MFA Nugget: Standing Naked Before Your Peers

How often in life do you lay yourself bare and invite people to inspect your every birthmark, wrinkle, and fold of fat? Beauty pageant contestants spend five minutes on stage in a swimsuit. When I competed in solo and ensemble festivals, I would sing for five minutes in front of three judges, then leave the stage. But a creative writing workshop is an entirely different experience, 55 minutes of evisceration while you remain silent, but without anesthesia.

I was up in our workshop yesterday, here at the summer MFA residency for the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Well, my workshop leaders would say my creative submission was up; we’re not supposed to be workshopping the individual. But these damned VCFA instructors (I write that in the nicest possible way) have driven me over the past year to put my heart on the page (see Bob Vivian’s lecture from two days ago). So, I’m sorry, but when 11 students and two instructors spend nearly an hour breaking down said heart, and I must remain silent, it is me they are workshopping.

After my first residency last year, I was really struck with the structure they use for workshop here, and provided their format in a blog post. I use a similar format in the blog-writing workshop I teach at The Writer’s Center. I learn a great deal by reading my classmates’ work; by trying to learn what they are doing right and finding ways to suggest improvements; and by listening to what others say about those works. But let’s face it; what we’re all waiting for, with anticipation and dread, is when our work is up.

I survived. There were many supportive words. There were many good suggestions. Perhaps the best thing I took out of it is that I am right in thinking that the travel memoir I’m writing is finding its voice and its style, and that the narrative structure I’m attempting, while ambitious, is doable, and I’m doing it.

Yet if my writing should have my heart on the page, I felt afterward as if all my blood had been drained from my body. I couldn’t slink away to recover. We had another student to workshop, and then my only chance at “speed dating,” where we interview potential instructors I will work with in my upcoming semester, my third of four. But after that speed dating? I needed to escape.

Memoirist extraordinaire Sue William Silverman, whose insights on writing are stellar, when you’re able to read her pencil markings in poor lighting.

I hopped in my car and drove out of Montpelier. There aren’t many places to go that are a short distance, so I found myself in Barre. I settled in at a family-style restaurant, and ordered a local beer and the flank-steak-on-toast entree, complete with mushrooms and A-1 sauce. As I ate, I read in the dim light the written comments, 13 copies of my heart scarred by pen (and pencil in one case; I must call out one of my favorite instructors, Sue Silverman, and ask if she’s going to use pencil she press harder!).

I was a bit out of place with my green VCFA t-shirt, red sling backpack, and marked-up manuscripts. There may be many Barre residents who pursue creative writing, but the crowd at a Barre family restaurant is there for cheap food in large quantities. Unlimited shrimp at the salad bar. Slice-your-own bread. Let me say that while I was out of step, I was at home. This was not a restaurant where I would be judged; they had their own lives to live, no reason to bother to question the odd middle-aged college student struggling to read handwritten pencil notations in near-darkness.

I’m back on campus now, settling in for the rest of the residency. It feels good to have workshop out of the way, just as I was delighted when, at my annual physical recently, the doctor said she was finished with my rectal exam. (An aside: She conducted it with me sitting gynecology-style, feet up in stirrups. We men usually just bend over. Okay, am I sharing too much of my heart here, or maybe some other part of myself?)

What is your experience with exposing your creative babies with others?

17 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Standing Naked Before Your Peers

  1. James Pounds

    Workshops were interesting to say the least. Much of what was said or notated was personal opinion, but there were also some absolute ah-has. I felt like a gold panner sifting river gravel for the ocassional nugget. I found my workshop leaders left the most valuable treasures. Mostly I looked for consensus amog my peers; if something didn’t work for several people, well THAT got my attention.
    But mostly I was thankful mine was a limited res program and I only had to do it twice a year


    1. Yes, there do always seem to be ah-has. And consensus is helpful. I’ve had times where I’ve thought “I didn’t mean for the reader to think that, you must be odd,” then you keep hearing it. Okay, I need to fix that.

      I like your simile of gold-panning!


  2. Oh Goodness! I once submitted a story that I thought was of award winning quality and it got ripped to shreds…I was stunned. I actually don’t even know if it really got ripped that bad, it was just that I was expecting praise. Awful!! I know. I learned my lesson though. Another time I submitted a piece where I was basically laying my soul bare and fessing up to some awful shit in my life and I got great feedback and enormous support.


    1. I find it hard to believe you were really ripped to shreds, but I can imagine it felt that way if you went in expecting worship. Sorry you had that experience, but glad the other one worked out. It sounds like it was a supportive group.

      FYI, in this workshop I provided a new chapter to the travel memoir. (Last semester I submitted a stand-alone essay, the one that just won the fwriction:review nonfiction award.) You were in my workshop for the very beginning of that book, written before I had studied at VCFA. The structure, tone and voice of the work has completely transformed since then, and guess what? Everyone noted how much I personally was on the page. How about that? I first started on that path in our workshop together, where everyone kept asking me, “Where’s the narrator in here?” 🙂


  3. Thankfully, I’ve never been “ripped to shreds” in a workshop, but I’m always a wreck going in. I suppose what we all *think* we want is affirmation: “Wow, this is good. Don’t do a thing to it!” And yet, if we put the work first, we’ll sit there and listen and take notes and not get defensive, which is the worst possible reaction.

