Five People Not To Be In your MFA Workshop

Nothing personal, people who have been in my various MFA workshops. You are all brilliant, and have perfect judgment about what to say and not say as, obviously, do I. 

J/K I have been all of these people too. 

5. The Late Comments-Returner

Missing workshop happens. We’ve all been there–you had a headache or the flu or you just couldn’t read all the submissions (even though there were only 3 and you had a week but whatevs!) and you didn’t do your end comments yet so you just don’t want to show your face in class.

But by the next class meeting, if not sooner, you really should have your commentary-ducks in a row. It’s disheartening and verges on disrespectful not to. We’re all reading your stuff and whether we think it’s working or not, we’re giving you feedback. In one of my workshops, a member was struggling with a variety of off-screen issues, but all we knew for the first 3 weeks is that they hadn’t responded to a single thing, though they piped up in workshop with off-the-wall comments often enough. C’mon. I’m also for showing up to class anyway, so at least you’re participating on the fly.

4. The One Who Doesn’t Get It

Can you believe [classmate] has written a hateful screen decrying the use of antibiotics in any living creature and everyone who has ever touched a z-pack is a monster?!?!?! 

Odds are the aforementioned classmate actually had an intention beyond “Be incredibly awful and offend everyone.” I think it behooves all of us (heh. Now we all have horse feet) to give our workshopmates the benefit of the doubt, even the one you’ve nicknamed “crankface” for their sour expression. We’re all trying hard, and that’s scary, and not all intentions are clearly communicated through their first attempt at artistic expression.

It’s our obligation as workshoppers to try and think our way around each piece that winds up in front of us. I once wrote a piece that started out being about summer jobs and wound up being about grief and loss…but one of my classmates thought I was being satirical all the way through and mocking parents who’d just lost a baby. No… I was not smirking at the bereaved. He had missed a tonal shift. In my current workshop we’re advised to read each piece twice, once for reading and once for note-making. Saves a lot of returning to cross out “when are you going to talk about the lizard claws?!??!” when on page 6 the lizard claws become an important feature.

3. The Repetitious Non-Listener

So you forgot what you wrote in your end note. And all your marginalia has flown out of your head under the pressure cooker of going around the table. By all means, take a few minutes to catch up by reviewing your notes. But then, before you jump right back in with both iambs, take a second to dip a toe into the conversation in progress. It drives me up the wall when someone leads off with a specific comment  and 10 minutes later, someone who tuned out the first round of discussion attempts to re-introduce the exact same point. Extra demerits if they phrase it less well.

But if this does happen, we must all resist the urge to say “Yeah…. so-and-so just said that” and wither the offender with our contemptuous sneering. Because at some point this will happen to all of us and army crawling out of the room on our knees just isn’t an option in the modern workshop classroom. Unless you remembered your elbow-patch blazer.

2. The Still Talking After Running Out Of Gas

I have sooooooo done this. We all have. The brain just gives up, sometimes. But it’s a crucial skill to be able to gracefully say “Whoops, mental hiccup, be right with you” and let someone else take a turn instead of just whooshing around the beltway again after you missed your exit. We can all practice a) jotting down a note and then reading it and b) stopping when we run out of motivation to speak. For the common good.

1. The ‘I Don’t Like It Therefore I Won’t Talk About It’ -er. 

This is the more context-specific version of the “I don’t like you therefore I won’t talk about your piece” phenomenon, and is especially irritating because it indicates a lack of engagement on several levels. First, Bob is failing to set aside personal shtick for the good of the workshop. Second, Bob is refusing to think his way around a piece enough to figure out what the author intended. Third, Bob is confusing “I like it” with “it has merit”. Fourth, shouldn’t we all be good enough writers to be analytical instead of merely gut-level subjective?

In pleasure reading (which I vaguely recall from sometime in 2011), we are free to just close a book and light it on fire if we don’t like it, and often “liking” is the primary reading criterion. But workshopping is about pooling our reading/editing skills to provide journeyperson writers with suggestions for doing what they want to do, better.

And sixth and lastly, are we not ADULTS? This isn’t middle school where you change your seat to avoid your nemesis at the lunch table. It’s also not your place to tell someone what they’re writing isn’t worth doing, because you’re only one person (this goes for workshop professors, too); if I were in E. L. James workshop or Stephanie Meyers’ listserv, I might have wanted to shriek and shout that their books were BAD –or, more workshop appropriate, that their over/undersexed characters (respectively) lacked dimension and plausibility. But clearly a large swath of the population is perfectly happy to read about them. So we none of us are the end-all-be-all of editorial approbation.

Keep in mind also that your workshop crop might love you but TO SOMEONE SOMEWHERE you are writing Fifty Shades of STUPID.  Only it’s worse if you are nonfiction because it’s not “the narrator” people won’t like, IT IS YOU.

No pressure. Happy workshopping.

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