Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Workshop Highs and Lows

Any of the experienced MFAers have any advice on how to cope with the ups and downs of workshop? I just took my turn having my stuff workshopped for the first time, and even though all in all it didn't go too badly, I feel emotionally flatenned and oh so tired. Like I want to nap through the next two weeks at least.

The one thing I can say about this is that it does get better. I mean, that first one is so full of pressure. What will they think of me? Will they kick me out? Am I good enough? etc. But after a year, I'm having my work workshopped for the first time this semester, and honestly, I really haven't thought about it much. The year has given me enough confidence in my writing that I can look at other people's criticism of my work much more even-mindedly.

But in terms of where you're at right now, I say put the story or what have you away for a little while and look at it again once you can actually hear the comments of your classmates and not how they made you feel. Also, I would definitely recommend not stressing out too much so that you don't end up feeling too emotionally spent afterward. I tend to use the week before workshop as a fun week... I take a break that week so that I approach the workshop enthusiastically.


Erin said...

I actually think that workshopping is an area where getting an MFA *does* have practical application. After I was done with grad school, I went on to become a business writer. You could say pretty much anything to me about the pieces I wrote. I'd learned how to accept face-to-face critiquing and respond to it appropriately, as well as give it out myself.

The blog After the MFA ran a great series about making the most of writing workshops. Look for the tag "After the Workshop" -- there are 4 parts to the series.

noah m. said...

not in an MFA (yet - hopefully next year), but i did workshops in undergrad and in writing groups. my biggest advice: try not to get too emotionally attached to what is on the page. i'm not saying don't connect with your poem or story, just realize that it's a draft. be confident enough in what you have to feel good about that draft, but let your peers tell you what is working and what isn't.

then, ignore half the advice.

i don't mean that completely literally - but use what is useful to you and toss out the rest.

i totally agree that the first workshop is always the hardest. until then, you don't know enough about the other people to understand exactly how to take their comments. it gets easier, though. once you see who is connecting to your work, you'll know who to listen most carefully to (and who to totally ignore).

i love workshops. criticism used to hurt a little, but now the absolute worst is a comment like "it's really good," or "i love this." really? how can there be nothing wrong? it's my first draft? those type of comments feel good to the ego, but don't help much at all.

just relax, take a step back from your draft for 20 min or so, and frame the whole experience as impersonal. remember, in a good workshop they're not going after you (or your writing), just trying to help you get better. i know the toughest part about that is the emotional letdown of "not good enough, yet," but remember that good comments are now your guide and encouragement to revise with kickass results. hopefully you'll learn to love them more than hate them!

noah m. said...

^^just read the series at After the MFA (go to "earlier posts" at the bottom to get to part 1) and i agree this is a great read - especially part 3.

& said...

Just remember, they aren't tearing apart you, just your work. Constructive criticism never hurt anyone. Take it with a grain of salt, remember your work will be better the more honest your fellow workshoppers are.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the thoughtful words, everyone.

Jaimie Gusman said...

I might be jaded at this point (almost an MFA graduate), but take everything at face value....and run. Ultimately, what will happen is that you will develop an ear and eye for your own poetry because of your experience in the workshop. Eventually you will start hearing the voices of your peers in your head saying "no, don't do that!" or "yes, that is where you need to go with this!" Not to worry, these are the good kind of voices.

Anonymous said...

I had a workshop teacher that once said that the most valuable thing he took from his mfa workshops was not the criticism he heard on his own work but rather his criticisms of his classmates' work. After putting so much time and thought into responding to developing work of other students, he learned how to apply those same critic skills to his own work, and that was the major skill he took from his mfa experience. He saw workshop not as a class where you get feedback on your work for your benefit but as a class where you give feedback on others' work in order to develop your internal critic, and that really is for your benefit because you won't have those twelve people hovering around your head after you graduate. You will need the skills to decide what is and is not working on your own. That said, don't sluff off on your responses to your peers' work. Students who do this, I think, are cheating themselves more than the writers to whom they are not responding.

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