Thursday, September 13, 2012

11 Tips (Plus More) on How to Survive Your MFA Workshop

I’m a sucker for lists of “10 tips,” whether they’re tips about fall fashion or cooking tofu, so here’s a list of Back to MFA School tips, to ensure that you make the most of your writing workshop, whether it’s in an MFA program or through another venue.  I think most teachers want their students to succeed as writers, and based on my experience as a teacher/one-time student, here’s my advice, supplemented by advice from people who are smarter than I am—colleagues and students.  (Lessons to be learned immediately from the previous statement:  Consult other experts!  Sincere compliments are always welcome!)

I teach in a variety of venues—traditional workshop at Johns Hopkins; a low-residency MFA program at Converse College; community-based workshops/classes at The Writer’s Center—and I believe that all of these thoughts are relevant to whatever sort of class you find yourself in.  (The numbering is random, not a priority, though I will stick to number 1 being number 1…it’s also something I see being ignored the most!)

1.  Read the instructor’s work.  You’ll better understand his/her aesthetic; you’ll be able to ask more insightful questions about craft knowing the body of work the teacher is most intimately familiar with; you’ll have a stronger grasp of the teacher’s process when there are the (inevitable) allusions in class to, “Here’s how I handled that situation in my first book…”  Plus, as noted above…

2. …a sincere compliment is always welcome!  While teachers strive to be (and I will assume are) fair, it’s not stupid to assume that they will be flattered that you’ve read their work.  You don’t have to love it (though I wouldn’t suggest offering a critique!)—most writers are happy just to hear that you bought a copy.  Get it signed (no, that’s NOT embarrassing!) and make a thoughtful remark about what you’ve read.

3.  Extend this same general attitude of pleasantness to your fellow students.  Start by assuming that they want you to succeed.  Assume that they will succeed.  Assume you’re all in this together and that you’ll learn from each other.

4.  Even so, there will be assholes along the way.  And people who seem to you to be dumber than dirt about writing.  Don’t worry about them.  Over your career as a writer, you’ll hear many, many, MANY comments about your work that are not useful and that, if you paid attention, could even be damaging.  The workshop is where you learn how to sort that out.  Listen to the people who get your work, who have good motives, who are smart, whose comments make YOU see the new vision to the story/poem/essay.  (This may not always be the teacher.)  Hemingway said that very writer should “develop a built-in bullshit detector.”  I’m certain he didn’t mean only for the writing!

5.  Learn from the reading you’re doing.  If your teacher says you have a problem with writing description, see how the experts do it…study the books you’re reading in the lit portion of your program:  what are the descriptions like?  How is a novel structured?  (Check out The Great Gatsby for a perfect example of classic structure!) What’s the balance between scene and summary in the short story in this week's New Yorker?  I can’t recommend highly enough Francine Prose’s How to Read Like a Writer.  If I had my way, I would make sure every entering workshop student had read that book two or three times before setting foot in the class.

6.  Take advantage of time outside the class.  Does your teacher have office hours?  Go!  Does your teacher hang out at a bar after class, inviting students to come along?  Go! (No one will care if you order ginger ale.)  Does your program need someone to escort the visiting writer to the lecture hall?  Volunteer!  Not all learning is in the classroom.  (Mentor by Tom Grimes is an interesting—and somewhat cautionary—memoir about the student-teacher relationship.)

7.  But seriously…in those outside the classroom moments—and even within the classroom—don’t go on all about yourself and your work.  The teacher/visiting writer is the one with the knowledge, so ask questions!  Listen to their stories and gossip!  Treat them as a valuable resource, because, honestly, they are.  You can talk about your epic novel to your mom any old time.

8.  The usual:  be timely, meet deadlines, don’t roll your eyes when the teacher can see you, follow directions, don’t email pestering questions at 2AM and expect an immediate response. 

9.  In the workshop, during critiques:  don’t always have to be the first to speak.  Don’t never speak.  Don’t be mean.  Don’t always say that the story is perfect as it is.  Don’t go on and on.  Don’t be the one who turns every comment into commentary about your own work.  Don’t be the one everyone rolls their eyes at, the one the teacher would like to roll his/her eyes at.

