With the beginning of the school year just around the corner—and with my first semester experience of the rigors of summer school safely under my belt—I thought it might be interesting to think about how students can use the workshop situation most effectively. That is, we could spend all day debating the merits of MFA programs and the benefits and evils of the workshop paradigm (and maybe someday we will!), but for now, let’s simply proceed from the assumption that this is how it is:
--People interested in writing eventually end up in a workshop of some sort.
--People who take enough workshops often end up in a graduate writing program of some sort.
So, how to make the most of the workshop experience once you’re there? How can you suceed as a student? As a teacher, there’s nothing I find more frustrating than seeing students not taking advantage of the wealth of opportunity available in all but the most meager class. I WANT students to succeed; I WANT people to become better writers—as do, I dare say, most teachers. So why do some people seem determined to thwart our efforts? Yes, we can’t expect to connect miraculously with every student, but some seem ill-equipped and at a loss in the workshop—and not necessarily because it’s a new experience for them.
Our first entry is a piece that writer and teacher C.M. Mayo posted at her blog, Madam Mayo, and is reprinted here with her kind permission.
Catherine has that enviable writer bio line—“she divides her time between Washington, DC, and Mexico City”—and conducts numerous and varied workshops in both locations. (Go here and also here for more information about current classes Catherine is offering.)
Plus, she’s dynamic, generous, and a go-getter! She was in my writing group for many years and I still miss her comments about how she couldn’t “see” what was going on in my pages…prodding me to add some much needed description, which I generally find difficult to write. Needless to say, her own descriptive writing is stunningly lovely. For more details about Catherine, see below or go here.
C.M. Mayo's 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Writing Workshop
#1. Buy and read your teacher's book. (Analogy: would you let a carpenter whose work you've never seen remodel your kitchen?)
#2. Ask him or her to autograph it. (An autographed first edition hardcover can be surprisingly valuable! And: flattery never hurts! Don't be shy about asking for an autograph; authors love this, they really do.)
#3. Expect to learn. (Analogy: do carpenters learn their craft wholly on their own? Maybe what you'll learn is that this is a writing teacher to avoid. Certainly, this is much cheaper experience than having a bad carpenter mess with your kitchen.)
#4. Realize that most people who come to a writing workshop have naive notions about the writing world (think money, celebrity, booze-crazed Bohemia), no clue from Adam how hard it is to write anything worth reading, how tough it is get published, and how consternating an experience it can be to be published (criminey, all these people taking your workshops who never even read your book!!). Realize, you are way ahead of the game by following steps 1-3, and that, therefore, though you might learn a lot about the craft, you do not need validation from this workshop, its leader and/or its participants, which is what you were secretly hoping for, no?
#5. Expect to give thoughtful critiques to others who (though their manuscripts are suprisingly bad, not to mention boring and often tasteless), are, strangely, resistant and argumentative. Expect also to receive unbelievably moronic comments on your manuscript and know that this, actually, is a good thing because learning to take criticism with open-minded equanimity is part of learning to be a published and productive writer—unless, that is, you want to be a writer who cringes at every review, every blog mention, every amazon.com shark attack out of Nowheresville, and is, therefore, both miserable and miserable to be around. (You can win the Nobel Prize and someone, somewhere, will say something unkind about your writing. So, Buck up.)
#6. Despite all of the above, take very seriously your critiquing of other participants's manuscripts, for good karma and all that, but also because the fastest way to learn to recognize problems in your own manuscripts is by identifying the same in others's manuscripts. I think it was Ann Lamott who said (more or less), "we point, but do not cut, with the sword of truth." Read the pages carefully, and offer honest, thoughtful, and detailed critiques in a spirit of kindness. (Wouldn't you want the same?)
#7. Remember the bicycle analogy. Like riding a bicycle, to take criticism productively, a writer needs to be able to balance between meekness (listening to everyone) and arrogance (listening to no one). Too much of either, your writing falls flat. (Too much of either and your whole life falls flat, now that I think about it.)
#8. Do the assigned reading. To learn the craft, workshops are not enough (see again Tip #4). If you do the assigned reading while in a workshop, rather than later (or never) you have the inestimable advantage of being able to ask questions and discuss it with the workshop leader and other participants.
#9. Remember, what goes around comes around. If you come to the workshop with an attitude of respect and goodwill, you will attract the same. (Any exceptions you will, one day, consider hilarious. You can also put them in your novel, ha ha.)
#10. Before, during and after the workshop, keep writing. In other words, don't let the workshop deadlines become a crutch. Don't give your power as an artist to anyone else; find your own motivation, develop your own habits. Play God. God riding a bicycle. ~~ C.M. Mayo
Copyright (c) C.M. Mayo 2007
For more tips from Catherine and many other resources for writers, click here.
About: C.M. Mayo is the author of the forthcoming The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, as well as the widely-lauded travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, and Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Founding editor of Tameme, the bilingual Spanish/English) chapbook press, Mayo is also a translator of contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction. Her anthology of Mexican fiction in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was published by Whereabouts Press in March 2006.