Do You Have a Workshop Style?

During the Spring semester I organized a three session community workshop for the summer. It’s been a small group (three to four people), but it’s been fun. I have always loved workshops. Yes, even when I bitched about workshops here, I still enjoyed them more than I hated them. That is of course, with the exception of hating the one and only poetry workshop I took during grad school. Poets and prose writers are so different, and frankly, I don’t really understand how poets, who have the reputation of being so sensitive, can be so effing mean. Anyway, I digress. The community workshop has been such a pleasure.

When I emailed TC about it, TC was very supportive and said something about how it was great how I had created an opportunity to teach something I like. This has been my teaching challenge, feeling nourished. The workshop has been quite fulfilling. I’m totally enjoying it.

Of the four participants, two of them have never been workshopped. Of those two only one of them has been writing regularly, the other submitted this mishmash of a story that wasn’t actually a story and turned out to be chunks of a bigger piece. The other two participants have been in workshops before, and I get the impression that they were the top of the class, but in a group where the writing was rough. They are also good friends, and one is clearly more talented than the other.

When teaching a workshop, I am generally pretty free spirited. This is actually my teaching M.O. I don’t like to dictate topics, or length–really anything. This is so unlike how I am in my life. I’m not really free spirited, although on occasion I am spontaneous. When I am being workshopped, I’m quiet and like to listen and take notes. I’ve noticed that my two veterans don’t take notes when they are being workshopped. How do they remember what people said, and how do the mark the moments that need to be fixed? They also talk a lot after they have been workshopped. They don’t ask questions, they instead explain and give excuses for why their piece wasn’t working, or why the group is wrong.  Personally, I don’t like to talk after I’ve been critiqued, unless I have a question, but that is just me. What is your workshopping/being workshopped style?

Still, it is so fun to be talking about writing with people who are just getting into it. It’s also great to discuss fiction with people who want to be there and are prepared.

Man, I needed this.


A Nightly Inspiration

I don’t know how often this happens to you, but it happens to me regularly. I’m just about to enter dreamland and it hits me, a great sentence. A poem. A story idea.

I used to roll over and ignore it. I don’t do that anymore. Convinced I’d remember in the morning I let the ideas leave me, gone forever. Waking up not even being close to remembering. So now I keep a pad and pen next to my lamp so I can quickly jot down my idea and then fall asleep in peace.  I’ve also started documenting my dreams (a suggestion from my boyfriend, who I believe was so sick of me telling him about the clouds and pirates and alligators). I’m currently working on a short story that was inspired by a dream/nightmare.

The following is a poem that came to me last night. I’d love to make it better but I’m not sure what to do with it. Since I’m not in any workshops this semester I’d love any and all suggestions. Seriously. I want to know what you all think (yes, even if you think a donkey could write a better poem).

Thanks in advance.


An Existentialist No More



I won’t just be

I’ll be


I’ll be


I’ll be

            a Punch


plain and Human

accept the purpose.






Not for me

I’ll soak in the breeze

Swallow salt water

Do Jumping Jacks



You take Your theory


Am better than that.

I’ll be:









Thoughts? Criticism?

The Mystery Behind the Great Idea

Tell me if this has ever happened to you.

The past few months I have had a great idea for a story. At least I think it’s a great idea. I’ve been wanting to write this story for months and haven’t really gotten around to it. I tried a while back to buckle down and write it, but once I got down to it, I just couldn’t. I have a great first sentence which I’m thinking if (I should say WHEN) I ever get to teach creative writing will be a sentence I use to jump start an assignment, kind of like, “Chris can’t win.” 

So now in my Word document I have this great first sentence and some other sentence and an outline for where I want the story to go but the prose is weak. It’s not enticing it’s trash. After trying to write this story a while ago I decided to give it a rest and work on something else. Thus was birthed my thesis.

Well, this story has been eating at me. I was doodling in class the other night and I had this great idea for the story, another great sentence, I wrote it down and now the itch to work on this story is back in full swing. So, I have decided that once I publish this post I’m not going to rest until I have at least the beginnings of a decent story. We’re talking a page or so. This has happened a few times to me. A story materializes in brain, but I can’t quite seem to nail it down.

