How to Work the Workshop (Part One)

In about a month, I will be in MFA workshops again. I look forward to the experience, mainly because I trust my professor & peers. It feels like we’ve seen so much of each other’s work & yet we continue to surprise and challenge one another. That’s where it’s at. That’s how it should be, but it takes a LOT of work to make the workshop experience work for everyone. Here are some tips I’ve learned & been told over the last year. Noticeably, this first set of advice focuses on what you can do BEFORE the workshop even starts.

SET FEAR ASIDE

Before you even start to think about the MFA workshop, you have to (at least try to) set your anxieties aside. If you’re afraid you’re not “good” enough to be in the workshop, know 2 things. First, your acceptance into the MFA & placement in the workshop was not a fluke. A committee saw brilliance & potential in your work. Somebody wants you here because they know you are in the process of writing something amazing. Second, know that everyone is a little nervous before workshop begins, even if this isn’t their first time at the rodeo. Sharing your work with people requires a certain vulnerability that we all have to come to terms with. It might help for you to share some work with a few trusted friends before the workshop begins so you dip your toes in the water.

WRITE AHEAD OF TIME

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to write a majority of your work well before the workshop begins. This might seem obvious to a lot of people, but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t have confidence in the work I did before the MFA program & so I thought it would be better to write in the thick of it. Most of the poems I workshopped were written the week before. They weren’t complete train wrecks, but the workshop experience wasn’t as profitable as it would have been if my work was more polished.

WRITE FREELY

Another benefit of writing well before the workshop begins is that you can write with fewer voices in your head. This summer, I’ve found that I’m willing to take more risks in my work when I’m not thinking about what my workshop will think. The time for that mentality will come but for now I want to be uninhibited and even a little wild. I can tone it down later.

KNOW YOURSELF

The week before workshop begins, take some time to reflect on yourself, your work & your goals. Rachel Hadas has everyone in her workshop write a short statement about their thoughts on poetics & their expectations for the workshop. In that workshop, we got a copy of everyone’s statement which I found to be very helpful. At a minimum, though, you can & should write a similar statement on your own. Once you’re neck deep in workshop opinions, it’s easy to lose track of how YOU feel about your work. Starting off with a clear declaration of who you are as a writer is an important and helpful step.

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4 responses to “How to Work the Workshop (Part One)

  1. I was hoping “write ahead of time” would not be on this list! lol This has caused me to reflect on what my fears are and that’s a huge step toward eliminating them. I look forward to Part 2.

  2. It can be hard. I had a fierce writer’s block last Summer that had a lot to do with my nerves. If I recall, I wrote one poem the entire Summer. It was not the end of the world however. And as you said before, you’ve been writing things besides poetry. Writing is writing.

  3. I really dig this post. I’m not in an MFA program yet, I’ve actually just completed my first manuscript and am writing something like this on my blog, but I still love to hear about what other people think when it comes to any of the parts of writing. Which so often doesn’t include writing at all. haha.

    I wonder, do you ever have trouble trying to express yourself when you explain your own poems in workshop? I don’t have too much of a problem with that, but I do notice that many of my thoughts don’t come across as well as I’d like them too. I think I get nervous trying to explain myself but not come across as defensive.

  4. thanks for this post. I start my MFA in fiction at the end of the month.

    best,

    Chris Cocca

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