Aside from having taught at Memphis State, Eastern Washington University, the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, I’ve also participated in creative writing workshops at the University of Arizona, the University of New Hampshire, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I was married to a poet while she was enrolled in workshops at Brown University and the University of California in Davis. I’ve seen, heard, and absorbed a lot of information through the workshop culture and can safely say that for one thing, no two writing workshop classes are the same. No teacher runs a workshop in quite the same way as another, and no program or workshop has ever managed to codify an approach to creative writing that would achieve aesthetic uniformity, or any kind of uniform outcome, period—nor does any program I know of seem to have that as a goal. In fact, the only generalization I ever felt I could comfortably make, as a student of creative writing, was that my teachers disagreed about everything and that trying to find any kind of consensus in their feedback on my work would have made me crazy. I had to learn to follow my gut and go with the advice that made sense.
This is what I share with my students at the start of every workshop class. I caution them that no story has ever been written by committee or by consensus. A workshop’s goal is not to write your story, or tell you how to write your story; its aim is to give you feedback on what you’ve already written—to point out where it succeeds and soars, what it seems to want to be about, where it might be improved, where it’s too slow or too rushed, and to give line-edits and suggestions for revision. A workshop can only respond closely and candidly to what’s on the page. I tell students that if at the end of the day 5 percent of that feedback is actually applicable to the story up for discussion, then that was a good workshop. The other 95 percent? It goes into your hard wiring to inform future stories, maybe—it gives you walls to reach out and touch later as you make your way through the dark. I advise participants against being prescriptive in their feedback, and ask that all participants lay aside their own aesthetic preferences as much as possible when reading one another’s work. I want their revision suggestions to work with a story’s best interests rather than against them. My role as a teacher, as far as all this goes, is also to widen my critical lens in order to understand each story on its own terms, regardless of how foreign the story feels—and to use examples from each story, as appropriate, for general craft tips and pointers.
Because I want students to write their own stories according to their own most strongly held convictions, I also tell them that the only hard-and-fast rule in writing that I know of is this: The student who figures out what is most loved, what is absolutely essential for that student to write about before the time runs out, and who figures out how to get started on that, is the one who will have a breakthrough and write something with lasting power. This is not something I can tell students how to do or find access to in themselves; the process is too individualized. I can only describe it by responding to the words on the page when I see it happening.
I also tell students that, aside from the many craft tips and pointers they will pick up from me in class, from one another, from assigned reading, from visiting writers, from other faculty, or from other classmates over drinks after class, the single most valuable thing they can hope to walk away from the MFA workshop experience with is a handful of lifelong faithful readers: two or three people with a shared vocabulary for stories, who will always be willing to trade drafts of new work no matter what else is going on in their lives and who will know how to get inside that work to give prompt, constructive criticism that makes sense, long after the MFA work is done.
The culture of the MFA program is itself one of the strongest components of the learning experience—the dialogue that carries on in class, after class, at parties, in coffee shops—and if students can find two or three readers to keep that culture alive in their post-MFA life, they will have gotten more than their money’s worth.