The writing workshop as a space for relocating the personal

Barbara Kamler, Deakin University


(The writing workshop as a space for relocating the personal' In Responding to Writing: Continuing Conversations, (ed) B. Doecke, Norwood, SA: AATE (The Australian Association for the Teaching of English, pp 287-304.)

Anna is 68 years old. She tells the story of a woman dealing with a husband who is displeased with her appearance. Her text plays with and disrupts the cultural understanding that an older woman who 'lets herself go' is sexless, unattractive and without joy.

She felt the throb of the music through the pavement as she walked aimlessly through the outer city streets. Like a background to her thoughts the tune blended into her subconscious and she found herself repeating the phrase in rhythm to the beat...'You wouldn't have a wouldn't have a clue...'

They had been arguing again and this time she had to admit to herself that he had been right. He had accused her of becoming dowdy. Maybe it was because he had been in the company of younger people that day when, as a volunteer guide he taken a group of aspiring lab students over the ice cream factory where he had worked until retirement.

He had come home as usual about six o'clock and found her finishing the ironing in the laundry. She looked tired in spite of having had a fairly uneventful day. The dress she wore was at least ten years old, a faded Osti she had brought at a Coles sale. She couldn't throw it away because it was so comfortable. Her hair was still in rollers simply because she had forgotten to take them out and her glasses were smudged with tiny specks of Fabulon. The well worn fluffy slippers protruded from under the ironing board where the cat had positioned itself against the pink fur.

She looked up and smiled at him, asked him how his day had been. 'Alright,' he said.

He seemed to be looking at her in a new light.

'How long have you had that dress?' his eyes seemed to say. But his voice said 'Don't you like that dress I bought you for your birthday?'

'Of course I do - why?'

'Well you never wear it.'

"What - around the house?"

"Why not - you never go anywhere."

There was an edge of irritation in his voice and she found herself taking a defensive position. She rested the iron in it's cradle and turned off the switch.

She wondered what had brought on this somewhat critical attitude towards her appearance. As he followed her back into the kitchen, he watched her still shapely buttocks moving beneath the fabric of the old blue frock. He wished she would wear a belt to define her trim waist.

'That dress I bought you has a belt. Is that why you don't wear it?' he asked.

She was getting annoyed. He's going to keep on about it, she thought. She tapped instructions into the microwave and headed for the bathroom hoping to escape further interrogation.

But he was warming up to the subject. She stepped out of her clothes and turned the shower on while he stood outside the partly closed door and continued the tirade. Through the drumming of the shower she caught snatches of commentary: 'Old fashioned...too conservative....time you spruced yourself up a bit...' Then when no response was evoked...'You wouldn't have a clue...' The microwave beeped five times and he went to retrieve whatever she had prepared for dinner.

She stepped out from the shower and towelled herself dry. Then in a kind of daze she opened the wardrobe door and automatically reached for her old chenille dressing gown. His words were still in her ears...'spruce yourself up a bit...'

She swept the gown on its hanger to the side and withdrew the frock he had given her. The soft blue silk slid easily across her fingers. She put it on over her best underwear, not really knowing what her intentions were. She removed the rollers and reflected that her loose hair softened her face. She held the comb in mid air in a moment of indecision then swept her hair back in a neat bun. After all she was sixty five.

With his comments still echoing in her head, she walked out the front door and strolled aimlessly towards the outskirts of the city. She paused at a shop window and saw the severe reflection of her face in the glass. The music was getting through her now. She removed the hairpins from her bun and loosened her hair. It fell in soft cascades to her shoulders and she smiled at the effect.

Without really knowing why, she sought out the source of the music and found herself entering a brightly lit dance hall. Before she knew it someone had grabbed her hand and pulled her into a congo line. She was swept along in a throng of laughing dancing people. The blue dress floated as she held the waist of the person in front of her. She felt a pair of hands on her hips and laughed inwardly as she let herself go with the magic of the moment.

