Thursday, July 12, 2007

Workshop: Who Goes First?

In The MFA Handbook there is plenty of good advice on workshop. (If you haven’t read that bit yet, go right away to pages 113-117; you won’t regret it). However, there is a passage that strikes me as puzzling. Tom writes, “Never volunteer to go first. By that I mean, don’t turn your story/poem in to be workshopped first. Why not? Because the class is just getting to know each other, and it’s not a well-oiled machine yet. The first workshop is often, thought not always, a dry run for the rest of the semester. So, if you can, hold your work back till the third or fourth workshop” (p. 114).

On the face of it, this sounds like good advice. However, one could think of reasons why it might be good to go first: one’s work might receive feedback with a candor that could be hard to find later. That is to say, I gather that workshop may become a well-oiled machine, but it could also become an ambit where people are excessively careful about not hurting each other. In this case, the first workshop meeting is the best shot you have at getting honest feedback. (Of course, one would hope that this doesn’t happen; that is, that workshop doesn’t become a "defective machine," to continue with Tom’s comparison). Anyway, all this is just armchair speculation. Hence my question to seasoned MFAers: Do you agree with Tom’s advice? Yes? No? Why? Why not? Tom, would you like to jump in and expand on your point? Any other thoughts about workshopping are welcome.

7 comments:

Jade said...

I *hate* going first--did that once and will never do it again. I'll go 2nd, 3rd, or 4th before I'll go first--the workshop is far from being settled in, the workshop instructor is likely still setting guidelines (e.g., first year students who haven't been in workshop yet..especially precarious Fall semester)...bleah.

Anna said...

I'm not sure the first workshop gives you the best shot at honest feedback. Perhaps this is true, with people becoming anxious about hurting each other's feelings in subsequent workshops... but it's also possible that they'll be not-so-candid in the first workshop (since they're all strangers and want to be polite) and become more and more upfront as they get to know each other better. As you said, it's all "armchair speculation"; I think the safest conjecture is that the situation is different for every workshop.

M. said...

i went first both semesters last year and it was fine first semester, but i didn't think that people were as attentive as they could have been second semester so i'm not going first this year. thankfully, i can't be called on it this time since i already did it last year. :)

Noah said...

it totally depends on the group, but i do agree being the very first isn't ideal (but somebody has to do it). however, in my last workshop (not classroom, a group of CMU alumni) i went first because everyone else was so apprehensive about it. i think that the group was relieved and carefully consider my story. actually it was some of the best feedback i've received (most comprehensive, at least).

i still find that in general the first time anyone submits to a group, whether you're the very first or not, it's a little awkward. everyone is being careful with each other, figuring out how to respond to your writing and the personalities of the group. people seem to dance around comments rather than coming out with them. i find people are much less worried about pushing the wrong buttons later on, which results in more candor.

Lincoln said...

Personally, I think I've gone first almost every time, merely because no one else would. I like going first only because I can turn in something I've worked on during summer and then turn my attention to a new piece.

I do, in general agree with TK though. The workshop doesn't normally get rolling until the second or third week.

However, most of my workshops have done some sort of introduction (bringing in 5 pages from each person to get a feel for their writing) which is a good practice I wish all workshops would do.

Conor said...

Avoid a first spot. Let second years make the first splash. As a second year it's best to wait for first year students to make the mistake. Do not submit in the first spot unless your work is stellar, i.e. complete and drafted, and this especially in a narrative design, or style and voice type courses. If you're careening through two or three pieces a week with a small(4) class, submitting first will get you more comments throughout a semester as other stories remind readers of your piece. With big(15) classes it's always better to just ride it out until all the miscreants have been quieted and you can get a good read out of your honest critics. Anna makes a good point about anxiety.

polly said...

I have been routinely been going first in workshops and there are pros and cons. I agree the group is not a group yet, to the extent it will ever become one (that depends on everyone's commitment to everyone else and to a common goal -- and y'all know how variable that is). I do it because I usually have something ready -- I agree it should be in very good shape and not a recent draft -- and because somebody has to. If the class goes in a strict cycle of submissons, going first may be a pain in the butt, because you may not be optimally ready when your turn comes up again in mid-semester. But it does give you the chance to assess the critiquing practices of the rest of the group early and in detail, because nobody ever says so frankly out loud what they write on your copy.