Thursday, June 30, 2005

Writing Workshops

An emailer asks me to weigh in on the writing workshop experience. I never went for an MFA, but I did shell out fifteen hundred dollars or so of savings during high school for a writing workshop in Massachusetts (this was the first summer I didn't go to the crazy Baptist camp). It lasted for three weeks and destroyed my inclination to write creatively.

I mean that quite literally; before attending, I churned out bad teen poetry at such a prodigious pace that I received complaints from a reader of our high school's literary magazine because so many of the poems in it were mine. The selection process was anonymized, but when so many of the submissions were mine (and with so many of the other entries being sub-literate), my adolescent caterwaulings were bound to appear repeatedly. I wrote constantly, posted my rambling strings of verbiage to online poetry fora, and generally lived the mopey teenage poet stereotype.

The process at my writing workshop was nothing like what happens at MFA workshops. Instead, we were at the opposite end of the spectrum: so tied to being "informal" and "playful" that I felt like I wasn't getting any substantive feedback on how to improve. No one was willing to criticize anyone else's work (even though we all agreed privately that one girl's stuff was wrenchingly awful), and the instructor didn't instruct so much as guide us into certain kinds of exercises and experimentation. We were given prompts but little prompting; my efforts to adhere to certain kinds of poetic structure were looked at with skepticism but I received little advice on how to better handle the forms and still less on how to impose some structure on the stream of consciousness "free verse" that seemed to be the alternative.

One thing I did learn was that certain young writers in our group had far more natural talent than I did, and the program gave me no evidence that it could provide concrete suggestions for closing this gap with hard work. This bred a vague despair and discouragement which was amplified by my instructor's odd behavior. When I turned in a portfolio after the first week, he spent the nearly the entire feedback period questioning me about the doodles and literary detritus scrawled on the folder I'd used to turn it in rather than devoting the time to what was inside. (Why a collection of real and fake phrases from product labels was so fascinating I never discovered.)

I finally led a rebellion when the instructor told us that one of the few day we had remaining have a student-taught class. After shelling out so much of my own money, I felt cheated to be instructed by a bunch of kids who knew little more about writing than I did while our alleged teacher sat by and drank coffee. Our petition against this nonsense failed by a single signature, but in retrospect I would have gotten so little out of one additional day of college professor instruction that I can't see why we made a fuss.

Upon return from Massachusetts (which, by the way, was the first time I'd socialized for a significant period with people from out of state and was the impetus for trying to eliminate my accent), I knew two things: I'd paid a lot of money for people to try to teach me to be a better writer and learned next to nothing, and that there were some people with a natural gift for such things and I was not one of them. So I continued to run the literary magazine, submitted any poems and prose I had backlogged, and essentially never wrote again unless an assignment required it.
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