5 tips for surviving creative writing workshops

Creative writing workshop feedback

Learning how to put words together made me cry. The memory still stings a little: sitting in the family room, my mom pointing to letters on a sheet of paper, creating new three-letter sequences, such as C-A-T. But why was it so damn hard, M-A-N? My frustration grew with M-A-D. I tried halfheartedly to sound out S-A-D. Then came the tears.

It’s funny now, since words became such large a part of my life. I soon started writing—stories, songs, top secret files for my imagined detective agency—and I read like crazy. I went on to get a bachelor’s and will soon finish a master’s in creative writing. But many times along the way, attempting to put words together has made me want to weep. These moments still pop up, as I string words into sentences, into paragraphs, into chapters of books. And they probably always will.

With this in mind, here are some thoughts to hopefully help you survive your creative writing education. I’ve tried to be broad enough that it will help no matter if you’re taking one-off classes at the local writing center, crossing off a gen-ed for your chemistry degree, or on the way to completing an MFA. The advice is aimed to help, but I feel a little preachy. I would feel even more so if I hadn’t made each mistake mentioned. One faux pas isn’t the end of the world, but it is something to notice and work to correct to be a better writer.

1. Write, write, write, write, write

Only one thing I know of separates writers from non-writers: writing. Students in creative writing classes should go one step further and create dedicated writing time. A professor once advised me not to apply to MFAs until after getting in the habit of writing every day. Recently, a professor gave similar advice: Figure out what kind of writer you are. Can you accomplish something substantial in one hour each day? Or do you need larger chunks, four or eight hours a couple days each week, to really get in a groove? Whatever works for you and your schedule, set aside and protect it.

2. Use the Golden Rule when workshopping

The age-old advice is true for so many creative writing workshop quandaries. Should I be nice at the risk of not giving helpful, critical feedback? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Should I make a brutally honest comment at the risk of discouraging and demoralizing the other person? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Should I turn in something that I haven’t proofread very well? Do unto… Well, you get the point.

3. Be a critic and fan of your peers

It’s easy to praise good work and criticize work that’s not so hot. But in a workshop, that’s not enough. Find ways to make good stories better. Find encouraging things to say about hot-mess poems. This will make things better in workshops and beyond. When your friends place work at your dream lit mag or win top awards, you can celebrate without comparing your successes to theirs because you’re a fan. When they ask your opinion on an objectively flawed essay, you can say so because you’re a reasonable critic, too. But even if it’s tough to be a fan, even if a workshop peer writes robo-unicorn-erotica, never say, “I’m not the audience for this.” Because: 1) you’re automatically the audience by joining the workshop, and 2) well, maybe you should reread the Golden Rule chunk.

4. Get involved outside of class

If you’re lucky enough to be at a school with a reading series, go to every event. You’re a novelist and the reader is a poet? Go anyway. You’re a poet and the reader does graphic CNF? Go anyway. If you’re not in school or your school doesn’t have a reading series, find somewhere nearby that does — another university, a bookstore, a monthly meeting of local writers — or find ways to participate online. Hear as many voices as you can, and meet as many other writers. Even if the reader’s work is not great or the delivery is subpar, you can learn and be a better writer just by going.

5. Be humble and keep working

When a workshop peer points out some canned images or bad tropes that your piece relies on — or simply disagrees with your approach — don’t brush off the advice. Think about where the advice is coming from. What in the piece is causing them to read it that way? What could you adjust or scrap to better reach your reader? Above all, don’t tell your workshoppers you’d already identified every plot hole, inconsistency, mixed metaphor, etc., that they pointed out. Because: 1) you probably didn’t and are just trying to protect your ego, and 2) if you did, you should have done your damnedest to fix said problems before turning in the piece.

But listen: we’re all still figuring out this writing business. George Saunders thought he  failed because he couldn’t write like Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing The Great Gatsby, out of print at the time, was a failure. Toni Morrison didn’t even get into the game until her late thirties because she realized the only way to find the book she wanted to read was to write it. We can never know whom our writing will connect with or when. All we can do is to keep trying to put words together, combining them into narratives and stanzas and punchy fragments. By doing this, we can not only survive but also find our own versions of success as writers.

Do you have any other advice to share from your experience as a writer or in creative writing classes? Leave it in a comment below!

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Essay advice from Franz Kafka

When it comes to fiction, Franz Kafka is amazing. He was ahead of his time, and in some respects, is ahead of ours. However, he wasn’t that much of an essayist, according to some personal reflections in Franz Kafka: Diaries, 1910-1923.

In his journalKafka comments on some lines from Goethe, saying:

The difficulties of bringing to an end even a short essay lie not in the fact that we feel the end of the piece demands a fire which the actual content up to that point has not been able to produce out of itself, they arise from the fact that even the shortest essay demands of the author a degree of self-satisfaction and of being lost in himself out of which it is difficult to step into everyday air without great determination and an external incentive, so that, before the essay is rounded to a close and one might quietly slip away, one bolts, driven by unrest, and then the end must be completed from the outside with hands which must not only do the work but hold on as well.

Writing personal, memoir-style essays is not my thing either. It’s not that I haven’t tried it. It’s just that I always think it’s boring, that no one would want to read about my life. I feel like there’s no great, didactic point to be made of my own mundane experiences.

I feel sort of like Joaquin Phoenix on Fresh Air. In the middle of telling Terry Gross about his acting method, he stopped himself and complained:

It’s not interesting. It’s just so stupid. … If I was driving and I heard this, I’d be – I’d change the channel. … I’d be like, why – can you shut up?

 I have the same anxiety. But I’m not a movie star—or anything else important or interesting. So on the rare occasion when I sit down to write something personal or introspective, I choke. But I’m going to think about Kafka from now on and try not to bolt at the end. Instead of leaving it up to outside hands, I’ll do the work and try to keep holding on.