MFA Nugget: The Dynamics of a Writing Workshop

MONTPELIER, VERMONT — One thing I’ve learned in writing nonfiction is that when you write about others, there is no way of knowing what might cause offense. So if this post describing different types of workshop participants pisses off my current workshop mates, I will live with the result.

I took this photo at last year's winter residency. We have more snow this time. Man was not meant to live in an environment where the morning temperature is -16 degrees.

I took this photo at last year’s winter residency. We have more snow this time. Man was not meant to live in an environment where the morning temperature is -16 degrees.

I should note I am not writing about any particular individuals here; the characterizations below of the types of students you find in a workshop are conflations of my experiences here at the Vermont College of Fine Arts from four different MFA in Writing workshops:

  • THE APOLOGIST: This individual prefaces each observation with a variant of “You know, I don’t really know what I’m talking about, so you can probably ignore it.” Sometimes, from a craft perspective, that statement might actually be true. But she is in fact a reader, just like the rest of us, and if the one being workshopped understands that all reader feedback is of value, then her disclaimers can be ignored.
  • THE DOMINATOR: This individual is reluctant to cede the floor once gained, and is quick to jump in when there is a millisecond gap in conversation. He is sometimes a CRAFT EXPERT or an IT’S-ALL-ABOUT-ME (see below), but rarely if ever an APOLOGIST. This would seem a bad thing, but given that there are others who may be less inclined to participate, his actions could at times keep the conversation going when it otherwise might lag.
  • THE IT’S-ALL-ABOUT-ME: This individual brings everything she critiques back to her own life experience and her own writing. The personal pronoun “I” flows. But as a rule, her critique focuses on what she thinks isn’t working in another’s prose, and she says she knows this because it is something she struggles with herself. Then she volunteers some of the lessons she’s learned with that struggle.
  • THE CRAFT EXPERT: This individual is steeped in the lingo of creative writing. He is quick to categorize what he is reading as a fill-in-the-blank-with-a-big-word, then explains why it succeeds under the rules of craft in that form and why it doesn’t. The truly sophisticated of these, however, will note that good writing can transcend such “rules.” It can be difficult to follow this individual if you are not as well grounded in terminology, but you can learn from him.
  • THE SILENT TYPE: This is a person who will say something when mandatory (generally at the start, when everyone is expected to take turns providing an open comment), but rarely engages in the back-and-forth after those initial comments. The written comments provided on the manuscript by THE SILENT TYPE may be amazingly insightful, however, leading the one workshopped to wish she had spoken up more.
  • THE FACILITATOR: Often an instructor but sometimes a student, this person will sometimes change the topic when it seems we’ve said enough on another topic. THE DOMINATOR can play this role at times, or THE CRAFT EXPERT.

As with all stereotypes, I could keep going with this list, and I’m sure you can add some more below in the comments. I write this in part because I’ve been examining what type of workshop participant I am, in an effort to maximize my value to the writer.

In my first workshop here in the summer of 2011, I was an APOLOGIST. It was overwhelming to me how advanced some of the student writing was, and it seemed compared to me every student was a CRAFT EXPERT. I fear in the second residency I was a DOMINATOR without being a CRAFT EXPERT, not a good combination. My confidence level was higher, and in my professional life I’m usually the one running the meeting; I hope I wasn’t too domineering. In my third residency, I believe I actually demonstrated some SILENT TYPE behavior, not out of insecurity, but because I realized I was learning so much from the workshop leaders and students. You learn best when listening, not talking.

And this residency? I guess I’m trying to be a combination of CRAFT EXPERT and FACILITATOR with an occasional SILENT TYPE, particularly when we are critiquing fiction pieces. I tend to burrow in on one or two areas where I see that the writer could benefit from a craft technique I’ve learned in the program, but I don’t incorporate IT’S-ALL-ABOUT-ME tendencies when discussing it. I sometimes play FACILITATOR when it seems we’ve beaten one topic to death; it’s possible, however, that others don’t welcome that if they’re not done with the topic.

We have twelve students and two instructors in each of our VCFA residency workshops. It seems that when you combine all of the elements above, the end result can be of real value. It is a cliche to say that the sum is greater than the parts; instead, I like to compare the process to alchemy. These various ingredients are mixed together, and gold is produced, but you can’t truly identify the specific ingredients that produced that gold, so with each attempt you have to start from scratch. (Had actual alchemists at some point in history figured out a repeatable formula, gold would have about as much value today as a mud pie, something every toddler knows how to make.)