I’m much better with deadlines and I’m thinking this story, which I believe has the potential to be fabulous (I hope I don’t sound arrogant. I will say that when I write something solid, something decent I know it. I have one story and two poems  sitting on my computer that need to proofread and sent out because it’s good, I don’t know what’s holding me back. I’m pretty sure it’s laziness. Shame.) I’ve decided to write and share this story at a conference and then send it out in hopes that some literary magazine will find it wonderful.

So, I’m wondering how many of you have great ideas for writing and when you sit down to flesh them out the magic sizzles and fades? It’s been happening to me quite a bit and it’s frustrating.  While I would love suggestions for fixing this, I think mostly I needed to get this problem off my chest. Thanks for listening/reading.

p.s. For those of you in MFA programs that are literature heavy do you have any suggestions for getting through say three lit courses and still having time to write. I’m taking three write now and a screenwriting class, so none of these classes are forcing me to work on my fiction and I do believe it’s stressing me out so much that just reading for class makes my heart beat a little too fast. Help?

How to: Design a summer composition course Part 1

I have a problem. Well many, but let’s just focus on the one. In a week I’ll be standing up in front of students and need to have prepared a syllabus that squeezes a semester into 18 weeks. HELP!

I’m not sure exactly how to squeeze four 6- 7 page papers into 6 weeks without wanting to hang myself. Designing this class has been something I’ve put on the back burner and now I’m wondering what to do. I have been debating if I should do three short papers during the semester then have them hand in  one bigger paper in the end.

Any advice on this would be really welcomed. Maybe if I tell you the requirements for the class we can all brainstorm together and create a great summer writing course.

The students are required to:

1) Write four papers

2) The papers must be around 6-7 pages in their final draft

3) The papers are centered around readings and prompts. All of the readings are connected by some ethical, political, controversial issue ( I know this sounds lame, I didn’t design it).

4) They have the option (if I so choose) to write a research paper. I am thinking I will definitely add this because I have noticed how many students are uncomfortable with this and frankly being able to research is so important in college. I would hate for a professor in a core class ask students about previous research assignments and see glazed over looks in the eyes of my former students. I have also taught high school and know that students don’t do research papers there. In fact, my students that have graduated and gone on to college have thanked me for showing them how to reasearch. So if they are not doing  in high school and not in college , when? I would hate for students to be doing their first research paper in grad school, like so of my classmates.

5) The prompt usually ask the students to come up with some outside situation that applies to the issue in the reading. For instance, the theft of intellectual property.

The class meets twice a week for three hours at a time. I had a professor of mine suggest working on their papers in class. The students will mostly be students who failed the class in the spring, or students who are eager to get a head start for the fall. They are mostly first or second year college students. I’m not sure how important the demographic of students is but I think the eager beaver vs the lazy panda is important when getting the students excited.

This class is a basic composition class that requires students to understand the basics of writing a paper. I’m not sure how to do this. I would love to do a workshop style class, where the students hand in their papers a day before to their classmates and then we spend some time discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the paper. I think this would be an excellent way to get the peer reviewing element of the papers in. I’m not sure how to do this with 20 students.

I have been toying with the idea of having them do five three-four page papers, but then I’d have to grade five papers. I am also working at a camp, and taking a class.


All ideas are welcome.

I will post my syllabus when I’ve designed it so that you guys can give me feedback on it.  Also, it might be such a kick ass syllabus you’ll want to use it yourselves!

Practice Makes Perfect

So while ago I wrote about my non-existent writing schedule. I am proud to say it is no longer non-existent.

Initially when I started grad school I was writing only when I had deadlines. I think this is an issue with a lot MFA students. We are so bogged down with our literature classes and writing feedback for our classmates for workshop that we neglect our own work. I know that was my issue.

I’m currently enrolled in a three year program that requires both literature classes as well as workshops. The amount of literature  credits that I am required to take is three credits short of receiving an MA. It’s quite literature intensive, and because of the heavy focus on literature courses I knew I’d need a writing schedule that would enable me to write my own stuff.

If I continued to let my deadline system continue to be the only drive I had to write, all I’d have written is a crappy thesis I’d be embarrassed to revise, and way too many literature papers than I’d know what to do with. When would I produce anything else?

I was discussing this with my thesis chair. My professor suggested I write first thing in the morning, so that  “then it’s done.” I could move on with my day not worried about not having written anything because it would have been done as my first cup of coffee was being finished.

