Tag Archives: mfa programs

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

UCLA Writers Faire

ucla signThere are a few people in my local writing group that are in MFA programs here in Southern California. I’ve heard about their classes and seen the relationship between them and their professors by the notes they diligently follow as they work on their stories. When UCLA announced a Writers Faire on campus featuring free panels of professors to talk about writing and the ability to sign up for any class in their writing program at a 10 percent discount, I put the date on my calendar and decided to give the event a perusal.

Traffic was with me. This is a semi-religious statement known to most dwellers of Los Angeles when you find open road on a Sunday. Any other day of the week, my trip to the university would have been over two hours. I arrived at Parking Structure Two, with ample time to spare, before the first panel would begin.

“Welcome to the Writers Faire, do you know the password?” The young woman in the reflective vest asked in a bored voice.

I stared at the parking attendant, not sure how to answer her question. I resisted the urge to tell her Open Sesame.

“If you don’t know the password, or have a badge, it will be $12 to park. Cash.” I frowned. No one had mentioned to me that I needed to bring a badge or the increase in parking fees. The last time I had been on campus, parking was $8. I opened my wallet, but balked. It was not so much the higher rate, but the situation I was put in. Password indeed! “Can I make a U-Turn out? I will find parking elsewhere.”

There was a shrug. “Sure. If you want.”

On my way through Westwood, I had passed a small parking garage which proclaimed a $5 flat rate. It would be a little bit of a walk from the bottom of the hill, but the savings to my pocket book would be worth it to me, and it would salvage my pride. I found the walk to campus to be delightful as I passed by a botanical garden and then proceed on cement pathways through buildings that were a mixture of design from traditional brick to modern cement.

Writers Faire Vendors

Ahead in one of the courtyards, I spotted a small grouping of white EZup tents and market umbrellas. Most of the tables were for writing classes at the university or the entertainment media program. On the pavilion an entire area was set aside for students to queue and enroll at a 10 percent discount. Several universities had information about their writing programs, including USC, UC Riverside, Chapman College, and Cal Arts.

Organization of Black ScreenwritersThe first table I stopped at was the Organization of Black Screenwriters. A lovely lady in yellow explained about her non-profit group. She assured me that the group was open to anyone with an interest in screenwriting and her organization would be an excellent networking opportunity.

The Independent Writers of Southern California or IWOSC were offering mini-writing panels at the faire. They are a large, friendly writing society with plenty of activities for members to attend. I understand that they offer writing webinars in addition to their Los Angeles based meetings.

A Room of Her Own or ARHO is dedicated to furthering the vision of Virginia Woolf and bridging the gap between a woman’s economic reality and her artistic creation. The ladies tending their table had a drawing for a writer’s retreat and photos about the last one that the organization hosted at a desert resort.

The Writer’s Junction is a workspace where you can find the quiet of a library, the society of a coffee house and the focus of an office. It is located in Santa Monica and the space is available for a low monthly stipend. I loved the idea, but traveling to Santa Monica is simply too far for me.

PEN Center USAThe final table I visited was shared by two literary magazines from PEN Center USA. The Rattling Wall is a year old and is looking for up and coming writers. The editor of the magazine was on hand to answer questions about his journal. The other literary magazine, The Los Angeles Review, was giving a free issue to interested readers. I found both the magazine representatives to be outgoing and genuinely interested in finding fresh talent for their publications. With hundreds of young aspiring writers underfoot at the Faire, I’m sure that they were successful.

It was time for the first battery of panels to begin. I selected a panel called Writing for the Youth Market. As the panel of four writers began I found myself questioning if these professors took the Writers Faire seriously. One arrived late and then informed the crowd that she was more a dancer than a novelist, another kept repeating “I don’t know why I’m here.”, and still another told the crowd of aspiring YA authors that if they wanted to be published, then they should seek out AARP, a senior citizen newsletter and write articles for this corporate publication. Only one panelist made an honest effort to be on topic and talk about what sort of writing you should do to make your story into young adult or new adult stories. To say that I was disappointed at the end of this panel would be an understatement.

Panel  on Writing and Publishing Short Stories

My next panel was across the courtyard and was entitled The Art of Writing and Publishing Short Fiction. This time, the panelists were professors of the advanced writing program. Each gave a short mini-lecture that demonstrated examples of information you might learn in their class and a listing of their experience and writing credentials was given. I was impressed by this panel, each instructor had an interesting personal story to tell, and because their skill as storytellers was evident, I felt that I got to know them better. My favorite of the panel was an inspiring hispanic woman that told us how she started as a substitute teacher at Los Angeles Unified School District, but left to continue with her writing, earned a fellowship, and then became a writing teacher at UCLA. Afterward, I went to the panel to ask further questions about publishing. The answer I received should help me begin my next step in writing. Of all the panels I saw that day, this was the best group. I would be honored to take a writing class from any of these instructors.

Questions After A PanelThere was an hour break for lunch before I returned to the courtyard to attend two more panels. I found both of them to be less than desirable, but mainly because they were aimed at beginning writers who knew little about the market, publishing or how to organize and write their stories. The panels were more about selling the writing program to young students, than imparting writing information. What little information was provided was what you could easily find on the internet.

As I departed that afternoon, I pondered that the Writers Faire was more to look over the program and the professors that would be teaching you at UCLA than being an event to learn about writing. This is not an invaluable thing. Many times you sign up for a course with no idea what the teacher will be like. By having the opportunity to listen to the teachers speak, hear more about their classes and their backgrounds, it makes it easier to make an informed decision about which classes you might wish to take or about the entire program in general.

Writing is a personal experience and every teacher brings something different to the table. Make sure it is a meal that is worthy of your repast. I am glad that I took the day to go to UCLA and learn more about what the university has to offer.