Have you participated in a writing workshop or in a writer’s group? Do the summaries (or stereotypes) I present–as well as the end result–ring true to you?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

28 Responses to “MFA Nugget: The Dynamics of a Writing Workshop”

  1. You summed up my experience in the workshops when I was at Vermont College. To this day, I’m still not sure how much I learned in those circles. I think I may have learned more in one on one conversations. Once I asked Jack Myers, one of VC’s long term teachers, now passed, if he could tell me, no kidding, how to write a poem. He said, “It’s simple. You just crawl around in the swamp of your psychology until you find something to write about, then write about it.” Here’s to Jack, I believe he was right.

    • Hi James, I’m glad to see you’re reading the Nuggets, I was hoping it might bring you back to campus in a virtual way. Love that poetry advice, glad others will be able to hear it.

      I don’t get all that much out of workshop on my own work. But I find, if I listen closely, that there is one or two really insightful things said during others’ workshopping that I can take away from the experience. It often is from instructors (that was true last residency, when I was the SILENT TYPE, listening to Patrick Madden and Sue Silverman), but it does come at times from students, and not always from CRAFT EXPERTS. One benefit is that I get to know other students; some of my closest friends here at VCFA are people I first met in workshop.

    • Let me add that, as to the advice on writing poetry, I think it applies equally to CNF essays.

      • You are dead on about the friendships that emerge from the workshops. I can’t count the many times I walked across the campus after a workshop in a deep conversation with someone I still know today. Jack Myers was an “old school” poet with the flair of Don Draper in Mad Men. Unlike Mr. Draper, Jack was not a riddled man. Thanks for your post. I can see why you win awards.

  2. My workshop experience was in a community college class on Creative Nonfiction. Similar rules – the writer can’t speak until all have given their comments. I submitted the first third plus the last couple pages of a piece I was working on for a book – I was wrestling with braiding history, commentary and personal story.

    While no one person’s feedback created an ah-ha lightning-flash revelation, the cumulative responses were extremely helpful. What I listened for as each student spoke was patterns. Were there issues that came up again and again? Yes. More than half the group wanted more of the personal story included, because that’s how they related to the rest of it. You could call it a collective ah-ha moment, perhaps, and it changed the way I rewrote this piece… and is informing my work on the current book.

    Certainly there were things I disagreed with in the comments, and there were a handful that flat-out annoyed me. Just because you don’t like a particular word, dear reader, doesn’t mean you should trash it! (“Don’t you mean ‘wince’? I don’t think ‘mince’ is even a word – I don’t like it.”) My advice to that person (had I been asked!) would be to shut up and read more literature…

    The exception to the one person providing great feedback was the professor. Among other great comments, he asked why I was trying to limit the length, why didn’t I just write what needed to be written – and rejected my explanation that I was trying to fit it into the book layout. He also challenged me with the best advice I ever received: “You’re a little too good with language. Don’t let your intellect get in the way of telling the story.”

    Thanks, as always, for sharing your experience with this – all the best as you keep working on the project!

    • Hi Martha,

      Thank you for spelling out your workshop experience here. There is definitely something to be said for that moment when you realize you keep hearing the same thing. We’re too close to our own writing, so sometimes things that leap out to readers elude us. And I love your instructor’s advice. One of my instructors said something similar today, along the lines of “Never ask how a writer would write something. Just be clear.”

      I’m glad you appreciate my posts. And let me say, I love the premise behind your submission, the braiding of history, commentary and personal story. Right up my alley!

      • Ohhhh, it sounds so simple! A braid! Just weave the parts together!
        HA!

        I resorted to different font colors for the various threads, to make sure it was relatively in balance. Of course that didn’t work either, because not everything (actually, practically nothing) fits squarely into one category or other.

        But yes, the personal story is the key to guiding the reader through the rest of it. Being willing to risk putting myself out there took me a while… and I expect will continue to do so.

        Let me know if you need a reader, as you go along.

  3. Having taken a few classes and belonged to a few writer’s groups, including an online one, I agree with your assessment. From each of them can come nuggets of golden critiques, but I’m learning to take what they say and let it soak in. A few months down the road some of the critiques I initially rejected were spot on. At other times, the critiques were not beneficial. And one comment gave me a serious case of writer’s block in one segment of my memoir. I was able to write in the other parts and finally freed up the block by participating in NaNoWriMo, and the dialogues I wrote for the blocked part will help me complete the chapter. I would love to have a post from you on how to handle these critique styles.

    • Hi Heather,

      Wow, I’m bummed to hear about your experience with the blockage, but glad to hear that NaNoWriMo helped you get out of it. You know, our last workshop of the residency is tomorrow morning, and I’m the last one up. So I don’t really know how this residency’s workshop is going to go. I anticipate writing a post or two about residency once I’m back home, however, so maybe I’ll get some inspiration from tomorrow’s workshop that might lead to a new blog post.

