Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Real Question: Is Workshop Always Stupid?

Yesterday I had the good fortune to need this article as a reference to a friend who was asking my opinion of MFA programs. Give that article a read if you haven't read it, or even if you haven't read it in a while. I'll wait.

Back? Okay. I love that article. Four years later, I still think of it a few times a month. For a variety of reasons.

1) What the writer reveals about herself. At the time the article was new, the Observer blog said more or less what I have to say about what the writer reveals about herself in the course of the article. But it was said much more unkindly than I would have said it. Some of what the writer revealed was deliberate, but a whole lot of it was not. In brief: you're not over it, girlfriend.

Pictured: Joshua Ferris with workshoppee

2) The nature of the MFA. Evidently, the MFA is not just two years of protected time and space for writing. It's also a hotbed of drinking and sex and gossip and petty power struggles. Yulgh. There are other ways to do it, of course - namely, the way Ferris evidently did it.

...he was a man obsessed. While the rest of us were screwing around with our crushes and debating whether or not to use our middle initial when published, he was writing. I mean really writing, all the time, sometimes a rumored fourteen hours a day.
The connection between Ferris staying away from happy hours and Ferris landing a huge book deal with his first novel seems to have been lost on the writer. She notes that "[h]e cared more about his own writing than he did about me - than any of us, really - and wanted only to achieve his goal of becoming a successful writer" but she doesn't seem to realize that's why he achieved the goal. Not because he was a blessed golden boy all along, but because he wrote while everyone else was playing Spin the Bottle. Instead of crying in and about workshop, he fucking worked.

3) Workshop is stupid. Either Ferris didn't articulate it very well, or the writer couldn't see far enough past her own experience to understand, but workshop is pointless if your writing is better than your peers' and this article presents that plainly.
“Well, she needs the criticism,” Josh said earnestly. “I’d love that kind of a workshop. I’d welcome that kind of feedback.” 
This from the golden boy whose stories had been universally praised, lauded even, who’d never had one negative thing said about his writing.
Yeah! Which means he never had a chance to grow as a writer in the workshop environment! He hasn't gotten the help that being eviscerated in workshop actually is. That's what he meant when he said he'd love it. He wants to grow

However, the writer is simultaneously too sensitive and too thick to appreciate evisceration. She takes it personally and argues back. (This is not a good strategy.) But she also fails to comprehend that it's all to the betterment of her writing, and that she needs to be as hard on her work as the eviscerators her creative writing professors and peers are. 

To recap: workshop is not helping Ferris, who is too advanced for the class to be able to tear him up, and workshop is not helping the writer, who is too immature to use what she's given. So who is workshop helping? 


4) School is school, not the world. 
As we left the workshop, a friend said, “You were totally vindicated. Totally.” 
“Yep,” I said - and then it was over. The moment and then graduate school. It would be years before I realized that almost none of it, at least what had happened in workshop, mattered at all.
Indeed. What matters is whether you can get in your chair and do the work. Which Ferris did. 

4a) The MFA is maybe sort of terrible. Not just because of #2, or because it's full of workshops and see #3, but because:
Maybe the first workshop, when you all don’t know one another so well, but then you hang out, you drink, you make out, you realize you are competing with one another for the prize of attention and praise and connections and publication, you have inappropriate crushes on people who are not available but act like they are, and yes, hello, all of that taints your views of other people’s work.
Let's unpack. a) Hanging out, drinking, making out, and inappropriate crushes are pretty dumb reasons to spend two years in graduate school. You're wasting resources: professors' time, writers' time, your time; universities' money, your money; your liver, your talent, your lovesick heart. b) Competition for attention is an alluring race, but running that race over and over is not a mature way to move through the world. Grow up. c) Connections and publication, on the other hand, are limited and practical resources, but if you really think that shouldering other people aside and brown-nosing for access to them will not be seen through like a window by the people with the connections, you are an idiot. Write well. "Write so blazingly good that you can't be framed."

And most importantly d) don't buy in to the social bullshit and you won't get bias in the way people workshop you. If they come at you with bias anyway, that's not helpful feedback, and the person is a crummy workshopper with bad karma if they let personal bias shape discussion of the work.

This whole paragraph comes out of immaturity. If this is the environment of an MFA program as well-regarded as Irvine's, why the hell would I want to get an MFA?

5) Yes, there's a difference between men writing and women writing. Or, there's a difference between decent people and relentless people. Or both. 
What was I doing during this time? Cocktailing. Vaguely writing, working on a story collection that would go absolutely nowhere.  Taking care of my sister during her bout with cancer. 
Time shunted from writing into caring for her sister: I seriously doubt that Ferris, or Updike or Steinbeck or Pound, would remove himself from his career in letters in order to care for a family member who needed him. But then, I doubt that Rebecca West or Katherine Mansfield would have, either. Maybe this is one of those cases of gender tendencies making the situation look sexist and unfair, while the non-gendered differences between kinds of people lessen the reality of that sexism and unfairness a little bit. Because "vaguely writing" is not the way Ferris was writing in grad school. And it wasn't the way Karen Russell wrote in grad school, either, I'd bet. And if you can't do better than write vaguely in grad school, you won't be able to do it out in the world, either. That I know for sure.

6) To sum up: write without regard to others if you actually want to be a writer. Don't invest much in workshop, one way or the other. Don't waste energy hating people who don't notice you because they're living their lives. And behave well enough to your fellows in grad school that they won't write bitchy articles about you later.

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