Thursday, September 13, 2007

Oh, Workshop...

l. wrote:

Any suggestions from veterans on how to get through those situations when you have to work/ collaborate (in workshops) with peers you may not have perfect chemistry with?

I have never been in an MFA workshop, but I've taken 6 semester-long undergraduate CW workshops, so take what you can from this if you think they're similar enough. I've found that my attitude towards the 12-15 people in my workshops went up and down throughout the semester, and so did their attitudes towards me. The members of a workshop are continually changing their impressions of each other's work and personalities, as well as the way they treat or receive each other, as well as the quality of their comments on manuscripts. Over time I just learned to "go with the flow."

Lately I've been thinking workshop critiques should be anonymous. This sem I'm taking my first course in journalism, all previous courses being in poetry and fiction, and the prof wants all critiques to be anonymous. And during the first workshop the quality of critiques was so high: people diving right in to what they wanted to say, people speaking concisely, people addressing the issue with civility and specificity. It was a very low-strung discussion, like all the emotional baggage went out the window because there was no person attached to the manuscript. I was one of the four being critiqued, and everything classmates said made sense to me and didn't make me feel bad at all... an experience I've never had till now!

What do people think of anonymous workshops? And, of course, l.'s question of how to deal with workshop partners you don't have chemistry with--in an MFA setting?


L. said...

Yeah I wonder if anonymity wouldn't change the dynamic of commenting for the better, since presumably the comments wouldn't be made in public. I do think there's an element of performance or spectacle in the workshop, sometimes going as far as feeling like some kind of public communal repudation of certain people.

Anna said...


I think by now I have received a greater load of criticism than I have given. Your comment saddens me, as I like you... I appreciated your advice to wear something the color of Homer's wine-dark sea at my reading. However, I understand that you and many think me unkind, which is fair given what I wrote. I'm not taking it back, though, and here's why: I wasn't trying to humiliate the person, only to criticize the writing, and only one poster saw where I was coming from.

Since I'm probably generally hated on this blog--and this has hurt me more than you can imagine, as I have done an immense amount of tortuous work for people I don't know; if anyone who thinks me a bitch looks at the 130+ programs on what was previously called "the dozen dozen site," they'll find it hard to convince themselves that a bitch could have done something like that for free for the benefit of strangers she'll never meet, with not so much as five thank-yous. As for my posts, most of them treat the questioner with respect, and I don't expect to be judged based on a terrible incident when I lost my patience with a professed writer's error-riddled writing. And despite not having any MFA experience, I have still been able to give some useful advice, especially on writing personal statements and teaching statements: explaining in rational terms how to deal with some very mystifying processes.

Also, I'd like to remind visitors of an offensive post by someone who wrote that this blog was falling apart after Tom had left it into so many hands, and who said that it had turned into a monstrosity as a result of reading like some 17-year-old's diary. When I read the post I knew she was referring to me. Was I hurt? Yes. But I spent a few days thinking about it, and now I thank her: it was her "offensive" post that saved this blog. As abrasive as she had been, she spoke the truth, i.e. I had put irrelevant stuff about my life (in a much friendlier tone than the one I've had lately) on this blog that was of NO USE to anyone--those posts, by the way, make me feel guiltier than the posts in which I comment snarkily on something that might galvinize a writer into improving their writing or research skills. (Think about the writer who asked what the acceptance rates were for about 7 Ph.D. programs, who I told to make the effort to call the institutions and find out for himself, instead of relying on us bloggers, less accurate sources of information that were preferable only in the sense that he was allowed to be more passive in getting what he wanted). Anyway, on realizing that the offensive poster was right about this blog going down the tubes in terms of organization and relevance since TOm left it, I realized what needed to be done, and so created the Mailbag in order to give the blog some structure and get what topics people wanted to talk about. Hence, snarky criticism can also be true and useful: when I get it I sometimes agree with it (eventully) and reform myself, as in the above case; other times I stand by my beliefs. In the case of "the public communal repudation of certain people," if someone criticizes my writing but not my person in front of a group of other writers, I may be hurt but in the end I will end up putting the criticism to good use. But a lot of the criticism I have received lately has more to do with my person and less to do with the sensibleness of what I wrote.

