Workshop Woes by Lisa Ciarfella


Eighteen months ago when I first started this roller coaster of an MFA ride, me and my small group of scrivener cohorts all had essentially, the same innocent, naïve dreams dancing through our madly scribbled prose. We were all going to land the same fortune cookie tale. You know the one. When cracked open, it tells tales of highly praised, sought after scribes writing prolific prose in the genre of choice, with agents camped out on lawns and multi-gazillion dollar world-wide book sales jamming up our inboxes. And of course, ditching the day job as soon as possible in exchange for hunkering down in some great old Italian Villa to write full time to our ever growing, overwhelming international demand. Yeah, as far as tall tales go, it’s a nice one.

But then the sun crashes in hard through that dream, abruptly waking you to the realization that last night’s four-hour grueling workshop all but incinerated your words on the page, and that cotton candy dream spun high on the stick has melted just a little bit more leaving you with nothing but a stick for a pencil, and one that needs sharpening to boot. Well, not exactly. But after repeated similar late night takes in a seemingly never ending semester where you’ve watched your work get slammed over and over, heard others get slammed, and seen only the occasional blue moon praise for those lofty enough to be deemed worthy, that’s kind of what it can feel like. And it can leave you wondering if there isn’t a better way, a less soul-crushing way, to refine the chosen craft. Strangely enough, the answers seem to lie in querying the traditional five W’s of solid journalism, and you’d be surprised what you might find if you do.

WHO: First off, success of the workshop really depends on who’s at the helm leading the charge. In her “Open Letter to Crabby Writing Teachers Everywhere” author/blogger Karen Gillespie pretty much laid down the gauntlet to this dilemma in her response to another very public blog post written by ex MFA professor Ryan Boudinot, who gave the impression he was more than a little happy not to be teaching anymore:

“Your students and their clumsy, inelegant prose irritate you. (Never mind that you were just like them a couple of decades ago.) Their naiveté is grating…your dismissive attitude…shows in your teaching. You can get nasty during workshop. Your comments on students’ manuscripts are terse, bordering on cruel, especially if you’re not having a good day. Your lectures are phoned in…What does it matter? It’s not like writing can be taught. Or can it?” (Gillespie).

Bravo Karen. From my experience as one of those clumsy, inelegant and naïve students, I’d say this is about right. Of course, this see-saw can easily swing the other way if you get lucky enough to draw this instructor’s opposite: encouraging, informative, and helpful. In my workshops, I’ve experienced both types. And the benefits derived seemed to mimic the teacher directly. Case in point: my progress all but screeched to a dead end halt during an interminable semester with the former, but grew by leaps and bounds with the latter. My advice? If given the option, pick and choose your professors carefully. You won’t regret it.

WHAT:  What you’re workshopping plays a big impact in the kind of help you might get. I learned this the hard way. If you’re professor and peers have made it clear they’re not fans of romance and you bring in the latest installment of “Moon over Miami” with crooners cooing over house cats and housewives getting it on with pool boys, you might as well just stay home. Your feedback will be death by slow torture. What you thought was clever, interesting, and exciting will most likely wind up streaked through with red and comments such as “Is this really realistic?” and “why don’t you try a little poetry instead.” The big lesson here? Know your audience, and cater to them, at least a little. If, that is, passing grades place anywhere on your immediate radar.

WHERE: Timing and place in workshops is more important than you might think. Generally speaking, late night, thrice weekly workshops that meet once a week for four hours or more mean someone is going to get short-changed when reading. Grad students are busy. We have classes, work, and families to tend to which means no one has much energy to spare. So whoever draws the unlucky straw to read last in the line up will inevitably be reading to a grouchy, tired and half asleep audience at best. But we all deserve to be properly read, critiqued and considered thoughtfully. That is, after all, the whole workshop point, so consider time carefully when registering for classes. Place plays a key role too. It was rumored that a professor at my school once held workshops on her boat. Another, to have opened up their home. Both ideas seem stellar for breaking down the intimidation factor by providing a more homey, intimate workshop feel. Not a half bad idea, considering the reading experience, especially for novices. can be akin to opening up a vein and bleeding all over the page.

Why: Something to consider is why you want to workshop a certain piece in the first place. Is it for plot feedback? Content relevance? Grammar and punctuation help? Again, knowing your audience is key. If you have several self-proclaimed grammar Nazi’s in your class, and your professor is the same way, then you know going in what kind of critique you’re going to get. I learned over time to workshop only what I needed in terms of helping my story move forward. Anything else could wait. And asking specific questions of your readers to direct their attention where you want it and away from what you don’t, can be very helpful. Bottom line; keep what works, and toss what doesn’t. You are, after all, in charge of your own masterpiece. And no one knows better than you, how the story should go.

When: Another big lesson, keep your own counsel, first, foremost, and final! Maybe, just possibly, it is time to dig out that story you started long ago which your advisor saw briefly but which now inhabits your bottom-most drawer. The one they’ve poked you consistently about to both workshop and expand on. But, maybe not! Like the Mama’s and the Pappas’s sang about in “Seasons in the Sun” every story has its time and place and only you can decide when that might be. Remember, not every tale you have brewing will be right for the intense workshop experience that is grad school. Don’t forget, audience is key. So if you don’t feel comfortable sharing, stick with a  piece that you do. It’s your show after all, and too many cooks in the kitchen can mess up your menu fast.

If you’re in an MFA program, congratulations! You’ve already done the hard work. You got in! Compared to that, the rest of it should be more simple. And it can be, if you grab the reins of your experience, shut out the many voices hurtling at you like a meteor and guide it how and where you want it to be. It’s a challenge, but doable. And most of all, keep writing! Think full steam ahead, and good luck as you scribe on into the new year!

lisa ciarfella headshotLisa Ciarfella is methodically making her way through her second year of the MFA program at California State University, Long Beach. Her writing interests slant towards the noir, hardboiled, and crime fiction tales, channeling inspiration from the like of iconic greats Jim Thompson, Paul Goodis and Raymond Chandler, and present day authors Paul D Marks, James Lee Burke and Paul Brazill.

Lisa’s writing includes a series of connected short stories and, she is in novel writing mode as we speak. And this January, Sezpublishing will feature her very first published short story, “Midnight in Alaska” in their debut Halloween anthology collection: Frightening

She looks forward to graduating and on the weekends can be found throwing Frisbees around the beach with her boyfriend and two pups, Lola, and Boo.


Frightening Book Cover

6 thoughts on “Workshop Woes by Lisa Ciarfella”

  1. Having been through my own workshops in a master’s program I understand the feelings of working with a crushing, hypercritical egotistical instructor, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to avoid taking their workshops. One of the best workshops I attended was with a nationally recognized poet who held poets in total contempt who didn’t mimic her style (especially men), and yet, once I agreed to step into her mindset she taught me a lot about narrative voice that I still use in fiction today. And found a way to write poems that reflected my vision while fitting into what she found acceptable and was one of the rare students who emeged with an A even though my poetry didn’t fit her model.

    So you can learn and benefit from these instructors if you take the right mindset and accept the challenge.

  2. Reblogged this on Ciarfella's Fiction Corner and commented:
    So this week I guest blogged on Wendy Van Kamp’s site, “No Wasted Ink,” on a topic ripe for debate, the MFA workshops. My piece reveals the inner workings of workshops, the pros and the cons, and what, if anything can be gained from such experiences.
    Would luve to hear your thoughts on the matter!

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