Anna's story was written during a research project where women aged 60-85 wrote in workshop settings to produce 'stories of ageing.' The purpose of the workshop was to confront the narrow range of negative images of ageing pervasive in our culture, and to provide an opportunity for women to explore in writing how their stories might challenge and disrupt conventional storylines of women and ageing.

In order to construct new narratives, the research project sought stories of ageing from the perspective of the ageing woman herself.

Typically, we met with groups of ten to twelve women weekly in two hour workshops over a six to eight week period. The women brought to the project a mix of histories, both personal and professional, and represented a predominantly white, middle to lower-middle class population from a range of Eastern European and Anglo Celtic origins, with one Philipinna participant. Their participation in the project was understood by the women as part of a collaborative exchange: they would learn new strategies for crafting and developing writing and we, the researchers, would gain new understandings of ageing from their writing.

A critical writing pedagogy

Given that teachers have been bombarded with so many different ideas about writing pedagogy over the past 20 years, it is important to contextualise and historicise the critical approach to writing I am advocating.

In the early 80's, Australian teachers were encouraged to take up process approaches to writing. The work of Murray (1982), Graves (1983) and colleagues (e.g. Calkins 1986, Walsh 1981) made a profound impact in Australia as teachers were advised to respond to the process as well as the product of writing; to work with students in writing conferences and scaffold the meaning of their texts; to teach students how to craft and revise rather than simply produce first drafts.

In the mid 80's Australian genre approaches to literacy, based on systemic functional linguistics, focused teachers' attention on the socially constructed nature of writing (e.g. Christie 1989). Teachers were advised to teach not only genres of personal experience but also 'factual' genres of exposition and argument (e.g. Martin 1985). It was argued that explicit knowledge of linguistic and textual features of genre needed to be taught, and that a more active role for the teacher-in explicit modelling and jointly constructing texts-was required.

More recently, certainly since the early 90's, teachers have been hearing about critical literacy approaches, although as Lankshear (1994) argues, the term 'critical' has been so overused, undertheorised and freely inserted in curriculum and policy documents as to be in danger of losing its meaning. In this chapter my aim is to illustrate what critical literacy might mean for the teaching of writing - but not by selling 'critical literacy' as the latest and greatest orthodoxy which teachers should now take up in place of older orthodoxies such as process writing or genre approaches to literacy.

Rather, my concern is with how critical literacy can throw new light on the practices we've already been engaged in. It is not so much a matter of learning new tricks or simply throwing out what we've done in the past - but of gaining a more critical understanding of the relationships between language and power and language and social life than many teachers currently hold - and of bringing these understandings to bear on the work we do in teaching writing. The danger of not attending to questions of power and representation have already been documented by a number of studies.

In the United States, for example, researchers such as Delpit (1988), Dyson (1992), Dressman (1993) and Lensmire (1994, 1998) have shown that despite ostensible benefits of process workshop approaches, including decreased authoritarianism and an active engagement in writing, they disadvantage lower income and minority student populations in terms of gender, class and race. In Australia, researchers have demonstrated that texts produced in primary process writing classrooms construct a gendered range of genres (Poynton 1985), a gendered representation of personal experience (Kamler 1993) and masculinist discourses of violence (Gilbert 1993a). Although Australian genre theorists such as Martin (1991) and Christie (1990) have posited a genre pedagogy as a corrective to these ideological deficiencies of process, arguing that a less personalist, more explicit pedagogy focused on the genres of power will empower those groups disenfranchised by Australian society, a significant critique of this position has been offered by a variety of theorists (e.g. Lee 1996,1997; Threadgold 1992, 1994; Luke 1994) while my own work (Kamler 1994) has demonstrated that the genre pedagogy and systemic analytic constitute a powerful technology that can actually prevent teachers from reading gendered meanings in student texts.

Without revisiting these debates, it seems to me that teachers need access to more critical discourses and ways to make visible the networks of power that are sustained and brought into existence by student texts (Gilbert 1993b). Elsewhere (Kamler 1997, 2000 in press) I have argued for a critical writing pedagogy which draws productively from US writing process approaches and Australian genre based approaches, but which moves beyond both to explore poststructuralist questions of subjectivity, power and the ways in which texts are produced. Jarratt (1991) uses the metaphor of relocation to capture what is at stake in taking such a critical approach.

