MONTPELIER, VERMONT — This post is an attempt to find some positives in an otherwise not-so-pleasant workshop experience here at my MFA in Writing residency with the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here is a list of things I promise not to do next summer, at my final residency:
- I will remember to say something nice first. I’ve taken for granted the rule that you always start by saying something you liked. We had all done that for the first 11 workshop students over the course of this residency. I was the very last one to be workshopped, and for some reason that rule went out the window when I was up. I thought it might have been my imagination, but a fellow student made note of that oddity later in the day. Perhaps someone didn’t like my post about workshop stereotypes.
- I will not compare the work unfavorably to other works by the writer. The very first student to critique me spent her entire time wondering why this memoir selection couldn’t have been more like the standalone essay she had critiqued in a previous workshop. I thought of Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, when space aliens tell him, “We like your movies, especially the earlier funny ones.”
- I will remember that if the work submitted is part of a larger work, I shouldn’t expect every question to be answered in the submission. I think that one is self-explanatory.
- I will remember that I may not be a target reader for the writer. One of the students said my work wasn’t literature, but instead was just journalism, and boring journalism at that. Now it turns out that she completely missed some sign posts I had laid out that would have kept her from reaching that conclusion. A learning experience for me, I need to make those markers clearer. But at the post-graduation ceremony, even after knowing it is not the type of work she thought it was, she still said she wouldn’t read it. But it dawned on me that while I think she is a great writer, I wouldn’t read her work if published either; the story isn’t compelling to me, and I couldn’t handle that voice for that many pages. So I need to remember what Larry Sutin said about writing for one reader–yourself.
- I will ensure that any reference I make to my own struggle is constructive. The same writer in #4 above provided an IT’S-ALL-ABOUT-ME suggestion both in workshop and at the reception. After hearing that I had completed a draft of this memoir, she said she had written 350 pages of a memoir, and was brave enough to throw it out and start over again. She said I should be as brave as her, and do the same thing.
- I will make myself available for follow-up questions. I was the only thing between my fellow students and the end of residency. Making it worse was that everyone was so busy debating what didn’t work with my submission that we ran a full sixty minutes, leaving me no time to respond. One of the instructors said I should have my time anyway, but we could see people streaming out of the other workshops. I talked for a minute or two, then shut up. Everybody jumped up, gave each other hugs, thanked each other for a magical experience, and took off. I wish one of them had said, “You know, you don’t get to find me in the dining room tomorrow to ask me what I meant by this-or-that, so feel free to call or email me.”
Now I am probably suggesting the experience was worse than it really was. Both instructors understood what I was doing, and appeared to appreciate it. One of the students, himself a teacher, pushed back hard against the two students whose comments triggered the above declarations. But because I don’t want my memoir to be read only by teachers schooled in literary writing, I need to provide clearer sign posts for the reader. I can do that, pretty easily.
I must also admit that I was pretty tired, and a little fed up with the snow and the cold and the clouds. I’m sure I wasn’t in the best place mentally to be workshopped. Winter in Vermont is not my thing, I am learning.
I am also learning that workshops are a crap shoot. I was also overwhelmed after being workshopped at my first residency, but in a good way. I had never before experienced sitting quietly while others talked about nothing but my writing. A consensus formed around my piece in that workshop, and I have carried their feedback with me throughout this program.
My second residency led, as I noted in a separate post, resulted in a published, award-winning work, so no complaints there. Last semester’s residency was disappointing, but not in a crushing way. I submitted a piece that I had revised based on my instructor’s feedback. For fifty-five minutes in workshop, everyone said they loved the piece. That felt good, but it provided little value as a writer hungry to learn. I blogged on that workshop experience as well.
One thing I’ve learned is that I need thicker skin if I’m going to stay on the art-committed path. It’s possible that people held back less with me because it was the end of the residency, and everyone felt sufficient comfort level to be direct. It’s also possible, as one friend told me, that they figured I could handle it because the writing actually was pretty strong. (Nice of her to say that!) But no matter how great one becomes at something, there is always a critic. Perhaps that can be the primary lesson I take with me from this experience.
ADDENDUM, 1/8/13, 3:45 pm ET: I’d like to extend my gratitude to the commenters below who gave me the encouragement I needed. In his lecture at residency, Kurt Caswell talked about the supportive VCFA community, but I have it here at The Artist’s Road as well. You should know I’m in a better place right now; literally. I’m at home, awaiting my family, invigorated after a delightful 7-hour drive with no traffic and constant sunlight (except for a brief stint in the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, during which I rocked out to Muse’s “Uprising“). I really do love to drive. And it’s at least 30 degrees warmer here in northern Virginia than it was my entire time in Vermont, but more important to me is that big ball of light in the sky that is once again visible. Thanks, everyone!