I really know I ought to leave this blog after putting up this post, since I have written things that most people cannot forgive me for. This honestly saddens me because I liked you, vince, lizzy, mike, and a lot of others. Really. (My person, by the way, is not quite the same as my editorial persona.) I'd abandoned the database but I'll re-commence updates tomorrow, as I'm probably more useful doing that grunt research than giving advice. All I ask is that people notice my positive contributions to MFAers as well as my negative ones.


Sonia said...

In response to the original question--I really like the idea of anonymous critiques would like to know more about how that was structured. I assume the critiques were type-written out ahead of time (yes/no?). Were the critiques discussed or simply distributed to the writer who's work was up for review?

L. said...

Hey Anna,

Don't go anywhere. Put the insensitive comments out of your mind. I've been meaning to compliment you on how much energy you've brought to the blog, but really I've been too tired to do much but selfishly think of my own problems (school, you know).

If you have the impression that I don't like you, I am sorry to have given it. I am on your side. If anything, I don't respond to the trolls who've picked on the work that's been done here recently because I think that's exactly what they're looking for.

Really, please stick around. You'd be missed if you went anywhere. Never mind the bollocks or whatever. Who are they, anyway?

Your friend,


L. said...

Anna again,

Oh, and I think I left my post above open to misunderstanding, but all I had in mind was my own recent baptism-by-fire workshop experience. There was no sarcasm meant.

june bug said...

hey, this is the "offensive poster" of which you speak. i just wanted to say that i still tune into this blog and have been greatly impressed by the changes and in particular, the work you have done, anna. i'm a "he", by the way, not a "she."

Noah said...

funny how a the comment boards here really reflect the atmosphere of workshops. in both, you're laying out yourself to advice and criticism - and being somewhat emotionally vunerable. plus - and this is the tough part, the real kicker - you don't at all know the people who are giving that advice and criticism (at least for a first workshop - and actually often for later workshops).

it can be really hard to judge the advice and criticism of people you have strong opinions of (earned or unearned; positive and negative). and just as tough to judge that of people you have no opinion of. and really easy to misinterpret a comment or take something off-handed to heart.

in either case, this seems to me to be the #1 factor in whether i'll enjoy (and get anything out of) an MFA. although, really, it's somewhat out of my hands with the admission process. i'm applying to 12-13 schools (ugh, the cost) so that, hopefully, i get a choice of 2-4. that way i can investigate the type of people in the program and potentially eliminate a lot of friction in the workshop.

that said, personallity clashes are a part of life. just learn to ignore some people (or part of what they say) and choose a program that has the best chance of having like-minded people.

and about that anonymous criticism stuff, it really seems like a mixed bag to me. first of all, it gets pretty easy to figure out who is who in a class of only 6-10 people. next, i find i get more useful stuff out of the public discussion in a workshop than the comments written on the draft page, which is often useless grammer and spelling edits.

furthermore, if there's a real problem with a student in the workshop, isn't that what the moderator - the teacher - is for? in an undergrad workshop, we had a student who was constantly going after people with mean-spirited comments. the professor called them out in class, spoke to them privately and then, actually removed them when it still continued.

Bolivia Red said...


I'm with l.---don't go!

Thank you for picking up the slack, instituting and doing the weekly mailbag, and putting in a lot of the workload following up with posts to address the questions in the weekly mailbag. Many of us (I'm looking my own way) have been slackers in the follow-thru, both in effort and in appreciation.

Seth Abramson said...


You've done an absolutely bang-up job here. Don't be so hard on yourself!


Mike Valente said...

Everyone's comments and criticisms are appreciated on this blog. It makes it dynamic. Part of receiving criticism is taking it, adapting, and learning from it, in a workshop, in an academic setting and in a working environment from colleagues.

Anna - Your contributions to the MFA community, both on this blog and on your site, are invaluable. For every negative comment, there might be hundreds of readers who appreciate what you do.

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