      I will say this: in my second residency, I wrote an essay that was superficially about my experience in DC on September 11th, but was really about my struggle with being a divorced father. One of my workshop mates said the interesting part was the 9/11 part, and I should take out the other stuff and just have that as the essay. One of the instructors approached me afterward and begged me not to listen to that student, to keep it the way it was. I did, submitted it, and won a writing contest with it. So I guess the lesson there is to trust the teacher over the student!🙂 https://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/peer-critique-leads-to-award-winning-writing/

  4. Excellent typology! It attests to the very human dynamic that goes on in any workshop, and reflects not only the “typical” reaction set, but also the degree to which people with common and shared ideals take different angles to accomplishing the same goal… or at least, ideally. I don’t want to say “It’s all about me” here🙂, but I thought I’d pass along that I wrote an article for the book MANY GENRES ONE CRAFT (called “Working the Workshop”) that discusses something I firmly believe in: that people often critique the way they want to be critiqued themselves (and/or the way they have been taught). So a mean-spirited or tough love critic might actually be modeling how they want their criticism to come back to them; same goes for the softies and “apologists.” Thus, I think the mix is actually a good thing — there is no one right way to do this stuff, and multiplicity and diversity is a good thing in the workshop… it reflects the real way that readers respond.

    • Michael, thank you for being its-all-about-me! I like your thesis, that we critique as we wish to be critiqued. Absolutely true for me. I want people to be really tough, but I tend to hold back from being as tough as I’m inclined to be because I’m concerned about sensitivities. This is especially risky in CNF, where I’ve seen people take criticism of their writing as a personal affront, because they’re writing about their life.

      All, here’s a link to the book Michael is referring to: http://www.amazon.com/Many-Genres-One-Craft-Lessons/dp/0938467085

  5. This seems to follow same pattern in any 12 step program as well! One-on-one seems to work really well w/ writing – but like any sort of recovery, it’s all about whatever works! Writer’s groups sounds great in theory, but then again, so does Communism!

    • You win the comment-of-the-day award, Carol! (Sorry, like most literary magazines, the only “prize” I can offer you is praise and publishing; your comment is already published.) Great insight, comparing to a 12-step program, and your final sentence makes me laugh, especially up here in the Socialist Republic of Vermont.

  6. Love this. I found these same types during my workshops at Spalding, so they are very universal. Also enjoyed your honest assessment of which roles you have filled throughout your residencies–you traced a journey many of us go on. Quite a few years out from my MFA experience, it’s interesting for me to ponder how helpful the workshop experience was to me. The answer, I think, is that they varied a lot, depending on the leaders to a large degree and the participants as well. Overall, though, I treasured my workshop experiences.

    • Hi Charlotte, thank you again for sharing your Spalding experiences, I really like it when you provide insights from your own low-residency experience, and once again, there are parallels. I’m glad you found them, overall, to be of value. That is certainly the case for me.

  7. Too supportive, not critical enough — that’s my experience from participating in (non-MFA)writers’ groups for many years. I must have come across as a DOMINATOR because of my greater experience working with editors. In one session, I remained SILENT after a certain reading. The writer asked why I hadn’t responded. I said, “Well, my mother always told me, ‘If you can’t say something nasty, don’t say anything at all.'” Of course, nasty is not the right word, but my colleagues got the point.

    • Ah, PJ, I can’t help but wonder if there is a gender issue at work here. I tend to want people to be tougher than they are, and as I indicated in a comment above, I tend to hold back when I see the kid gloves others use. I’ve been in four workshops here now, and the number of males of the 12 students in my four workshops, including me, has been between 2 and 3. My local writer’s group is all females except for me. So I find myself thinking a lot about gender differences. I’ve also noticed some differences with male vs. female instructors in workshop. My concern with this line of exploration–I feel I have too small a data sample to extrapolate any real conclusions.

      • Interesting. When I reflect on my group experience, however, I recall as many women as men who want the “tough love”. And those who want the god`s truth seem to be the one`s who most want to get published. They know there’s no time to waste. Of course, all critiques need to be supportive. In Toastmasters we have the slogan, “Evaluate to motivate.”

      • Interesting direction, with the gender issue, but possibly too much of a trap for too-little reward. Replace “female” with “brown hair” or “tattoo” and you see where I’m going.

        Like Michael A, above, I think we do tend to critique in our own image, as it were – as we want to hear feedback. I’m like you – I’d rather have it straight up. If someone dances around the point, there’s a chance I may not get it. (Also a chance the speaker doesn’t know the point he or she is trying to make.)

        As writers – and observers, interpreters, recorders – we probably tend to be sensitive to others feelings/body language/speech nuances. And I think that’s true, whether we’re male or female.

