Having been a creative writing student in undergrad, by the time I arrived at the first workshop of my MFA studies at Washington University in St. Louis, I should have felt confident that I knew what to expect. Over the years, I had developed a system for writing feedback letters; I had long practiced keeping my mouth shut and my face set like stone when my own piece was up for discussion. And I knew that no matter what was said or how it was said, I wasn’t supposed to take comments personally. But I was still terrified. Just like every other first day of school, I woke up that first morning with a stomach ache.
Maybe you’ve heard that workshop is a terrifying ordeal. In my experience, it can be. I’ve had classmates who just really likes to stab and twist. Worse: sometimes, I feel myself turning into that classmate. I’ll be the first to admit that when I feel threatened or embarrassed, I can turn into a purple people eater. I know a few of my strengths—I’m fairly good at communicating my response to a piece as a reader and avoiding overly prescriptive feedback—but more so, I know my weaknesses. I know that if I’m not careful, I can start talking before thinking through what I’m saying. Then I try to save it by talking more, which only makes things worse.
I imagine environments like workshop work sort of like the Stanford Prison Experiment (except, like, less ethically problematic and overall disturbing). If you’re not familiar and you’re too lazy to click the link, here’s the rundown: creepy scientists stuck a group of random dudes in prison. Some of the participants were given inmate roles; others were given guard roles. The guards ended up psychologically torturing the inmates, presumably because the power got to their heads. These people didn’t have a history of being sadists of any sort. Given the environment and the role they were given, they morphed into unrecognizable trolls. The point us, when we’re given power, we can sometimes forget what it is like to be without it. When we’re giving feedback in workshop, we can sometimes forget what it feels to be the writer in the hot seat. Giving feedback in workshop can turn even the sweetest person into a troll.
No matter how well you know your classmates, your teacher, even the room, I think workshop will always be a place of at least some tension. It’s a matter of figuring out how to manage that tension and use it for good. In my creative nonfiction program at WUSTL, I have two other students in my cohort. Two. Total. We’re also the first nonfiction cohort ever, so we don’t have second-year students, either. So when we’re sitting in workshop, there’s no hiding being platitudes or shooting off comments with the hopes that they’ll be lost in the conversation. We get down to business, even if that business is messy sometimes, because we know that mess can often be more productive than smiley faces and/or personal attacks.
My classmates up for workshop depend on me just as I depend on them when it’s my piece on the table. I know most undergraduate workshops emphasize this—spend as much time on a classmate’s writing as you’d want them to spend on yours—but we all have off days. I remember undergrad classes for which I really didn’t look over the piece as closely as I could have, or I rushed to finish the feedback letter at the last minute. I even skipped out on an entire class session once in a while because I wasn’t prepared at all. But worst case scenario, I knew that if I really slacked off, I’d get a less-than-stellar grade, and my classmates would think I was a jerk. Undergraduates can screw up like that. That’s why there are so many accountability measures in place—turning in feedback to the instructor in addition to the writer; taking turns around the circle to say what was memorable, what was confusing, what was exciting.
In my MFA program, accountability isn’t something that needs to be regulated. It’s expected. I’m in coursework with the same people for two years, plus I interact with them often outside of class. I see them at readings, and at the coffee shop and the library. If I don’t try to give them what they need, not only am I a selfish person, I can’t expect them to give me what I need.
Fortunately, I am blessed with an amazing cohort at WUSTL. Our workshop feels very much like a space where we can push each other, like sports coaches or work-out partners. Because our group is so small, we agreed with the guidance of our instructor this semester to change up tradition: we don’t write formal letters, though we certainly can if we feel the need to think out our feedback through writing. We come to workshop prepared with detailed marginal comments on the draft, and we spend our time together discussing one writer’s piece for almost two full hours. The writer is allowed to ask questions and talk about intentions throughout class, rather than sitting in silent agony until the very end. Remember, though, there’s only three of us plus the instructor. This set-up works for us right now, but it might not always work, and it might not work for larger groups. I’m sure next semester, with a different workshop instructor, we’ll learn other effective ways to respond to one another.
My first workshop went so well, I left elated to revise. For the first time as a writing student, I’m actually looking forward to bringing my work to class, because I trust my classmates. Granted, this is just my experience two weeks in. But workshop in my program seems to be what it sounds like: a place to tinker and build and rework and learn.
To me, that’s what it means to have a good MFA experience: to feel safe enough to try out new things. But to get there, to build a trusting, effective environment, I have to be as invested in the success of my peers’ writings as I am in my own. I think workshop is more than every person for themselves. Now, I’m sure in some programs, workshop can be more stereotypically cutthroat. But maybe it doesn’t need to be.