I'd almost forgotten I have an MFA.
For six years now I've been a corporate cog, and it's not such a bad life. Good people, decent pay, and only the occasional 100-hour week here and there. There's structure, and in structure, comfort. I write things and manage people. For that I get a paycheck. Fair exchange.
And then, about a month ago, I paid a brief visit to the environment I used to live in.
The writing workshop.
A friend and I -- who are clearly either extremely optimistic or extremely crazy or both -- decided to apply to a highly selective workshop in Provincetown, MA. By some miracle, we were both among the 10 chosen to attend. I was in a particularly busy period at work, running full tilt right up to the wire, so it didn't really hit me until I was on the ferry from Boston to P'town on August 1st...
I was going to spend a week doing nothing but workshopping.
Of course, whether it's in the MFA environment or the summer workshop environment, the workshop isn't 100% about the workshop. At American, where I got the MFA in question, I was also taking literature classes, and working, and teaching, and writing a novel. Provincetown, in its way, was the same. The workshop is really only three hours a day. The rest of the time was taken up with writing exercises, and readings, and... okay, and fancy martinis from the cute Czech bartender with a heavy accent and a generous pour.
But the point is the same. You're spending your time doing nothing but talking and thinking about your writing. In the case of a week-long workshop, just one piece; in the case of a writing program, a few pieces, or maybe a few chapters of a novel. You're looking at the details of a work of fiction, focusing in on the choice of individual words, on how a phrase turns, on whether the title fits or hinders the meaning of the piece.
It's incredibly self-indulgent.
And it's awesome.
Because it's great when it's all about you. Aren't you always your own favorite subject? Everyone is focusing on something you've done, something you've made. There are only two things wrong with this:
a. If you're in a class of 10, you're going to spend at least 90% of your time talking about someone else, not yourself, because they're also all there for their 100% Me Time.
b. What if they don't like it?
So it's all about you, except that most of it isn't. You get your slice of the pie, your moment. But that's not the majority of the time, and these people really aren't there to talk about you. They're there to talk about your work. They're not there to stroke your ego, but to help you improve the piece that you're presenting, and if you're lucky, to give you tips and pointers that will help improve the quality of all your work, not just the piece in question.
And you can't complain if they don't like it. Because they have every right not to like it, and if it's a pretty good workshop, they know how to give you positive and negative feedback without making you want to cry.
If it's a pretty good workshop.
Sometimes the criticism is mean, and sometimes it's unfounded, and sometimes people are too shy to tell you that something sucks and you walk away thinking it's the bee's knees. Over time you develop a filter, but before you get that filter, you're at the mercy of whoever is there and whatever they say. It's a mix.
The very idea of the workshop is incredibly appealing, but whether it delivers on its promise doesn't depend at all on you. It depends on the other people in the workshop, but you have no control over who they are and what they're like. And although the caliber of critique was better in my Invitation Only workshop than it was in another summer workshop I attended, I don't think that's necessarily always the case. People can be fantastic writers and still give lousy criticism.
Is it worth the risk? Absolutely. Because until someone comes up with a better system, a workshop is the best way to find out whether a piece is working or not, and how you can make it work better. You learn even from bad workshops -- you learn what not to listen to the next time it comes up. I learned even from the workshop leader in my MFA program who told me I had no business in an MFA program.
I learned how to take the really, really bad criticism, and ignore it.
And I learned that when someone who has viciously criticized your writing gets a viciously negative review in the Washington Post, it's incredibly cathartic to laugh.
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Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry
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9.3.04 @ 9:05a
Who? Who got the bad review? Dish!!
Oh, those wonderful, time-suspended weeks, lovingly held in the arms of the writing muse. There really is nothing to compare it to.
Next. Year. I'm. Going.
9.4.04 @ 7:56p
I'm all for self-indulgence. It sounds wonderful.
9.6.04 @ 11:13p
I could have sworn I posted a message here and now its gone. Weird. Anyway, did someone REALLY get a bad review who was at the workshop or are you just embellishing a detail.
9.8.04 @ 8:19a
No, she really did. She was a temporary lecturer in my MFA program. She's not terribly famous, a couple of her novels have been made into Hallmark Hall of Fame productions.
9.11.04 @ 2:05a
I think that when it comes to reading novels, I am unfortunately a total snob and I suspect that someone who has had a novel turned into a Hallmark Hall of Fame production has written something that would make me want to vomit into a hat. I'm envisioning: epic, heartstring tugging, emotive, families breaking apart and coming together, people crying, lines you can predict just by reading the dust jacket, serious with maybe one or two lighthearted moments to sort of cut the tension, forumla, formula, formula, strong women, bad men (or bad women, enduring men). ZZZZZZZZZZZZ. I want a book that leaves me beliving I've read something original, something that reaches me on more levels than manipulating my emotions. I'm a lit. snob. Last good book: curious incident of the dog at midnight.
9.13.04 @ 9:18a
Someone once asked me about a novel I was struggling to produce, "What genre is it?"
"Literature, I hope," I responded.
"Yeah, but what genre," she asked again.
When I asked, "What do you mean," she responded, "Oh, you know, mystery, romance, western..."
"None of the above," I answered.
Further discussion indicated she didn't understand what I meant by "literature." What do you think I could have said to clear that up for her? The conversation ended with her thinking I didn't understand what "genre" meant, I'm sure.
9.13.04 @ 9:26a
You could have tried to give examples of novels that aren't part of a specific sub-genre. Like... War and Peace, or Beloved, or Mrs. Dalloway.
9.13.04 @ 4:44p
Yeah, I get the "what genre" question too... other than just shrugging, my only other suggestion is, "Well, it's literary fiction." Because beyond romance, mystery, sci-fi, historical, and western... is everything else just "fiction?"
Rachel, the thing with this teacher that really upset me was that she, with her Hallmark Hall of Fame novels, was telling me that because I was writing mystery fiction (which was just the one piece I had tried out in workshop -- and isn't that the idea of workshop? to try things?) I had no place in an MFA program. How is mystery less legitimate than romance? And besides, no one should be told they don't have a right to do ANYTHING in a workshop environment. If someone wants to bring in a piece written entirely in numbers, that's fine -- just tell them it doesn't work for you, and ask them what their goals were to find out whether they'd been met. But this high-handed "belonging" crap doesn't work for me.
9.13.04 @ 8:45p
The problem with the idea of genre is that it is often used to rate literature, not just categorize it. And, in some cases, you can. In bookstores, the "Romance Novel" section is going to contain a larger amount of poor writing than the "Fiction" section. But that doesn't mean that the elements of the Romance or Mystery genre suck or are unworthy of attention. It's the uncreative use of formula that sucks.
9.14.04 @ 1:53p
It's the uncreative use of formula that sucks.
I think you pegged it Sarah. Loveraft and Howard were both consider 'pulp', somewhat derisivly.(they're now more considered Horror and Fantasy respectively.) Far from literary greats, though, they stand out in those genres. Jim Thompson was also pulpy, detective-type stuff by genre, now usually found under Mystery, but also stands out.
It's true they prescribed in part the formulas you mentioned, but it shows the foolishness of writing off something on a genre-basis alone.
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