Let me start with saying that I love school. In case my many majors and minors as an undergrad and obtaining my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) wasn’t a testament to that fact. I mean, if I won the lottery (note to self, start playing the lottery) I would probably be a professional student, taking whatever class I fancied and relishing the experience without worrying about the grade. (That is the one thing about school I don’t miss, when I was a freshman I was devastated when I received an A- in a post-graduate class I was taking. I also don’t miss research papers – at all!)
While I would never trade my graduate school experience for the world (though I would trade my students loans, two years was twice as expensive as four years and three summers of undergrad and that was with scholarships) lately I have been evaluating what experiences were the most valuable and two come to mind. The first is much more abstract, and that is being around so many other creative types. I almost said like-minded, but it wasn’t that we were, except that we were writers. Whenever I attended residency, lectures or even ate lunch on campus there was this indescribable collective energy you couldn’t help but feel. It always gave me a sort of creative high and I would produce more new pages of writing, during and after a residency than I would any other time. (It’s hard to believe that as of late June, it will be six years since I have experienced that – life just has a way of happening.)
The second most valuable experience (they tie, but it is hard to duplicate the first unless you go to a writing event or national workshop where you experience that collective energy thing) is the writing workshop. This, I argue, is the not only the most valuable, but also the most educational. When I work with clients, I often hear “I’m not a writer,” or “I have no formal education in writing” etc. but the truth is school can teach you grammar and mechanics and advanced courses in creative writing can help with certain elements of writing (organization, plot, characters, dialogue, pacing etc.) but I still wonder how much more helpful this is compared to being self-taught. I think it depends on the person, and since I learned using the academic route, I can’t erase those experiences (and I wouldn’t) and then try to teach myself, for the sake of comparison. But I am a person who loves efficiency and everything I mentioned, from basic mechanics to those advanced elements, and more, a person receives from writing workshops. (And you don’t necessarily need to worry about spending thousands of dollars on them, unless it is a national event and travel is involved.)
For workshop virgins, in my experience a workshop consists of six to thirty people and each person submits a portion of their writing, whether it be a short story or portion of a longer story. A schedule dictates whose story will be discussed when. On your day, the group discusses your piece, but you stay silent. I have been in a few workshops that allow you to answer direct questions from the people giving you feedback, but you can’t ask questions of those who are giving you feedback or speak up otherwise, and other workshops that don’t even allow that. Typically, after the discussion is over you get five to ten minutes to ask any questions you have from the notes you’re taking on said feedback. After the discussion ends, every person hands you their critiques and possibly edits, so you gets tons of feedback at once (and you do the same for everyone else obviously). These are the more formal workshops (but they are my experience).
Every workshop I have been to before was through my school or at least sponsored by an academic program I was in. While my Advanced Fiction Writing class would do a workshop twice during the semester, I don’t count these in my workshop experiences (it was a cluster and there were a few stories that caused serious arguments between factions in class – one of my stories was one of those that stirred the pot); they were more my intro to workshopping. The first workshop I participated in was one I had to apply for. I felt kind of special at the time, because even though I was a junior, I was the only undergrad who was allowed to participate (and this was a large state university). I remember applying was nerve-racking (writing samples were required) because there were only eight spots and it was being led by Rita Mae Brown, who was visiting my school just for this workshop. (It was great practice when it came time to apply for graduate school though!)
I have only participated in roughly seven workshops in my life, but each one taught me more than an entire semester of formal education. The two lessons I learned (that I didn’t get from formal education) was a result of varied feedback. The first is that real life is stranger than fiction. I know it sounds cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. As an undergrad, most of my stories were based on very real experiences. I basically changed names and tweaked a few details so I could call it fiction, but it had actually happened (though I didn’t tell anyone this, the whole point was to hide in fiction). I would comments back like “X character is not believable. They would never say that” (but they had) or how a storyline was implausible and I would think (but it really happened!).
