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Summer’s lease hath all too short a date…

This hasn’t been a real summer anyway, with all the work related to the new MPOW, but summer officially ended for me around 2 p.m. yesterday, when I received an email asking if I would be one of the hardy volunteers to turn in an essay on the first day of my fall writing workshop.

For those of you unfamiliar with writing programs, the workshop experience is the most important part of writing school, the most dreaded, and the most debated. Students turn in essays which are critiqued by other students (as well as the instructor). At my school, during our first semester we were given instruction in how to give appropriate feedback. It’s not like you read in The Wonder Boys, where students tear into one another; workshop feedback is offered tactfully, and the insights are extremely helpful and often positive. At the end of every semester, I plow through all the feedback, and find that I want to keep most of it.

Nevertheless, workshopping can be gruesome. It’s not what others say about my work; it’s knowing that they are (often) correct. I flinch at the mirror held up to my face that reflects back to me my wrinkles, the oversized pores, the sagging flesh. Why couldn’t I see that while I was writing it? Why is my work so flawed? What am I doing in this expensive program, this time-sink of a boondoggle? (“Learning to write better” is the appropriate answer, but during the 45 minutes of workshopping, that thought rarely bobs to the surface of my teeming brain.)

Of course, there are workshop nudnicks, usually identifiable because they begin most critiques with, “I hate to say this”; and in turn, some students are impervious to all suggestions. But the majority of students offer useful, helpful input on one another’s work, and the majority of the students benefit from the experience. I always feel my input is inane and sloppy, though each week I devote at least one entire evening to going over the essays we’re workshopping, methodically moving down my list of craft elements (scene? check; dialog? check) so that I can write at least one page per student piece (we generally review three pieces a week). Despite all my straining and efforts to provide practical advice and encouragement to my peers (as I would have them do unto me), my real revelations about student work come randomly, usually during the workshop. “Say, how about moving that paragraph to the beginning?” And people (often) nod. (I’m capable of bad extemporaneous input, of course, and part of the workshop experience is knowing when to stick to your guns.) So it is with my writing; I will struggle too hard by half with one essay, and then have something truly good drop from the sky into my brain. I suspect the first may be necessary for the second.

Workshopping has other hazards. One other student has commented on the “MFA template”–a tendency for most pieces to be written toward, and measured against, a particular type of work, featuring a predictable roster of craft elements (scene, check; dialog, check). We have often joked in class that some of the best published essays we read would not survive a student workshop. “Unpack it and use more dialog, E.B.,” I can hear us saying. “Try opening in scene, Gertrude Stein.” Reading E.B. White on the treadmill at the Y last night, I was struck by how many of his essays have almost no dialog, and how most of his scenes are deft but understated, almost impressionistic. Then again, most of us can’t write like E.B. White–though I am shamelessly stealing one of his essay forms for one of my essays, what I think of as the E.B. White U-turn, where he uses folksy nature scenes to set up his argument by analogy, then swerves and brings in exposition. “Coon Tree” is a good example of that.

Nevertheless, I’m still pro-workshop. I always feel better after my piece has been through the process. I’m usually chagrined at the writing problems revealed to me, and worried about what I will do after school when I have no weekly workshop to turn to, as I drive home afterwards, but nonetheless, I am always relieved at the small bright nubs of hope offered by students and instructors.

Last night I looked through the essays I wrote last fall, and all but one seemed crude, awkward, and forgettable, not up to what I know I can do now. To know that, and to know I can write better, is worth every minute facing the mirror.

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