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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Learning to Fail Better

 

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There’s a chapter from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird that I make students read. It’s called “Shitty First Drafts,” and it’s largely about the “fantasy of the uninitiated” — the idea that writers “take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.” It’s a myth, I tell the students. But it’s a myth that experienced writers still have a hard time abandoning. We believe that real writers pump out perfect prose.

A few months ago, Fear No Lit accepted my pitch for an interview series called Fail Better. It has adapted a little bit, but remained close to the original intent of debunking the “fantasy of the uninitiated.” The series explores how writers become better through trial and error, failing and learning how to fail a little bit less, a little bit better, the next time. It has been fun to learn from each writer.

Here is a list of links to the interviews so far.

1. John McCarthy

A lot of the poems in Ghost County started off way too long. I don’t want to throw myself under the bus, but in the copy of the book I read from, I still make edits. One of the poems has at least six or seven lines crossed out. I’ve even reworded the way a few of the sentences read.

2. Stephanie Wilbur Ash

You need to be honest about your failure, but you can’t dwell there. You have to move forward quickly and see that knowledge as an opportunity. You have to let your feelings go and be scientific about it. … A negative result is still a result in science. You don’t feel bad about a negative result. It’s just a result.

3. Sarah Layden

With very few exceptions, I’m happy to be published, happy that someone out in the world found some sort of connection with my work. There’s little harm in being published early and online, other than being internet haunted by your past self. It’s like having your gawky seventh grade school picture on your work ID badge. Both exist, but you wouldn’t necessarily choose the former to represent who you are now.

4. Eric Blix

For me, the pleasures come when I discover something new either about a project or about the act of writing. Maybe the biggest thrill is discovering a question I didn’t know I was asking. This probably applies to both drafting and revising, which for me typically overlap to the point of being essentially the same thing.

Next up on Fail Better: an interview with short story writer Hasanthika Sirisena in June!

‘Get hammered, write better…’

And other quotes from my first year in an MFA program.

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Paper: “First day of [grad] school! When I grow up, I [still] want to be an astronaut.”

While working to survive the first year of grad school, I scribbled down some notable quotables in class, at events, wherever. Some good ones popped up as I recently flipped through my notes.

The notebooks held a professor’s joke: “‘Get hammered, write better.’ We’re all going to get tattoos that say that.” (At least, I think it was a joke.) They had visiting writer Susan Power’s twist on the write-what-you-know axiom: “When I write what I need to know, need to feel, need to experience, I step outside myself.”

Here’s a smattering of others.

1. Susan Power’s craft talk

“There’s this myth that the writer sits down and they type, ‘Chapter One,’ and the piece just rolls on forward.” Later, she added: “For me to get to my best work, I have to be feeling something. It’s not purely intellectual for me.”

2. Literary editing and publishing

On the origins of literary magazines: “They’re always born in some passion, but often born with some grievance. … You have to have passion because there’s no money in it.”

3. Fall fiction workshop

On how setting shapes character: “Where we are is who we are.”

4. Form and technique in fiction

On chasing an idea: “Let go of worrying whether it’s stupid or not because that’s not what artists do.”

5. Contemporary prose

On mainstream/genre versus literary fiction: “Some of this [tension] I think is between our emotional response and our intellectual response.”

6. Steph Burt’s craft talk

On “talking object” poems: “Poetry can give you things the world doesn’t have for you.”

7. Spring fiction workshop

“If there’s not trouble ahead in a story, I’m probably not interested.”

8. Professor’s research presentation

Writer’s comments on own short story: “I’m like the lovechild of Walt Whitman and Don DeLillo.”

9. Form and technique in fiction (again)

Why writers can’t be lazy: “We are in competition, as storytellers, with ten million screens.”

10. Contemporary prose (again)

Why writers, especially in MFA programs, must care about more than craft: “Isn’t that the importance of indulging your rebellion—that you have something to say?”

That time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house

When I was an intern at Metonymy Media, I wrote a lot of blogs. Some were about cars or travel, and some were about other things that I had more or less interest in. But one of my favorite blogs was one I wrote about a trip that I took to the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Mass. I started this blog about five times, because I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to say—not that I didn’t have anything to say.

The Emily Dickinson house is located in Amherst, Mass., where the poet spent almost all of her life.

The Emily Dickinson house is located in Amherst, Mass., where the poet spent almost all of her life.

The problem with writing what you’re passionate about is there is too much to say. I have been reading Emily Dickinson since middle school. I have been extremely interested in her work and her life. And after a 90-minute tour of her house and her brother Austin’s house—called The Evergreens, which sits right next door—I had even more to say.

I thought that I wouldn’t be able to say anything for a while, but I took some solace in these words from who else but Emily Dickinson:

Life is but life, and death but death!

Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath!

And if, indeed, I fail,

At least to know the worst is sweet.

Defeat means nothing but defeat,

No drearier can prevail.

I think it turned out all right, but you can read it here and decide for yourself.