2015, April 2015, Archives, The MFA Years

The Workshop – My April Confession

Mid-way through my second semester of my MFA I have to admit that I really don’t enjoy the  process we call “workshop.” I never have and now suspect that I never will. That doesn’t mean I don’t value it, or see that it is worth enduring. And I will not deny that I most certainly learn something each time, but I don’t enjoy it. And after a quick survey of my cohort, it seems nobody else much enjoys it either.

If you haven’t yet had the first hand experience of “workshop” in a creative writing setting, basically, this is what happens; a group of other writers read your piece and then give you feedback both verbally, through group discussion, and also as written feedback, noted on a copy of your piece. Some of the feedback is great and very helpful. But some of it is not and that is the part that is frustrating.

What it tells me, time after time, is that not everyone is my reader. Some people will hate a passage that others love. Some people will feel a piece is ready to send out for publication, others will feel it needs a total rewrite. Some comments will be specific and invaluable, highlighting points that I might have missed entirely because I am, indeed, too close to the work. Other comments will make my head spin…and everything in-between.

The biggest problem, for me, is that I really want the feedback. But I guess I’m getting pickier and what I really really want, is to pick my readers specifically for their feedback. That too, I suppose, is part of the process, learning who to listen to and who to ignore.

A few years back, I had a similar moment of enlightenment with two literary agents. Both read the exact same piece of writing – the piece that got me into five MFA programs, I might add – and their reactions could not have been more different.

One agent told me the writing was poor, that my story was uninteresting and that, basically, I should seriously consider abandoning writing altogether because I was a hopeless cause. The other agent, (who, luckily, I’d met first) told me she loved the writing and the story and that when I had a few more chapters to please include her on my list of potential agents because she thought the project was sure to be a success. Go figure.

The other lesson I’m garnering from this is that when the day arrives that I am the teacher in charge of managing the workshop process, I’m going to be the pain-in-the-neck taskmaster. The hippie in me may resist, but I sincerely believe that ground rules are useful in this situation.

  • I’ll make sure we systematically go around the room so everyone has a chance to comment.
  • I’ll suggest that each person start with a general comment on something positive and then ask them to give the writer a very specific comment on something that could be improved and why.
  • As we go around, if people want to endorse comments already made, they can, but then they should try to add something new to the discussion.
  • If they don’t have more to add, then that tells the writer that the areas to work on are probably limited to those few that keep getting mentioned.
  • And at the very end, I’ll have everyone go around one more time and read their favorite line from the writer’s work.

Clearly, the purpose of the workshop is not to butter up the writer with false praise, but rather to help them improve their writing and understand what works and what doesn’t. But I also think it is key that the writer leave with a sense of pride that, if nothing else, they got words onto the page and that is already an achievement.

I’ve been reading Roger Rosenblatt’s book Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing and on this point he says,

“If you find things you like in a student’s work, and you celebrate them, then the things you don’t like—the really awful parts—will seem anomalous mistakes uncharacteristic of the writer, ones they can correct. The students will side with you against their own weaknesses. If, on the other hand, they begin to think they can’t do anything right, they will get worse and worse. No matter how cheerfully they appear to take your criticism, or how mature their attitude, they will think to themselves, “I can’t do this.” Or they’ll write defensively, anticipating your familiar objections, and be dull within safety.”

I’ve had the good fortune to study with Rosenblatt and he does just that in his classes, he encourages the good so you feel less defensive about the bad. It works. At least it works for me, so that is the model I intend to follow as I develop my own methods. Until then, I will continue submitting pages and receiving criticism and trying to make sense of it all.

I have so much to learn.

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