On Creative Writing Workshops

D. E. Mitchell is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Previously, he had received his Bachelor of Arts in English with a writing concentration from Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater Massachusetts. His work has been published in The Bridge, Samizdat Literary Journal, and Blank Fiction Magazine. He has attended many writer’s conferences, workshops, and residencies, and currently lives in the Boston area while furiously working on his first novel.

If you’re an aspiring writer, and happen to be attending a college that offers Fiction Writing workshops, then by all means, register for them! I had three semester’s worth of Fiction Writing workshops before I graduated, and I can honestly say that my fondest memories as an undergrad were from these classes. A good workshop feels much less like a class and more like a book club that you would show up to of your own volition, eager to see what your peers have to say about life. I feel excited even thinking about it now as I type this here on my laptop. To any writer who has enrolled in a workshop, I must first say that I envy you, because I wish I could be an active part of your new book club! But given that I’ve since graduated and gone on to earn an MFA in writing, I would be out of place there in any capacity other than instructor. So here are a few tips I would offer you:

1. Writing is Hard Work. Any creative process imbues a certain ineffable mystery. My mentor at Bridgewater State College (now Bridgewater State University), a graduate of the cutthroat Iowa Fiction Writer’s workshop, stated in every syllabus that no mysteries of the writing process would ever be solved in his courses. He made few apologies and took no prisoners. This professor once confided to me during office hours that his job was actually to stop people from writing. If we stop to assess the fact that the hundreds of thousands of people currently working on novels are working on their first novel, we are left with the sobering conclusion that writing is something of a Darwinian struggle. A toad might lay hundreds of eggs in a pond during the breeding season, and it is thought that of those egg clutches, only one or two tadpoles will actually return to the pond next year as adults. And you’re a tiny tadpole in this vast, inter-connected wetland.

Needless to say, tears were shed more than once in the classes I attended. This is not to say that my professor bled his students dry of their idealism, only that he made it perfectly clear that writing was hard work. He loved good stories as passionately as he hated bad ones. Or more specifically, he hated those stories that the authors obviously put little time and effort into writing. Whenever he assigned his students to read the latest volume of Best American Short Stories or Best American Memoirs, he would remind us that our goal was to replace the authors inside. Setting the bar high for him meant setting the proper tone of the class. We were not there to be coddled and congratulated on our work.

In short, if you only enrolled for an easy grade, you’re in the wrong class.

2. Choose Wisely. If, on the other hand, you’re there to learn to be a better writer, then you’re in the right class. So don’t try to write something that you think will earn you a good grade. Any sane writing workshop will grade you for class participation instead. So by all means, write about the things that move and fascinate you.

That said, it is still possible to pick the wrong material for your class. An old story you wrote in high school probably doesn’t deserve a re-write. And submitting fan fiction of any sort is a waste of time for two reasons: 1) Unless it’s public domain, it’s legally unpublishable and 2) There is guaranteed to be an informational lockout among the classmates who aren’t familiar with the source of your fandom.

If you have a novel in progress, submitting it chapter by chapter to the workshop is also an iffy affair. Novels are generally harder to critique, as your audience doesn’t have access to the entirety of the story. Any perceived shortcomings of your story might well be plot points to resolve in future chapters, and by the time you are workshopped a second or third time, your readers may well have forgotten about what happened in the previous chapter. As for me, I’m of the firm opinion that there should be separate graduate workshops for novel writing, perhaps slimmed down in quantity from the usual number dealing in short fiction.

It is also worth noting that there is often a bias against what many literary snobs refer to as “genre fiction” as opposed to “literary” fiction, which is supposed to be a more character-focused, and “serious”. In my opinion, the dividing line between “literary” and “genre” fiction is arbitrary and pointless, since writing any sort of story at all is hard work, and writing in no genre exempts you from learning your craft. That said, the argument can still be made that aspiring writers probably shouldn’t start with Fantasy and Science Fiction, since genres that depend on believable world-building require immense skill to put together, and you might be better off tackling something less ambitious during your first workshop. Plus, the narrative and character-building skills you will amass in learning to write literary fiction will help immensely when you set about to write any other sort of story in the future. The weird and fantastical can be found in everyday life, too. Finding the bizarre in the mundane is an accomplishment on the other side of the coin of creating a believable alternate universe.

3. Learn to Write. To a writer, honing your craft is a job, so flex your writing muscles as much as you can. Not making the time to write each day is the equivalent of not showing up to work. We all do it at least sometimes, as writers tend to be masters at finding excuses not to write. Cast off the romantic notions you might have about inspiration finding you at the right time and get your hands dirty. If you aren’t sure what you’ve written is any good, then lower your standards and write to the finish anyway. Your inner critic is effectively “off” during this period, but don’t be afraid to turn him back “on” when you re-read your work and edit the piece, removing every unnecessary word and reworking every sentence that fails to make unequivocal sense. Aim for clarity. Straightforwardness, however, is a different matter.

Another fairly overlooked aspect of the craft of writing is the importance of reading your work out loud at least once. Remember that language is meant to be spoken, and you’ll be surprised at how different your prose may sound to you when spoken out loud than it does on when read on the page. You’ll catch more errors and be able make more editing judgments this way. Practice in reading your work out loud will pay off if and when you are invited to public reading of any sort.

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