Tag Archives: phases of the writing career

The Writing Workshop, or, Only Do This to Yourself if You Crave Intense Discomfort.

A while back, I wrote a post on stages of the writing career from the point of view of submitting.  I thought I’d track the writer’s progress from the point of view of the Creative Writing Workshop, given that a writing career, these days, almost inevitably involves undergoing a whole series of them.  Here, then, are my findings:

Phase 1: Crippling Terror and Impostor Syndrome

This is a normal response when confronted by the format for the first time.  Having your piece workshopped is an exercise in naked fear, and when it’s up you take frantic notes on everything everyone says since you can’t spend any energy processing the feedback: all your attention must be channeled towards not bursting into tears like a little girl.  Your face is a particular shade of crimson that immediately identifies you as a workshop newbie, which will cause a kind-hearted instructor to go easy on you and a hard-assed one to plow into your guts with renewed vigor.  When giving feedback on other people’s work, you are merely blindly stumbling, trying not to look like too much of a clueless dumbass.

• Phase personally undergone in: 1997, during my first two workshops in college.

Phase 2: Grinding Along

You are now comfortable with the workshop format.  You have mastered the compliment sandwich when delivering your feedback on peer manuscripts.  You write down most of what they say when your work is being critiqued, but know to put your pen down when you hear something obviously spurious.  The quality of your work may be stationary or improving slowly.  It draws a genuine compliment here and there–but you are by no means comfortable: every time you are up, you still receive a beatdown that feels worthy of a gang initiation.

• Phase personally undergone in: 1998-99, later college workshops, then 2004-05, first year in MFA program.

Phase 3: OMGWTFBBQ

Something is happening to your writing.  You are not sure what, and neither are your peers.  Discussion of your work will generally begin with a class-wide flummoxed silence.  The feedback you receive might be very tentative, because nobody is sure whether you mean to be doing what precisely you are doing–whereas before they knew you didn’t.  You are a puzzlement to them and to yourself.  Your instructor might not quite know what to do with you, and might say cryptic things like, “I’m not sure I’m qualified to give feedback on this particular genre,” or might compliment your work using more specific words than the standard “good,” like “seductive.”  Your feedback to your peers is exceedingly thought-out and careful; you treat them as if they are in the same delicate transitory state as yourself.  You do not know if any of this tremendous upheaval is a good sign.  You suspect you might be going insane.  You write down very little of the peer feedback your receive; at least you have become an adept sifter.

• Phase personally undergone in: 2005-06, second year in MFA program.  By the time I finished the program I felt as if I’d been shot into space.  Complete disorientation.

Phase 4: Workshop Transcendence

Seriously, this happens.  This does not mean your work is universally liked, but it does mean that it has acquired authority–so that your peers are aware that you mean your text.  Your work is crafted; it knows what it intends; they will not quibble with that.  You will receive little to no prescriptive advice.  Instead your peers will sit around analyzing your work like literature students, drawing various interpretations (this is actually quite useful, as it highlights which themes are visible to the audience and may help you decide what needs to recede and what needs to be further brought out).  Your instructor may say some crazy stuff like, “this is a perfect story,” which will effectively bring the proceedings to a complete standstill while you shit a brick.  Your feedback to your peers may have reached instructor-grade.

• Phase personally undergone in: 2009-10, taking two workshops while in my PhD program for fun and/or needful units.

Advisory to aspirants: All of the workshop phases are characterized by mild to intense discomfort (even Transcendence involves shitting a brick).  Completion of all phases qualifies you to be at the head of the workshop table as a beginner instructor, which will in turn bring on Cycle 2 of Crippling Terror and Impostor Syndrome.  Good luck with that.

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In Valhalla there are no rejection slips.

So, a while back my agent sent a pdf of my novel to The New Yorker with selected passages highlighted she thought could be used in the magazine.  Unsurprisingly given my fresh fish status, the NYer editor did not bite, but sent my agent the nicest possible rejection notice.  I will go ahead and include it:

Shapiro is incredibly talented and this is quite a debut, but we didn’t see any way to excerpt from it, unfortunately—the pieces you suggested are strong but fragmentary—and we felt that she wasn’t quite ready for the top-20 list, though she’ll in all likelihood make it there eventually! Thanks, anyway, for sending it over; it was a pleasure to read. Stay in touch if she writes any stories—or if anyone else crosses your mind for this issue (or any other).

This is a stage in a writer’s career: flattering personalized rejections with an invitation to submit again.  This is, in itself, an achievement.  As far as I can tell, a writer’s career looks something like this:

Stage 1: uncontrolled production of thousands of pages of crap.  The afflicted asks herself, “why am I doing this?  I must be some kind of blithering masochistic idiot.”

Stage 2: some small moment of recognition.  The afflicted may be told by a writing instructor that she is good, or get into an MFA program.  The afflicted begins to submit work places, receiving a veritable avalanche of rejection slips that have been xeroxed so many times that the type on them is actually degrading.  The slips are literally slips, as the writer is not yet worth the expense of an entire sheet of paper–that is when the submission is ever acknowledged at all.  Often silence is deemed a sufficient rejection.  The afflicted may sometimes doubt her own existence, and asks herself, “why am I doing this?  I must be some kind of blithering masochistic idiot.”

Stage 3: repeated near-misses.  The afflicted may impress a writing instructor who will ask her to submit a story to his new literary magazine, which he is starting with a big-name editor who will subsequently not like the work in question.  The afflicted may start seeing hand-scrawled notes on rejection slips that read “good work” or “submit again.”  She may get requests from agents to see her full manuscript, which will inevitably get turned down after months of anxious fretting–but sometimes the agents may say something nice about it.  This cycle of crazed hope/crestfallen disappointment may last for years, and the afflicted will ask herself, “why am I doing this?  I must be some kind of blithering masochistic idiot.”

Stage 4: someone says yes.  The sky is ripped open, angels sing; the afflicted is elated that she hasn’t spent the last few years/decades/epochs talking to herself like a ranting homeless person.   At some point she actually said something, and someone heard.  This in no way means the cessation of impersonal rejection slips, which make the one acquiescence seem like some sort of perverse fluke.  The afflicted will then worry endlessly about being unable to make the magic happen again, and will ask herself, “why am I doing this?  I must be some kind of blithering masochistic idiot.”

Stage 5: in Valhalla there are no rejection slips.

Through all these stages, the afflicted keeps writing anyway, though she is too close to her own stories to be able to see that, in their slow way, they are getting better.  Improvement is like erosion: you can’t see anything happen, but if you take a measurement ten years later you have an inkling that, maybe, something did.