From this critical perspective, writing is never simply a skill but also constitutes the writer's subjectivity. The writing workshop in turn is reconceptualised as creating a pedagogic space-a design-not only for effective text production but for the production of the writer's subjectivity (The New London Group, 1997). Within this space, teachers can strive to extend the cultural resources of the writer and challenge the forms of representation available to her; they can encourage her to develop strategies of rewriting which in turn work to remake self and reposition the writer with greater agency

Writing as representation: telling facts relocated

Helen (70) lacked confidence as a writer and believed her domestic scenes were boring and not worthy of writing. The difficulty she experienced in foregrounding her experiences was not atypical of a generation of women who have been actively discouraged from talking about themselves. Helen agreed to conference her text in the presence of the group and I tape recorded our conversation to demonstrate how she and the other women might use the details of the everyday to reimagine their everyday lives and their own subject positions in ordinary spaces.

The general statement in Helen's text read The Sunday drive was disappointing. We focused on the Sunday drive Heather had taken with her family many years before and the events leading up to it. The following week I used our tape recorded dialogue to reconstruct a first person, present tense monologue which I presented to Helen and the group. Although this written text was clearly scaffolded by my questions, I attempted to stay as close as possible to the language Helen used.


It's Sunday. We plan to go out for a Sunday drive. I'm getting the lunch for my family: a boiled egg for the youngest Trevor, a salad sandwich for my husband and daughter Judith, spaghetti for James. I'm having a salad sandwich as well, although it doesn't matter much as I'm happy to eat what's left.


We're all at the table, Trevor is in his high chair. We're talking about what's going on the neighbourhood, but I'm the last to sit down as I'm buttering bread, toasting bread for the spaghetti, cutting vegetables, helping feed Trevor. When the family is finished they leave me at the table and leave their dishes on the table. The children have to have their faces washed, the dishes have to be cleared and washed. Then I can begin to get ready. Dad's getting ready, bathing the eldest child. I have to bathe the other two, but I'm not going out until the dishes are wiped up, the children are clean and fed.


When at last I'm done, I feel beautiful and ready for a relaxed drive with my family. I've finished my chores, have a nice pair of slacks and a clean blouse on and I've made up my face. I get in the car and we set off. Everything is done and I feel released from the house.


Then the children start fighting in the back seat. I take little notice, they're just children. Let them go. But Allan reprimands them and turns to me. 'I'm driving, why don't you look after the kids.' That's the end of my peaceful day. I'm put down and I'm shattered. I will pretend I'm not put off even though the tension is so great. I'll be silent for a while and then I'll pretend that everything is fine and I'll attend to the children and smile.


This text had a powerful effect on Helen and the group. Discussion focused on similar experiences shared by other women in the group, being silenced by partners and taking the silence as their own. They were struck by the fact that detail made it possible to write, and write endlessly, as every potential statement had a meaning which could be further detailed. They also engaged the idea of selection: the need and difficulty of choosing. Proliferation of detail is not a good in itself and selection depends on the purpose to be achieved. In order to select, though, it is sometimes important to overwrite, to get the details out. Selections can then be shifted with profoundly different effects on the textual representation.


Stories such as Helen's can become significant sites of cultural production. There are moments in the reproduction of dominant cultural narratives when intervention is possible, when such narratives are vulnerable to interruption if women can see the ways in which they are positioned by dominant discourses. For Helen the writing increased both her confidence and text production. In subsequent weeks she became an active group member who began to write prolifically in ways that surprised herself. She learned that it was possible for her to write - that other women could relate to what she had to say, making available to her further opportunities for rewriting both text and self.