Since I didn’t have any kind of schedule I decided to give it a shot. I will say I was concerned writing in the morning was going to effect my workout routine. I enjoy running in the morning because it hasn’t gotten so hot yet and I can usually beat whatever weather issue my area may be having. In order to prevent any kind of interruption to my running regimen I set my alarm an hour earlier and decided I’d write for an hour first thing in the morning, then run, then shower and finish up the rest of my classwork.

Well, I will say it totally works for me.  I always thought that I was a nocturnal writer; that my best work flowed from my brain in the late hours of the night. Au Contraire! After a decent night of rest (who get’s good sleep anymore or ever, I know I sure don’t) I’m able to think clearly and focus. The best part of this writing in the morning thing is if that hour of writing sucks I get to run it out of my system and know I’ll be better the next morning or if I have a little bit of time to spare in the evening after class I can try again.

I’m so glad to have found my groove. I was hoping that would be something that I learned in grad school and it seems that after a year I have.

I know that not everyone is a morning person. I definitely am. Actually, I’m kind of an insomniac but I think I prefer the morning to night as far as being productive is concerned. Regardless of the kind of person you are, I think the trick to finding a writing schedule is to force yourself to set aside an allotted amount of time EVERYDAY.

Maybe you don’t have an hour to spare, then give yourself  twenty minutes. I know I waste twenty minutes here and there all day everyday, why not write during that time instead?

I’m sure when the fall starts or when I start my summer teaching I may have to cut my hour down to 45 minutes or even to half an hour, still I don’t plan on stopping my schedule all together because “I’m busy.” My thesis and my writing career are too important.  Plus, I think this is true with so many skills…Practice makes perfect.

This has become my mantra: Practice makes perfect, practice makes perfect and so I encourage all you writers out there to remember that when you are in a slump and can’t “find time to write” you won’t get any better unless you write. That poem, essay, story or novel won’t write itself.

Practice makes perfect.

The Overrated writing of the Pretentious English Department

Do you ever wonder how some of the famous writers of the past would fare in a writer’s workshop? I know I do. Last semester I was in a World Post Modernism course and now I’m enrolled in a British Modernism course. I’m starting to wonder what the big deal is about some of these writers. During my Post Modern course I brought this question up to my classmates, most of whom were literature majors, so it was so of brushed off, you know the good ole  ” oh that crazy MFA.”

Well, when I brought it up we were reading Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy. The back synopsis made me think it was going to be this wonderful thriller, of course since when do I read the synoposis on the back of a book thinking I’m not being deliberately deceived? So, Jealousy is heralded for its descriptions and genius, but you know what there are times in the book (and yes I’m aware it is deliberate, and why he did it) where he repeats paragraphs verbatim. It’s ridiculous. So I wondered, how would a workshop treat this? Would everyone be thrilled by the form matching the content or some bullshit like that? I imagine it going one of two ways, “OMG Robbe-Grillet, this is genius. Simply genius” or “Dude, what’s with the repetition, it’s annoying. Do something about it.” I image the second option more likely.

So for my class this week I had to read “England my England” by D.H. Lawrence. My question for my professor when I stroll in today will be, “what is the big deal?” I will refrain from using profanities as it is disrespectful, but it will be tempting. We are told constantly by writers to “show and not tell” or not to tell too much. I’m a big fan of exposition but in moderation of course. Good dialogue makes me so happy. Anyway, I know I’m rambling a bit. What is the big deal? There are maybe five scenes in the whole story, all which are boring and don’t really do much for the character development. The narrator seems to be reporting a lame ass story about a family and then it ends. Abruptly.

I imagine this being workshopped and people saying, “I think a scene is necessary here” or “your characters lack development” or “why not cut the first few pages and start here” but instead we as students attempting to be scholars are told, the work of D.H. Lawrence is brilliant.

Well, I’m not impressed. This is not to say I don’t think that a lot the literature that is in the cannon (whatever that cannon may be) isn’t brilliant. I do believe writer’s like Woolf, Marquez, Austen, Borges and Joyce and so many others were in fact geniuses. I’m pretty confident that the English departments of the world know what is worthwhile and not, but there are times when I have found some of it to be overrated. 

I will say, as someone who aspires to write for a career, I know I’m no where near as smart as the writers I think are overrated. It could just be that I don’t get it, I don’t have the depth. It call also be a matter of taste. Probably though, these writers aren’t overrated, in fact, it is I who am simply an idiot.

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.