better to learn from than each other?

Indeed, if not each other, who else? Book reviewers? Agents? Literary critics and theorists? I don’t think so.

No wonder The Circle arises wordlessly among artists, whose labor’s success depends so much on giving and reciprocity. That it has survived as a method of passing down dance forms from ancient times to the present day, and has emerged and proliferated in the modern day teaching of storytelling, or what we call creative writing, is nothing short of astounding. Much is debated about the “workshop” model, if this method stifles creativity or encourages cookie-cutter work. But we should consider The Circle’s ubiquitous presence an encouraging and reassuring sign, I think, regarding the health of contemporary American literature—perhaps of any art form. We may shrink from it. We may walk away from it silently weeping, or in exhilaration, our footsteps light and faith renewed in our calling. Most of the time it is not a perfect circle, but one that is crooked in shape and not without shortcomings. But we should be ever grateful for it.