Writing as critique: the writing conference relocated


The stories of ageing workshops were structured so that each week the women brought a piece of writing which they read aloud for response and critique. Reading aloud gives the writer distance from the experience being written about. Asking critical questions helps the writer see that her text is a representation of experience - not the same thing as experience itself. To foster this distancing, we developed a group conference strategy using a set of critical questions to relocate the personal. We did not ask which part did you like best? or what person did you identify with or how did you feel about the writing? as often occurs in writing process workshops. We tried not to highlight how the reader responded to the writer's life and instead kept the focus on the textual practice not the person, on the writing as a representation. Some of our questions included the following:


1. What was powerful in the writing? Identify an image, line, metaphor, or representation of person that was powerful.


2. What was omitted? Who/what was absent and/or hinted at or over generalised?


3. What cliches have been used to gloss over experience, facts, feelings?


4. What doesn't fit? What contradictions, if any, emerge?


5. What aspects/issues of ageing are constructed/concealed?


6. What common issues, experiences, storylines do the texts have in common?


These are not necessarily THE best questions and we never asked a group to attend to all of these at any one time.


We found the conference questions on absence particularly powerful in helping the older women view writing as a construct, silencing some aspects of experience (consciously or unconsciously) and privileging others. Absences are about what cannot be said or what it is difficult to say-not necessarily because of a reluctance to reveal personal secrets, but because dominant narratives and/or one's discursive positioning often make it difficult to imagine other positions from which to speak or write.


Anna's story at the beginning of the chapter demonstrates the power of working explicitly with absence. The writing emerged from an exercise we developed to explore imagined positions and unfamiliar ways of speaking about ageing outside the dominant discourses of loss and deterioration. We asked women to write on the topic "She let herself go." We found this a rich phrase because it encompasses not only the damning cultural judgement of not caring for one's appearance, but the possibility of moving beyond the boundaries that constrain a woman's life.


Anna's text demonstrates the kind of pleasure and vitality the women discovered in playing with this phrase. She places the ageing body centre stage and positions the reader to take up the cultural critique spoken through the husband's words-'spruce your self up a bit.'. While Anna's older woman hears the husband's critique, she maintains her distance - escaping to the shower as his barrage continues. She uses that judgement, however, to reclaim her own passion and freedom rather than please the husband. She puts on the sensuous blue silk and her best underwear, and walks out of the house in order to reclaim celebration and joy, music and sensuality, a pleasuring of bodily senses - all those activities usually associated with the young.


While it is possible to dismiss this text as unreal or silly, such a judgment says more about the taboos operating around older women's sexuality than about the inadequacy of the text. In a culture that valorises youth and beauty, where are the love stories of old age? Where are the bodies being pleasured by one another? Anna's text refuses ageing as a loss of joy and sensual pleasure' it has a critical edge which comes about as a result of the writing; the writing in turn brings into existence a different subjectivity for the writer.


The initial questions on absence thus generated a critical dialogue, a writing exercise and new texts, such as Anna's, which could be relocated within a number of marginalising cultural practices (Kamler and Feldman 1995). The dialogue and conversation in and around such texts lead the older women to extend their cultural resources, to ask questions about the common storylines emerging across their texts and examine these as cultural constructs which do political and social work to position older women in particular ways.



Writing as political: the purposes of writing relocated

As workshop leaders, we took seriously the fact that there are few cultural storylines available outside dominant narratives of lost youth and physical deterioration. We regarded the women's stories as political and the workshop as a site for a politics of representation where older women's stories could sit alongside and challenge dominant representations. Our aim was also to teach the women strategies to craft their writing, but such writing purposes were always framed within our larger social purposes and this appeared a significant pedagogical move.

It is not new to highlight the importance of setting real purposes for writing. Early writing theorists such as Moffett in the United States and Britton in the United Kingdom argued against 'dummy runs' and for a school writing curriculum connected to writers' needs and purposes. This agenda was taken up by writing workshop advocates such as Graves (1983) so that real purposes, real audiences were central to the process pedagogy he developed. In the stories of ageing workshops, however, our intervention was to relocate individual meaning in wider social purposes. For us it was crucial to have a social, cultural and political reference point outside the self in order to contextualise what seemed to be idiosyncratic in larger patterns of power.

