Every Wednesday morning, I wake up exhausted–I go to work on Wednesdays, and so my alarm clock is set rather early. Even so, I find I’ve been hitting the snooze button with a groggy ferocity (picture: an arm arc’ing through the darkness, hand slamming the clock, fingers searching for the snooze button. PUSH. Arm flops back under the covers, like a monster from the murky deep returning to rest).

I’m exhausted because the previous night (Tuesday if you’re not familiar with the calendar week) is workshop night. Even though it’s comprised of sitting my ass in a chair and listening and jabbering about writing for a few hours, it’s entirely draining! To me, it’s a tense emotional catwalk–and since my stroke, I’m more affected by the vibes in my environment.

I’m still uneasy in workshop for reasons already stated…and next week, my piece gets workshopped. I’m prepared to be let down, my writing skewered, etc. It’s a tough brutal group, I’ve already discovered, one that goes straight for the jugular, and not always with great accuracy.

It’s a little like how cats toy with their prey, batting the little creature back and forth between their clawed paws, before going in for the merciful kill. Let’s fuck with this piece, criticize its most inconsequential missteps before turning to its fatal flaw without mercy–seriously, one woman in my class actually said, “The usage of that word totally sucks, and it’s total crap–oh, but I do like your piece!” What? Did she really call someone’s work “crap?” And then say she liked it?

The instructor, thank goodness, is so wonderfully sharp and balanced with her feedback despite not reigning in her brutal fold. I’m looking forward to her critique.

People who go first in workshops are brave. Or ignorant, as was my case 4 years ago, my first semester in the MFA program.

That semester, I volunteered to go first. And first I went–the first of two pieces that first workshop session, during my first semester. What a mad introduction!

I had no idea what to expect, but everyone else sure did, after they watched my piece being skewered by the workshop instructor, as he read aloud his written critique of my story. Not a single compliment uttered. I felt like I was being choked to death.

At the end of those interminable 45 minutes, when he handed me what he had written, I noted that he had read the feedback, a typed, single-spaced, full page in its entirety. Not a single compliment. I wasn’t braced for this kind of criticism. But now everyone else was.

I sat stoic for the remainder of class, keeping a stiff upper lip for the next piece. But then I went home and cried. Shit, I didn’t even make it home–I started crying in the car! I cried for a week. Nobody could console me, not even my husband.

Of course a week later, after crying my eyes out, with the reassurance of friends and the not-so-gentle prodding of another instructor, I went to his office hours and asked him to help me. “Figuratively speaking, you said the pants I’m wearing make me look fat–but you didn’t tell me what kind of pants to wear!”

Man. It was the best thing I could ever have done for my writing. He was awesome in office hours–we talked about writing in general, the writing life, what was wrong with that piece, what to do going forward. He was f*cking funny! We talked for over an hour because no one else came by, I had the entire span of time to myself (no one went to his office hours because he was such a scathing critic in class and the thought of spending one on one time with him cowed most of his students). It was one of the most satisfying moments of my time in the MFA program.

I threw away that piece (it really was total shit), and took another road in my writing. By not patronizing me, he saved me eons of time from going down the wrong path, one full of self-deception.

He continues to be one of my mentors to date, someone I write when I’m discouraged at a writing residency or when I’ve got a piece I’m not sure about or whenever he’s released a book to congratulate him or shit, when there’s just something funny to share–and he is someone who writes back with just the right thing: more than just a line or two, but an entire anecdote displaying empathy or humor or enlightenment and then punctuated with some sage advice or epiphany. He is the shit.

Man, I need to email him and see how he’s doing. I haven’t emailed him in a couple of months.

But even though that experience was ultimately great, I just won’t go the first week in workshop anymore. I’ll go second. But not first.

I’m braced now.



Filed under MFA, Writing

7 responses to “First

  1. Randa

    Guess who’s up first in workshop next week??? That’s right, your amiga. I wish I’d gotten this advice 2 weeks ago,when I volunteered. Shit. Now I know what to expect. Half of my group is new, so I bet they’ll skewer my story just to impress the prof. So, I know that. Still, man, I’m worried.

  2. Oh damn! I didn’t write this to make you feel like shit, Randa–it will be okay. I think everyone has to have the feeling of going first in workshop to get the whole “all around” experience. But since you are not ignorant or (now) cowardiced like me, be brave. I think you can set the tone and say, “I have thrown down the gauntlet–beat THIS!”

  3. chaesq

    Wow, that was brave of you to ask for the right pair of pants … and how awesome that courage paid off in the way it’s supposed to! I hope your courage in your craft continues to pay off as you ‘get back on the horse’ … or go shopping for the right pair of pants …

  4. I didn’t think I had the heart (or stomach) to ever really workshop again, but here I am in a new (online) writing workshop. It feels a lot different than those RL ones, because I think people really do take care and are very thoughtful with their words. You can’t see them rolling their eyes or making little shapes with their mouths as they TRY to come up with something constructive to say. I’m going second, too, and the first week’s critiques BLEW me away with their level of sophistication, honesty, generosity and just plain brilliance. I’m nervous but excited for my turn, which should be anytime in the next 48 hours….

  5. The other good thing about online workshops is that you can take your comments with a teddy bear and glass of wine in hand.

  6. pmousse

    It really does go to show you that being brave enough to approach him and ask him for constructive criticism was the right thing to do, and benefited you more than any amount of workshopping.

  7. chaesq: one thing you learn as a writer is to take a good beating and then get right back up. 🙂

    Susan: maybe i ought to take a teddy bear and a nalgene of wine to class anyway. that sounds great.

    pmousse: it is a weird thing, how we learn the most in the small gaps between events. that semester, i learned more outside of the classroom than inside of it.

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