The Writer’s (Scary) Workshop.

posted in: Day In The Life 8
A basic response form; in grad school, they're a little more involved. Usually. Image: Wikipedia.
A basic response form; in grad school, they’re a little more involved. Usually. Image: Wikipedia.


A gal pursuing an MFA in Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) needs to take a seminar, an elective, and a workshop each term. There’s plenty more stuff you have to do on top of that, but those are the three categories under which actual courses fall.

On Thursday, I have to send out 15-20 pages of writing to the people in my spring workshop — and I’m nervous about it.

The writer’s workshop comes as a standard feature in any writing degree program and countless creative writing courses ’round the world. The writer’s workshop is a place for a student to get thoughtful feedback on her work from multiple perspectives and have a meaningful discussion with like-minded people (read: fellow writers.)

It goes like this:

The writer provides her pages a week before class. Her classmates read her work carefully, make notes, respond to questions she may have posed beforehand. When workshop time comes, people go around the room and give their in-depth, generous-but-firm feedback while the teacher acts as benevolent moderator. The respondents ask for clarifications as needed; they pose questions. The writer isn’t usually allowed to comment until all feedback has been shared, however; she just takes notes, nods, and goes, “Mm-hm.” When everyone has shared their glowing praise and diplomatic criticism, she is allowed to respond to a few things. Workshop over, she thanks her fellow students, collects their notes, then goes back to her writing desk excited to incorporate what she’s gleaned from the vibrant conversation while at the same time realizing she must stay true to her vision.

That’s the best-case scenario. And plenty of workshops go something like that. Other ones, not so much. This is because there are problems with the standard workshop model. Several problems that come to mind include:

  • workshops are full of human beings and human beings are fickle and weird (ask me how I know) and this affects how people read, think (or not think), and give feedback
  • when you’re in the middle of writing something, it can be detrimental to have even really nice people telling you what they do or don’t like about what you’re working on
  • if you don’t have a thick skin, you may cry
  • if you don’t have a clear vision, you may falter
  • if you don’t stay open-minded, you may waste a great opportunity to improve your work

Workshops that have gone off the rails make for horror stories. You can actually google “writers’ workshop horror stories” and be entertained for a good ten minutes, even if you’re not a writer.

When I was an undergrad at the University of Iowa, I took exactly one writing course (comedy for the stage, in case you’re wondering.) Other than that, until I started grad school, I had never taken a writing class in my life — and I had certainly never been in a formal workshop. My fall workshop was pretty good. But I’m nervous about this one next week.

I’m nervous partly because the class is big: There will be 15 response sheets coming to me a week from today. Fifteen! I’m nervous because the pages I’m turning in have been worked and worked but aren’t finished, yet. I’m nervous because I’m writing about my dad.

But there’s value in sharing these particular pages. I want to know where my blind spots are in the draft; I’m actually a little stuck right now because of those blind spots. My classmates can help me, even if it’s going to be really painful to hear their criticism. There will be that, make no mistake; I am writing my little patootie off and it’s still so far from where it needs to be. Wish me luck.

And by the way: I AM SO EXCITED FOR YOU ALL TO READ THIS BOOK! Sorry. I never do that. I never use all-caps. But sometimes when I’m struggling I just think about the day when I announce the book deal and you all get a special pre-order price and an autographed copy and all that. I really do think about that, how PaperGirl is a snack but the book I’m writing is a meal.

You’re invited for dinner. You’re so, so invited. Sit by me.

8 Responses

  1. pat hicks
    | Reply

    Hang in there, I know you will handle everything to your best ability. If you weren’t feeling nerves etc I would be worried about you. It is amazing to me that you can work on a piece so long. I would drive myself crazy. I have a great idea for when you publish your book. We could have a signing party with you virtually and in person with you in Chicago. Wouldn’t that be fun?! Do you have a tentative idea of when you want to have your book finished?

    • Mary
      | Reply

      I LOVE THIS IDEA. The book… When will it be finished… That is the million-dollar question, Pat. I want to have a full first-draft manuscript done by summer. That will be a milestone worth celebrating…

  2. Susan
    | Reply

    CAN’T WAIT!!! (All caps. And all exclamation points…). Ready for a delicious dinner – please reserve a space at the table in my name! RSVP — Yes!

  3. jean m
    | Reply

    I enjoy reading about your adventures and educational stepping stones. How exciting to plan book writing, sounds a lot like planning quilt making. Carry on.

  4. GrannyC
    | Reply

    I’m so, so coming to dinner!
    PS – you’ll do great next week!!

  5. Diane
    | Reply

    I’m really enjoying reading about your writing adventures! Please keep us posted.

  6. Rhonda Mossner
    | Reply

    I’m signed up for my first writing workshop this summer at UWMadison. Yep, kind of scary right there! I think I may need to quilt myself a second skin before then! Augh!

  7. PM Drummond
    | Reply

    Hi Mary,

    I have an MFA in creative writing. The most valuable lesson in the whole masters program for me was related to critiques from fellow students. ( I learned many many things about writing and it was all valuable but my epiphany had to do with critiques.) My epiphany/valuable lesson was that you can’t please everybody all the time. If I had just listen to my grandmother and my mother and my father this would’ve been a much less expensive, time-consuming, and painful lesson.

    Usually, on any given piece of writing that I submitted, some people would love it, some people were ambivalent, and some people absolutely hated it. This used to bother me until I realized that when other people submitted to me, some of it I would love and other students would have absolutely tanked it on their reviews, and some of it I would absolutely hate and other people would rant and rave about how wonderful it was. If everybody loved everything and hated everything the same, writing would be easy to do, and reading would be boring. Thank goodness there are readers for all writers and there are haters for all writers. Write as well as you can and never stop learning. Be happy for your fans, and know that you can only sway the ambivalent people towards your writing. Not very often can you sway the people who hate it. But it’s all good!

    I’m a huge fan of yours, and if you do as well with writing as you do with quilting instruction and public speaking, you’ll be a hit. Keep me on a list somewhere for beta reading when you start publishing!

    Writing psuedonym PM Drummond

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