Issues of power and powerlessness are central for older women who have become 'invisible' to their culture. We adopted the practice of foregrounding such questions in our discussions and developed an exercise where we asked women to write about a time when they felt both powerful and powerless. This framing allowed writer's such as Rowena to play with the personal/political interface and reconstruct her experience of taking her husband home to die as a victory of discourses of dignity over discourses of medicine.

I just want to go home!: A Story about feeling powerful

The Day We Marched to Peter's Tune...Dah, Dah A Dumpty Dee


'If you go home Mr Brown, you'll be dead within six weeks.'


'I just want to go home!'


'Mr Brown, if you go home you won't have access to our life saving machines. You will be dead within six weeks.


'I just want to go home!'


'If you go home, Mr. Brown, it may not be possible for you to be admitted to hospital. You will be dead within six weeks.'


Are my heart beats breaking the silence? What will happen if I burst into tears? What if Harvey caves in? He hung his head even lower.


'I just want to go home!!!'


Overnight the news of Harvey's decision must have reached some of his friends who were employed at the hospital. So, imagine the procession.


First, came HARVEY in a wheel chair,

then a couple of social workers,

after them a wardsman, walking beside a nursing aide,

next came a doctor in his white coat

An occupational therapist joined in and soon after

a physio student,

And I was trailing the rear,



A dah, dah a dumpty dee, a dumpty dumpty dumpty dee, A dah dumpty dah, dumpty dee...


Dah dah a dumpty dee, Harvey's coming home with me!


For one whole month we will be free...a dah dumpty dah dumpty dee...


But what if he had said 'I don't want to die, let me stay in hospital,' what then?



Rowena's text is poignant. The staging, the procession out of the hospital, the use of song as triumphal march work powerfully as a dramatic construct -as a social critique of the politics of death and dying. The genre of the children's story is invoked, as the procession of storybook-like characters-the social worker, the nursing aide, the occupational therapist-march out of the hospital with Harvey leading the way. This playfulness undercuts the fact that within weeks Rowena will be a widow and face the loss of her life partner.

Her personal pain and fear are always there-but understated - distanced. This is a time when Rowena felt powerful. Her grief is not given prominence in this counternarrative, although the fear sits at the edges (But what if he had said, 'I don't want to die let me stay in hospital'), as she carefully crafts the personal for the purposes of social action and critique.

Creating a political space for older women to tell narratives of ageing from their perspective produced a richer sense both of what they have accomplished and what lies ahead. The critical workshop practices we employed in this voluntary, adult, out-of-school context, may have implications for teachers working in other settings with autobiographical writing. Relocating personal writing within broader social, cultural and political contexts requires, as Jarratt (1991) points out, a new theoretical framework with a more carefully theorised understanding of the multiple forms of power reproduced in writing classrooms. It means that writing is not only crafted to produce better text, but to produce forward movement, new practices that serve the writer's life purposes and challenge the communities in which they live. To relocate the personal is thus never simply about technique or strategy but always also about power and social action.

This suggests that teachers of writing may need to develop greater self-consciousness about how narratives are made, how they might be written differently, how they support, undermine and struggle with other stories, how they affect both the teller and the told. If new narratives are ever to enter the culture, and women's lives, we must explore the possibilities of more critical approaches to writing. Without it none of us has any way of gaining enough distance to make dominant discourses visible and thereby to imagine alternatives: and most educational and policy contexts are badly in need of new stories and real alternatives.


End note

1.Between 1993-1996 the 'stories of ageing' pilot projects were conducted by myself and Susan Feldman, Director of the Alma Unit on Women an Ageing at the University of Melbourne, an interdisciplinary research and policy unit on ageing. From 1997-1999 our work was extended and redeveloped as an Australian Council Research Grant with Terry Threadgold, Professor of English at Monash University. This is a three year longitudinal study which examines change in the lives and the concerns of women aged 70-85 living outside institutional care. Working as a team with approximately 40 women in workshop settings, we have extended our ways of working with biographical stories to include video diary workshop as well as writing workshop methodologies, where women both film and write their stories of ageing.