2016, Archives, February 2016, The MFA Years

Generosity in the Workshop


Image: Ignacio B. Peña

In the last few weeks I have been reminded of one of the most important lessons when approaching our fiction workshops: it is crucial never to forget to be generous to your fellow writers.

When I began the creative writing course here in Edinburgh, we met in a big room where all the masters students, fiction and poetry, were given the rundown by the lecturers of the program; and at one point our course director (pretty sure it was our course director) said something along the lines that “the workshop is the centerpiece of why we are here.” And so while our course is essentially divided into thirds each week (one day for our writing workshop, one day for our lit class, one day for our fiction seminars), we are here to write, and so each day is structured with a focus to what we produce for our workshops, with an aim to better our writing.

At this stage in the academic year, we’ve crossed the halfway mark in our second semester. There has been an evolution in the dynamic of the workshop, and with months of being familiar with each other’s different styles of writing and personal preferences and personal lives, there is a feeling that “business as usual” is trying to settle itself into the dynamics of all the workshop groups. We have, in turn, begun to develop mindsets that are creeping into each week of new writing; “[writer] keeps writing the same character into [writer]’s stories; [writer] isn’t taking any risks with their writing; [writer]’s personal habits are getting on my nerves; I don’t like [writer]’s writing” etc.

I don’t think this is foreign to anyone reading this, whether you yourself are a writer, a prospective MFA student, our out in the world doing any manner of other work. After a time, the most exciting things will still suffer the banality of daily life and turn into a kind of gossip that we all slip in to. It’s the gossip that we use to fill the minutes of the day about the people who surround us, the people who make up our world. The newness of being a graduate student is most certainly gone, and with it, summary judgments of everyone’s work is formed in our heads, many times taking hold even before opening a new piece submitted by any particular writer, simply because we know who’s writing it is.

I’m absolutely guilty of doing this, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Each week when submissions are emailed on Fridays, I read everything that gets sent the moment I get a chance to. I’m genuinely curious to see what people have come up with in the time they’ve had to write. Are they breaking their usual style? What tense are they using? Have they abandoned a story and picked up threads of a new one? Is it different? Is it the same? Half the time my expectations are met; quite a few times I’m taken by surprise (and I should be, I’ve read some damn good writing this year); Sometimes I’m initially underwhelmed (by the way, can you tell I’ve just read Virgina Woolf for class this week? I’m trying to get it out of my system right here and now and keep it away from my own writing. It’s fun, but it’s not mine). But I know now never to start picking apart a story for workshop while I’m reading it for the first time; not because I want to give it detailed and careful attention when I’m marking up the document with my comments (although this is a reason), but more importantly because I’ve recognized that my first readings for workshop submissions are colored with, in part, these preoccupations.

And you know what? That’s not fair to the writers whose work I’m commenting on, because then I’m not entirely looking at their writing; I’m looking at their writing in the lens of all of the above.

Even when I’m going through a story a second time, it’s very easy to look at something that isn’t working and point and say “that’s wrong” or “that doesn’t feel right,” and it becomes even easier when the story you are reading is coming from someone whom you’ve generally not taken a shine to their writing. But that’s where I think it’s hugely important to remember that everyone has come to this program to improve their writing because it’s something that’s important to them. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. When we write, we are putting a significant chunk of ourselves into each written piece. Sometimes you come into a submission week and you’ve struggled with writer’s block, and haven’t been able to write something you feel is your best. In either instance, you enter the workshop completely exposed. While I can sense most times when I’ve written something that’s strong or when it really isn’t, I’m still really goddamn nervous the morning my writing is up on the chopping block.

And so once I’ve made my notes on a piece, I review them and too often I’ve realized that, shit, I really tore into it. I know that if any of us are lucky enough to have our writing out in the world, there’s not much we can do once it’s out there: people will either connect with the writing, or they won’t; hell, they may hate it. It’s fine to feel the same about the writers around you in your workshops, but I also don’t want to be the kind of writer who tears down other people full-stop. I want to improve, and I need to remind myself that I’m surrounded by people who want to improve too.

It’s important to tell a writer what isn’t working when you sit down and read their piece. But in a workshop environment it’s also important to tell a writer what it is they’re doing right. This involves getting past those settling preconceptions that start to dictate a sense of complacency within the program itself. By making an active effort to recognize both the faults and the strengths of a piece, you encourage that person to continue their evolution as a writer. No one (I hope) comes to these graduate programs with the notion that their writing is infallible and couldn’t be better. Otherwise, why did you come?

For years when I was working in the film industry, I had been exposed to a very similar workshop environment. We’d all spend days animating on an idea and, when a shot was ready, crowd around the artist’s desk and see what they had made. In my case (especially in earlier years), I would think my shot couldn’t get any better; after getting comments from everyone around me, I’d realize how unbelievably wrong I was. But we learned in that environment over time how to deal with criticism, and how to be generous with each other’s work too. An artist in that environment can easily lose what did work in an attempt to chase down what really didn’t, and while many times upon review a shot could be a long way off from being right, there’s a delicate way to encourage reshaping a creative work into what it needs to be that, if communicated too harshly, can really hurt an artist’s drive to fix what needs fixing. I thought I had developed a fairly thick skin to criticism when I came into this year of writing, thinking that presenting my stories for workshop would be the same as presenting animation I had done at work. I was very quickly proven wrong.

I feel like I’ve had to start all over again when it comes to accepting comments on my own writing. There’s a difference doing creative work for someone else’s vision as opposed to doing creative work for yourself. It’s terrifying on a whole new level, and comments can hurt very deeply when it’s a work that is absolutely, completely yours. And yes, I think there needs to be growth on the part of the writer to be able to deal with this criticism and examine closely why comments are being made, and whether or not they help strengthen what it is you’re going for. But as writers reading each other’s work, it’s on you to reflect to your peers the kind of writer you want to be. Not just in how you write, but in how you read each other’s work as well.

What works? What makes a certain writer distinctive in their own way? When reading other people’s work, look for that, foster that, encourage that. Let the writer know what it is that moved you when you read their work. Give them the energy to pursue that excitement, to pursue why they sat down to write what burned inside of them to get out in the first place. It’s not enough to tell someone what isn’t working about their writing. Be kind to the writers around you. Let them know when they’ve written something good. Be generous to your peers. Let their words keep coming.

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