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.