    I’ve seen people have their writing hopes pretty much crushed, and it’s awful. Selfishly, I came away from those situations just so glad it wasn’t me. I hope those writers were able to pick themselves up, believe in their work, and move on and make it better. But you’re right, Patrick. When it’s your work on the table, it’s an extension of yourself laid bare and so, so vulnerable. It’s hard to separate self-worth from the work in the spotlight. I think some of that ability comes with experience. I’m less anxious going in now than I used to be.

    I try to be careful about my choice of workshop leaders. I always read as much as I can before I sign on; I read interviews; I learn about the facilitator, not because I think he/she will “love” my work, but so I’ll have a sense of how he/she works and whether we’ll be compatible. Does that make sense? So far, I’ve been lucky to have very smart, supportive leaders who’ve been clear about their expectations and have provided good guidelines for the group. That helps.

    If my writing gets better–and I believe it has, thanks to some productive workshops–it’s worth a bit of anguish going in. Thank you so much for sharing your residency experiences. It’s like a “mini-residency” for me, too.


    1. Hi Gerry,

      I’m glad you’ve never been ripped to shreds, and I think it’s human nature to think “there but for the grace of God” when someone else is.

      We do seek praise, but we need assistance. I’m wondering if maybe I submitted something too “good” for residency this time. In my last two workshops, the pieces hadn’t been edited by somebody first. I received the intense level of suggestions one would expect. In this case, it was a piece I had written during my semester, received feedback on from my instructor, and then rewrote based on his recommendations. It mostly was well-received in workshop, not a lot of suggestions for change. That seemed to me to not be of great help, but what it is telling me is that I got the revision right, so I guess that’s of value.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying your “mini-residency” with me!


      1. Patrick, your words really resonated with me here. If I’m honest, I tend to submit stories (or novel parts) to workshops that I think are already pretty polished. I need to get brave enough to submit something that I *know* needs revision. Thank you for that little wake-up call. I hope your time at VCA continues to be productive. BTW, I almost–that’s almost, but didn’t–applied to VCA’s summer workshops. I found the info late, and since MFAs get priority, I didn’t think I would get in. But I was really interested. Maybe next year I’ll be bold enough to try, even without the MFA credentials!


  4. Patrick, thank you for your honesty. I’ve never gone, and will never go, this route, especially now! I’ll just count on people like you to steer me in the “write” direction and give honest feedback. In my humble opinion, you are the only expert you need. Brand new here, thanks to Terri, who introduced you on her most recent blog post.


    1. Thank you, Debra! I like the idea of being steered in the “write” direction! 🙂

      So glad Terri guided you here! I’m a big fan of her and her blog. I was especially pleased she linked to my essay “September 12th;” that award-winner was workshopped here at VCFA last winter, and I feel the edits I made after the feedback led to its publication.


  5. I know I could never handle a workshop. It’s meant to be helpful and I’m sure it is, but I need that kind of criticism to happen in private… one writer and one reader at a time. Even that can be wrenching. Kudos to you for being able to listen and learn.


    1. Interesting, that you would make a distinction between one on one and a group. I totally get that. I will confess, however, that since I tend to operate in a gotta-catch-up-and-make-up-for-all-those-years-I-neglected-my-muse mode, having 11 students and two instructors workshop me all at one time ups my feedback!


  6. I really liked your post!
    The first time I went to a workshop, even though I wasn’t being critiqued at the time, I was shocked, I thought the critiquers were being mean and inconsiderate towards the feelings of the author, and I said so, only to received blank stares, even the author of the critiqued piece looked at me with a puzzled expression. I have leaned, after many exposures to workshop, that critiquing is rarely personal or mean, that what they are saying is about the piece being critiqued, how to improve the piece and what works and what doesn’t for that particular person; and is not about the person who wrote it. I have also learned to develop a thicker skin as a writer thanks to the critiques. I also see the faces of new members when their eyes widen in shock to critiques i make towards other author’s writing. It makes me smile to remember how I felt the first time I went to workshop.


    1. Thank you, Sofia, for sharing that story! My first semester here, a friend of mine broke down after being workshopped, convinced she had been crucified. I wasn’t in the workshop, but from what I hear from others it wasn’t the case at all. She just wasn’t ready to hear constructive criticism, or I should say what she heard was an attack on her.

      I do think you have to be sensitive when offering criticism, and I suspect at times that people (me) hold back a little bit.

      I watched a workshop leader last semester step in when we were critiquing one writer’s work and essentially shut us down, telling the writer how great it was. I later heard from another workshop participant who was more sensitive to such things than me that the student looked to be on the verge of tears. I’m not sure the workshop leader helped the student as a writer in that instance, but it was a compassionate thing to do.

      You’re right about needing a tough skin, but if you can develop that–by remembering they’re trying to help you, not hurt you–the rewards can be immense.


  7. Pingback: MFA Nugget: An Entire MFA in Writing Residency in One Post « The Artist's Road

  8. Pingback: MFA Nugget: Lessons From My Failed Residency Workshop | The Artist's Road

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