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.