Yesterday, I had my first workshop in fiction.
For the uninitiated, the workshop is the guts of the MFA program. It’s why people study creative writing. It can be an incredibly positive and constructive experience. It can also be completely harrowing.
This is how it works for fiction: basically, every week a small group of students (usually three or four) turns in short story or novel chaprter manuscripts for everyone to read. They’re crisp, double-spaced, clean copies and they contain all of the writer’s hopes and dreams.
Or sometimes they’ve been hastily typed the night before. But we’re going to assume hopes and dreams — the kind of story this writer wants to write, the things that mean the most to them.
Over the course of next week, everyone in the class reads and critiques the story. People have different processes for this. I make a few in-text and marginal notes, but unless there are serious mechanical issues, I leave line-editing (see: the red pen of doom) for the real editors. But everyone’s different.
Then, ideally after reading the story multiple times (I shoot for three, but always do at least two), everyone writers a letter to the author, praising the things they found masterful and raising concerns about what they found less than masterful.
If you’re lucky (like me), you have thoughtful, tactful classmates who don’t really refer to the issues in a story as errors or mistakes so much as questions.
Then, in the next class, everyone discusses the stories (generally for 40-50 minutes), usually with little input from the writer until the end of the session when they can ask and answer questions. These discussions are at least as if not more valuable than the letters themselves because in sharing their impressions as a whole, the class can come to new conclusions and make better suggestions for revision. Like any good discussion-based course, there’s more to it than read and responding. There’s a dialogue.
So it should be apparent now that this is a process that can go horribly, horribly wrong if you don’t have a group of smart, sympathetic readers at your disposal.
Note: a positive session doesn’t mean that people only say nice things. The sign of a good critique is that someone is engaged in your work and cares enough about it to invest their time and attention as a fellow writer. So, for example, one of my favorite critiques that I received this week suggested the most drastic change. Because it was thoughtful and it made sense for the story.
It’s nice be told that you’re good. It’s amazing to be told how you might be better.
Not that everyone is going to love your work, even if you’re the next Franzen. It’s creative writing. We all have our tastes and preferences. What’s key, I think, is connecting with the people who do dig and understand what you’re doing and have interesting ideas about where you might go next with it.
You might ask where the professor fits in all this. It depends a lot on style. Some professors speak very little throughout the conversation and than sit in judgment at the end of the session. Others act as sounding boards for the conversation, responding to the points made and offering their own opinions. I’m much more of a fan of this second approach. It makes it more of a conversation, which is what a workshop is at its most ideal.
So, in short, I feel no urge to run crying from graduate school and am excited to continue reading and being read.