They were right to a degree, at least when it came to characters because straight-up villains are boring. At the time, I was working as a victim advocate for people dealing with sexual assault and domestic violence when it came to male victims or LGBT victims because in 2000-2002 they did not have any resources available (where I was at least). One story (the same that landed me a scholarship to graduate school) showed four officers responding to a domestic violence call. The situation occurred between two men, one would not let the other leave after assaulting him. The victim had visual bruises and other injuries already apparent and yet he was treated like the criminal. I was there, and what the police said to him made you think they were the monsters. But it didn’t translate over to a story. Out of four officers, I could keep one or two horrible, but they had to be balanced out, and I still had to pull back on what was actually said – water it down. Because in real life, some police officers can come off as cold and inhumane in certain situations, but when you’re writing, even their inhumane statements and actions should be coming from a very ‘human place’.
When it came to plotlines for the most part, comments just meant I had to be smarter about it or that some of the people were too sheltered. For example, homeless while in college is not common, but also not as uncommon as many people believe. I made changes in terms of characters and their dialogue, and my story was better for it, but I didn’t change the plot. The truth was the police promised to take the offender in (it was the law since there was physical evidence of an assault) and once the victim left with friends – they let the offender go. The offender caught up with the victim in less than fourteen hours, across the state. You may think this was the exception, but in Nebraska at that time, it was very much the norm and something I had to deal with repeatedly. But it was how I made the plot work, not scrapping it but not leaving it as is either. I made tweaks, inserted details and other things that brought an overall balance to the story as a whole so it worked. One workshop took my story from decent to fantastic.
The other lesson that formal education didn’t teach (and I honestly think only workshops or real life can) is that everyone has a different opinion. This seems like a big ‘duh’ but while the concept is simple and common sense, the implications or varying feedback are not. I had people love a certain element of a story and just as many other people hate it and say it ruined the story. Some people will love a character and others may think they are unbelievable or flat. Some people will hate the structure and others find it enhances the story and is clever and beautiful experimentation. The point is you have to have final say in your own work. Take all of the feedback with a grain of salt and if most agree with something that you don’t, you need to take a hard look at it, but if people are split down the middle it is just one of those subjective things and you have to go with your gut.
One offshoot of this lesson is that any reaction to your writing is good. With almost everything I have ever workshopped I have people love it or hate it. As an undergrad I always felt shaky dealing with the hate and it made me question everything for a short time. I figured out by the middle of my senior year, this was less about me and my writing and more about the reader. Most of the subjects I wrote about could be considered uncomfortable (homelessness, child abuse, domestic violence, depression, loneliness, hate crimes, suicide, etc.) and people like to read what they like to read. I am one of those writers who do not believe in holding back. If I am going somewhere with my writing, I commit, for better or for worse. That means I’ll sometimes depict uncomfortable but utterly human scenes and use the occasional swear word if it is authentic to the character or story at hand. My Advanced Fiction Writing teacher (as an undergrad) wrote on my final assessment “you do not have a gift of language and the written word, and I do not think that it is something you can learn.” He gave me a B… the bastard. This was in the midst of applying to MFA programs. What he said hurt and gave me pause. I felt lost for eight days and then in typical Michael style, I decided ‘fuck him’. I would prove him wrong and send him a signed copy of my first book saying “Looks like I learned, after all!” (I was much pettier at 20 than I am now.) The point is that my writing got a reaction out of people. It wasn’t just blah or boring or forgettable, and that is why even the bad reactions are successes.
I’m glad I didn’t listen and in graduate school I worked with so many amazing and successful published authors (the teacher who dissed me is not published) who had the opposite to say that it drove home this point: Someone is going to hate your writing. When they attack it, they attack you, but you have to step back. That one person is not representative your entire audience. It matters less now, but as I move forward with my memoir, I like to think it has helped prepare me. My memoir is about the time when I was most vulnerable, emotionally strained and physically pathetic. When I get published, there will be people who attack the book, and since it is a story about my life, no longer dressed up as fiction, I have to be able to take it and let it roll off. And I’m ready…
While I haven’t participated in any writing workshops in nearly six years, I registered for one in California this summer. Everything is booked, but only deposits have been paid so far, just in case. It will be my first conference not associated with any school or academic program, and I am determined that it won’t be my last. Many writers I know (myself included) want to retreat into themselves when they write, but if we do this too much we lose something too. It is important to connect as a writer and connect with other writers. This is what I miss the most. I am totally psyched about the workshop I plan to attend (“The Story You Have To Tell”) as I’ll be working with some of my writing heroes (Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston) but also because I will get back to that collective creative energy. It’s time to make some writing magic! 🙂