10.  Remember that you’re building a relationship with the teacher.  It’s not just a grade at the end of the semester:  it’s a potential thesis advisor, letters of recommendation, a note to the teacher’s agent, a distinct memory when judging a contest, an invitation to speak on an AWP panel, and on and on.  It’s definitely a small world.  As I said, teachers DO have to be fair in the classroom and work hard for their students…but you know what?  Once that final grade has been posted, that teacher doesn’t “have” to do anything else for you ever again…and I must say that every writer I’ve met has a very long memory.  You don’t have to be “teacher’s pet,” but let’s try not to make enemies!  (And if you’re rolling your eyes, remember that it does work both ways:  it could be that YOU will be the one winning the Pulitzer and suddenly there’s your old, loyal teacher asking YOU for a blurb, and teachers know this happens [please be kind, BTW!].)

11.  In the end, think in the long term:  you’re not in this workshop to impress people but to learn how to write.  Even a teacher you’re not fully connecting with can help you do so, if you set aside your personal feelings.  Even a class with too many morons and assholes will teach you something about writing.  Let go of the ego.  The muse is merciless and doesn’t care who you are or what your problems might be.  Focus on becoming a better writer.

Now, additional excellent advice from some experts:

Cheryl Russell, Converse Low-Residency MFA fiction student

--Don't worry about publishing while in school—it's not worth the stress. You're paying good money to learn, so learn all you can in the short—and it is short—time you're in the program. Focus on publishing after your degree is in hand.  I think I heard you say that during workshop at some point—it's really good advice.*

--If you're a returning student, get the emails of new students entering your genre and try to connect with them--email, Facebook, cell phone--whatever works. It helps to have some names and faces in place when starting a new program. Also think about starting a student only group to stay connected—students in Converse's MFA fiction program have a private Facebook group which gives new students a place to connect names and faces and answer questions about the program. Such a group is also a big help during the semester and is a network after graduation.

R.T. (Rod) Smith, faculty member, Converse Low-Residency MFA Program and Washington & Lee University & editor of Shenandoah

--I used to caution my students against allowing lit biz to interfere with their reading, writing and thinking about craft and direction. Now I feel I have to add that they shouldn’t allow social networking, especially the social networking that’s lit biz related, to distract them. In moderation, these contacts and conversations are no doubt helpful, but they can come with an endorphin lift that’s counterproductive to the solitary and focused activity of writing. That old Frank O’Hara advice of “Get black on white” still heads my list.

--I guess my other piece is a corollary. We didn’t get into this mess because we wanted to build a vita. Someone who studied with Carver – was it Bob [Olmstead]? I think so – said that how much you publish and when isn’t as important as where. With the deluge of journals, especially on the web, this is harder advice to translate to the current atmosphere, but it’s still worth thinking about.

Alex M., American University MFA

--Get ready to thicken your skin. Yes, some people will love your work, but others won't, and the very nature of the workshop is constructive criticism. After my first workshop, I ran home and immediately imposed every note I'd received from thirteen near-strangers on my delicate little story. When I looked at the manuscript again the next morning, it was barely recognizable. The great swooping follies in it—the elements I'd loved writing the most and which at least one of my new peers had found off-putting—were gone. It took me a few workshops to learn to trust my own voice and instincts while really hearing what my fellow students and teachers had to say. So that's my advice: get ready to hear hard, difficult things. And be prepared to ask yourself—what will you stand for in your writing, and what are you willing to let go?

Sherra Wong, fiction writer

--One of the most important things I've learned is to "trust the story."  Tim Johnston, the workshop leader at GW's Jenny McKean Moore Workshop last semester (which I learned about from your blog!),* asked us to do this when we read other people's stories: to trust that the story, however unfinished or "weird" it may appear at first, has its own logic, and that we shouldn't shut down after a page or two.  I'm a very critical person, and in past workshops I've been frustrated at how ungenerous a reader I am, but Tim's advice helped me become a better and more patient workshop participant.  As a writer, I'm more open to experimenting with unfamiliar devices and possibilities that I might not have discovered if I had mentally "shut down."

(I suppose a caveat is that we can't expect editors to employ this attitude!  But I do find that it makes my workshop experience less frustrating.)

*Honestly, I don’t solicit this!


I’m sure there’s more…let me know what I’ve missed!  And if anyone ever wants to write up advice from the student’s perspective for TEACHERS of creative writing—anonymous or signed—I would love to post that.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.