11 Tips (Plus More) on How to Survive Your MFA Workshop

I’m a sucker for lists of “10 tips,” whether they’re tips about fall fashion or cooking tofu, so here’s a list of Back to MFA School tips, to ensure that you make the most of your writing workshop, whether it’s in an MFA program or through another venue. I think most teachers want their students to succeed as writers, and based on my experience as a teacher/one-time student, here’s my two cents.

I teach in a variety of venues — traditional workshop at Johns Hopkins; a low-residency MFA program at Converse College; community-based workshops/classes at Politics & Prose Bookstore — and I believe that all of these thoughts are relevant to whatever sort of class you find yourself in. (The numbering is random, not a priority, though I will stick to number 1 being number 1…it’s also something I see being ignored the most!)

1. Read the instructor’s work. You’ll better understand his/her aesthetic; you’ll be able to ask more insightful questions about craft knowing the body of work the teacher is most intimately familiar with; you’ll have a stronger grasp of the teacher’s process when there are the (inevitable) allusions in class to, “Here’s how I handled that situation in my first book…” Plus, as noted above…

2. …a sincere compliment is always welcome! While teachers strive to be (and I will assume are) fair, it’s not stupid to assume that they will be flattered that you’ve read their work. You don’t have to love it (though I wouldn’t suggest offering a critique!) — most writers are happy just to hear that you bought a copy. Get it signed (no, that’s NOT embarrassing!) and make a thoughtful remark about what you’ve read.

3. Extend this same general attitude of pleasantness to your fellow students. Start by assuming that they want you to succeed. Assume that they will succeed. Assume you’re all in this together and that you’ll learn from each other.

4. Even so, there will be assholes along the way. And people who seem to you to be dumber than dirt about writing. Don’t worry about them. Over your career as a writer, you’ll hear many, many, MANY comments about your work that are not useful and that, if you paid attention, could even be damaging. The workshop is where you learn how to sort that out. Listen to the people who get your work, who have good motives, who are smart, whose comments make YOU see the new vision to the story/poem/essay. (This may not always be the teacher.) Hemingway said that very writer should “develop a built-in bullshit detector.” I’m certain he didn’t mean only for the writing!

5. Learn from the reading you’re doing. If your teacher says you have a problem with writing description, see how the experts do it…study the books you’re reading in the lit portion of your program: what are the descriptions like? How is a novel structured? (Check out The Great Gatsby for a perfect example of classic structure!) What’s the balance between scene and summary in the short story in this week’s New Yorker? I can’t recommend highly enough Francine Prose’s How to Read Like a Writer. If I had my way, I would make sure every entering workshop student had read that book two or three times before setting foot in the class.

6. Take advantage of time outside the class. Does your teacher have office hours? Go! Does your teacher hang out at a bar after class, inviting students to come along? Go! (No one will care if you order ginger ale.) Does your program need someone to escort the visiting writer to the lecture hall? Volunteer! Not all learning is in the classroom. (Mentor by Tom Grimes is an interesting — and somewhat cautionary — memoir about the student-teacher relationship.)

7. But seriously…in those outside the classroom moments — and even within the classroom — don’t go on all about yourself and your work. The teacher/visiting writer is the one with the knowledge, so ask questions! Listen to their stories and gossip! Treat them as a valuable resource, because, honestly, they are. You can talk about your epic novel to your mom any old time.

8. The usual: be timely, meet deadlines, don’t roll your eyes when the teacher can see you, follow directions, don’t email pestering questions at 2AM and expect an immediate response.

9. In the workshop, during critiques: don’t always have to be the first to speak. Don’t never speak. Don’t be mean. Don’t always say that the story is perfect as it is. Don’t go on and on. Don’t be the one who turns every comment into commentary about your own work. Don’t be the one everyone rolls their eyes at, the one the teacher would like to roll his/her eyes at.

10. Remember that you’re building a relationship with the teacher. It’s not just a grade at the end of the semester: it’s a potential thesis advisor, letters of recommendation, a note to the teacher’s agent, a distinct memory when judging a contest, an invitation to speak on an AWP panel, and on and on. It’s definitely a small world. As I said, teachers DO have to be fair in the classroom and work hard for their students…but you know what? Once that final grade has been posted, that teacher doesn’t “have” to do anything else for you ever again…and I must say that every writer I’ve met has a very long memory. You don’t have to be “teacher’s pet,” but let’s try not to make enemies! (And if you’re rolling your eyes, remember that it does work both ways: it could be that YOU will be the one winning the Pulitzer and suddenly there’s your old, loyal teacher asking YOU for a blurb, and teachers know this happens [please be kind, BTW!].)

11. In the end, think in the long term: you’re not in this workshop to impress people but to learn how to write. Even a teacher you’re not fully connecting with can help you do so, if you set aside your personal feelings. Even a class with too many morons and assholes will teach you something about writing. Let go of the ego. The muse is merciless and doesn’t care who you are or what your problems might be. Focus on becoming a better writer.

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