        All of which is a way of circling back to PJ’s point that there’s not enough of the critical aspect. But it never hurts to start off with a positive comment (surely, we can each find one!) before launching into ways to improve.

        • I think where I’m leaning is not so much what the writer wants to hear, but how the student chooses to express their criticism. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that our society gives men more license to be blunt than women, although the natural inclination of each individual, I believe, has more to do with them than it does with gender roles.

          In my first two workshops, I was one of only two males, a friend of mine here. We both encountered instances where one of us went a bit too far in how our criticism was phrased, and hit on a sensitivity of the writer. This was completely unintended. We did not see this occur when females presented their critiques (although we may have missed it). Now, in these individual cases, it could have been that my friend and I have been culturally trained to be more blunt; it could be that the writer in question had a harder time hearing that particular criticism from a man; it could have been that we happened to choose a criticism that was particularly sensitive; or any other reason.

          I will say that in my monthly writer’s group, we have discussed the gender issue, and we all agree that at first I was a bit more direct than the others (all female), and we also all agreed it was a gender issue. I have worked on my tone and word choice to convey the same critical detail but in a way that fits more with the group dynamic, which emphasizes support more than I would naturally be inclined to demonstrate, even though I do not consider myself any less supportive than the other participants.

          Is that helpful?

          • (Supportive, warm/fuzzy opening statement)
            Thanks for the details of your experiences, in both groups.

            While I agree that there can be cultural differences that are gender-based (i.e., boys and girls are often raised differently in the US) that lead to women being more the peacemakers and men, not. I also agree with PJ’s comment about people who want to improve being more open to the tough-love approach (I wonder, PJ, if those people, yourself included, also critique in that way).

            Patrick, here’s my question about both your group experiences, at home and in residence: Did you join a group that had already formed? Was the residence group made up of women who had already attended before, or were you all new to the room? Same thing with your monthly group, where you say you’ve modified your behavior to fit in with the group.

            If so, perhaps it’s as much or more of a group-dynamic thing than a gender thing. Or how people have been trained and/or their experience. I attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, back in the days before it went coed, and those gals were tough, academically – it’s where I learned to speak up. (Later, in the business world, I started to learn the art of compromise!)

            Because my own workshop experience included a range of writers, from published to “I just want to learn to express myself” types, I found those who were excessively cautious about hurting someone’s feelings were insecure themselves.If you’re going to put yourself out there, on paper, you have to take the criticism, is my feeling – toss out the high score and the low score, as it were, and use the information that either resonates with you or that you most resist (thanks, Julia Cameron!)

            I’d hope for a different dynamic among grad students in a writing program. This would be a great topic to debate over lunch sometime!

            • Thanks for the question, ML. So my local group I helped assemble. We found each other through the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and no one knew more than one other person in the group when we started. We were all feeling our way. With the MFA workshops, we’re assigned to the group, and they range from first semester students to graduating students (in their fifth residency). Some have experience with workshops outside of VCFA, some (like me when I started) don’t.

              Your Mt. Holyoke experience is interesting. There are studies that show that, at the K-12 level, girls learn to be more assertive (I mean that word in a good way) in a classroom when it is all girls. I would think the same is true at the college level.

              And yes, a good lunch topic indeed!

  8. Corey Barenbrugge Reply January 6, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    When in a workshop, I’ve always grown as a writer as well as a reader, and I’ve found they encourage me to “ship” my writing (to borrow a term from Seth Godin). That said, I’ve also found that when I’ve equally motivated myself, I can grow at about the same rate via deep focus, intense reading and honest criticism of myself. I haven’t taken any graduate level writing seminars, but I look forward to doing so in the future and comparing my experience to those I had in undergraduate seminars.

    • Corey, I like what you have to say about deep focus, intense reading, and honest criticism of yourself. I attended a what-do-I-do-after-my-MFA discussion today, and graduates were talking about how we’re supposed to be learning tools that we can use to critique our own works. Of course, you can learn those tools outside of an MFA as well. An instructor said he’s so done with having his own work workshopped, but he does find writing peers that he can swap pages with, so he has another set of eyes he trusts.

      I would love to know if there are differences between undergrad and grad workshops. I never took an undergrad creative writing course, so I have no point of comparison there.

  9. Patrick, your descriptions of workshop types are spot-on! I’ll participate in a workshop later this month, and you’ve made me think about what my roles have been in previous workshops and how I might more effectively add to this one! Thanks much for a great post.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. MFA Nugget: Lessons From My Failed Residency Workshop | The Artist's Road - January 8, 2013

    […] 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. […]

  2. MFA Nugget: An Entire Residency in One Tasty Bite | The Artist's Road - January 10, 2013

    […] look at the types of students you find in a writing […]

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