The writing workshop friend or foe?

The workshop. This is the class us MFA’s covet. It’s why we spend hours and days applying to grad school. It’s the deadlines of workshop that force some of us to even write at all. So why have I hated workshops this past year?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As an undergraduate I was obsessed with the workshop. It was fun, not that much work s far as reading was concerned, and the energy in the classroom was positive and helpful. It was in these workshops that the best classroom discussion as a student happened. When I started grad school this fall, I was stoked to have a workshop in my schedule. While this workshop was not terrible, it wasn’t satisfying. I never left feeling the way I do when I eat a delicious cheeseburger and fries. I left class as if having eaten a mediocre salad from a place like Applebee’s. Some nights of this fall workshop, I felt as if I’d ordered dessert, but usually it was just the salad.

This spring, I was enrolled in two workshops that I will say were both even bigger disappointments than the fall workshop. One of course was better than other, but the one that sucked the most sucked for many reasons, I’ve been trying to decipher. Knowing what the issues were can only help make me a better student and hopefully future teacher of the workshop.

One of the workshops was a novel workshop. This was the one that didn’t suck as bad as the poetry one. The issue with novel workshop was that our professor, I felt, didn’t ask  us  enough questions during discussion. It would either be what this professor thought, and three or four students leading the discussion. The amount of suggestions to improve our work was minimal and these suggestions ,as the course progressed, became contradictory. For instance, the first installment I submitted I was told, by the class and my professor to slow down, and be more description then when the second installment that was workshopped, I was told I had used too much description. I was confused, but decided I was the writer and would do as I pleased.

Poetry workshop this past spring was a nightmare. It was nothing but a bunch of poets and their egos, including the professor. While I will say I was fortunate to receive helpful suggestions from my professor and two or three classmates in general the workshop discussions centered around two or three students who dominated discussion. These students didn’t offer advice just insults, saying things like, ” I can’t get anything out of this poem,” and “this poem is too descriptive, it makes me nauseous.” These are really comments not embelished, just truth.

There was always a negative and awkward energy in this poetry workshop and by the end of the spring, I had decided that having two more workshops left was a Godsend because I was over the workshop atmosphere. I had signed up for the summer workshop being offered simply to fulfill graduation requirements.

Here’s the thing, last night we workshopped for the first time, and while I wasn’t the one being workshopped I still felt satisfied. It was wonderful. Everyone was positive and had wonderful suggestions. The criticisms were well thought out and not said offensively and the writers didn’t take offense to what was said. It was a circle of happiness, and for the first time in grad school I’m looking forward to workshop. I’ve fallen in love with workshop all over again.

After leaving class so satisfied I tried to figure out why it had been such a great class. You know, really analyze it to death and remove the magic from it. I’ve decided it’s the professor who is running it. This professor, while super structured demands that we hand in written comments as part of our grade, and has a structure for these comments. Because there is so much structure the questions the professor asks lead to people making really helpful suggestions.

I am being workshopped on Tuesday and can’t wait. I’m looking forward to getting advice then rushing home and making alterations and adding to this summer project. It’s so nice to take a class or start a project that reminds you why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place. Last night and these past two or three days have been like that for me, I’ve been reminded why I am in an MFA program and why I love to write.



  1. It sounds weird, but I tend to trust those people in workshop. A) Whose writing I personally enjoy and B) If their advice confirms a problem I already know exists in my writing. Occasionally, somebody will point out a problem you were completely unaware of, and that’s valuable too, but all in all I think I’m as good a judge of my work as any of my workshoppers. If both I and they suspect there’s a problem, there probably is. So, yes, it really does just come down, I guess, to “it’s my writing, I’ll do what I want!”

    Love the blog! I just graduated from the MFA at SLC. Be sure to check out my literary/music blog at Lots of upcoming events mixed with opinions and snark.

    1. Thanks for the comment Claire, I’ll be stopping by your blog once I finish this reply.

      I think getting advice from people in workshop is valuable, I unfortuntely had bad luck in the past few workshops since I started this program. I’m lucky to be in a great workshop now. But in the end, even with all the great advice or not so great advice it’s up to us as writers to decide what to do with our projects. And I can say after a workshop like I just sat through I have a lot of thinking to do.

  2. I’ve only had one workshop class so far–a writing for young adults course with a (very) short novel as final output–and it was a great experience. It really was a magic combination of teacher, classmates, and even class size.

    I’m slightly worried that it may have spoiled me. What can I do now but expect workshops to turn out this way (despite the stories I’ve come across, including yours)? And to think my “chosen genre” is poetry!

    (Speaking of which, is that how it works with your MFA? Do you choose a genre like we do? Is it something you have to declare?)

    1. Again thanks for the comment.

      I think a good workshop is as you mentioned based on the professor, the size ,and the individuals involved. I will say all my workshops in my undergrad program were incredible and it did spoil me. I looked forward to workshop, but was disappointed. I will say there were moments that were useful and rewarding but up until last week they were few and far between.

      I’ve heard that the other professor, in my program (the one I did not have) has much better energy in the poetry workshop. I was told, after I signed up for my poetry workshop, about the horror stories involving my professor. I will say, I think the negativeness of that workshop stemmed more from the students than the professor. Even though I left with a bit of sour taste in my mouth I still love reading and writing poetry. I think that is mentionable.

      Yes, we do have declare a genre. My program offers three: fiction, poetry and non-fiction. I am a fiction major. Although sometimes I think poetry would be fun. I would have to change my thesis chair and I would not want to do that because I have really organized thesis chair and incredible committee.

      Again, thanks for stopping by and leaving comments.

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