Andromeda: MFA highlights and the perils of workshopping, with thoughts on Jeffrey Eugenides

I returned from my first MFA residency two weeks ago, but haven’t blogged about it: in part because we have so many great contributors who fill our pages; in part because I’m still processing what I experienced; in part because too much happened to cover in a single blogpost of reasonable length.

(So she explained, before proceeding to write a post of unreasonable length…. You have been warned.)

Glimpses hardly suffice, but I’ll start with faculty member Hope Edelman reminding us, in a seminar on exposition in nonfiction: “You get no credit whatsoever for living.” In other words, it’s all in the writing. Even if you had a Hollywood-quality bad childhood; even if you survived an Antarctica expedition that turned into a cannibalistic nightmare (lucky you!), it’s the selection and organization and creation of meaning that matters. When someone intent on writing memoir has had something unusual or terrible happen, we sometimes find ourselves thinking, “Wow – this writer has it made.” As if the work is half done. It isn’t. In fact, our unusual or dramatic experiences may lengthen the writer’s road, delaying the realization that only great writing – only craft – will serve us in the end. You get no credit whatsoever for living.

More specifically, Edelman helped us analyze an essay by Joan Didion, separating out the scene-by-scene narrative from the exposition. Until we read aloud those two highlighted sections divorced from each other, I’d never realized where Didion’s voice resides: in the expository or reflective sections. Take away those sections, written from the later vantage point of her older, wiser self, and the piece is competent and entertaining, but not classic Didion. A day after coming home, a talented friend sent me a chapter from her memoir and I performed the same highlighting trick, showing the balance between her narration and exposition. My friend’s style is very different from Didion’s, but dividing the work into these two essential strands made it so much easier for us to discuss the work — to peer under the hood and see how the engine was working, and what might yet be added, just to add a little more power.

Take that seminar, and follow-up realizations, and multiply at least by ten. That’s what my first term at Antioch felt like. I chose the Edelman/nonfiction example (and I’m not even a nonfiction “major”) almost at random, saving me from having to explain the queer, intense joy I had in my own fiction genre seminars: untangling strands of difficult Faulkner; discussing “defamiliarization” as described by the Russian theorist Victor Shklovsky; sitting in a hot, crowded room for two hours while students waved their arms and competed for the privilege of sharing an opinion about the particular qualities of the semi-colon. There was so much passion in that punctuation seminar we never even got to the full discussion of ellipses, which saddened me, but only in that bittersweet way, knowing that it isn’t often in life you get to spend time with people who care not only about stories, not only about words, but even about the tiniest black, misunderstood specks that stand between words.

What wonderful hours those were; what great material I plan to steal for my own future classrooms! (Good writers borrow; great writers steal. The same could be said for teaching.)

But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t balance that positive report with a little negative. No violins please – I’m a critical person (ask my husband) and I fully expected to find fault with at least something at my MFA program. In this case, it was with the peer workshops, in which we critiqued each other’s works. My displeasure was not rooted in others’ reactions to my work in particular – in other words, I’m not simply being overly sensitive – but in all of our collective reactions to each other’s works. I did not feel the click and whir of intellectual gears engaging, creating momentum that might have moved our entire small group of writers along, together.

So much can go wrong in workshopping (pardon that hideous gerund, Rich): cruelty or misguided kindness. Too little or too much moderation. Passivity, aggression, or both. Students who don’t prepare at all, or students who think their job is to be copyeditors. (I loved the faculty-led punctuation seminar, discussed two paragraphs above; I don’t believe a peer-critique workshop is the place to impose one’s ideas about where each comma should be placed.)

The process works best with a nearly-finished essay or story, but all too often, one is workshopping part of a novel, or a story that has no ending, and the conversation derails into asking questions that would be answered if only we could read page 21 or 38. Most problematically, one tends not to give a manuscript (for understandable reasons) the same benefit-of-the-doubt one gives a final, published, bound book. When we are reading a book, and come across a word we don’t understand or a motivation not fully revealed or any kind of unanswered question – and if we have confidence in the author’s mastery – we hold that question in our minds. We think, using context as clues. We expect complexity and a voice and a world that does not reflect our own. We meet the author halfway, hoping to be challenged. We enter into a relationship with the book and the author and because of that, we read very differently.

Which is not to say that in a workshop, we should overindulge the author or fail to flag genuine questions or anything that distracts us; but we should be aware of the effect that a wrinkled, raw-looking manuscript has over us, leading us into the false belief that everything is up for grabs and that we are co-authoring a story or essay. We are not. We are reading and offering feedback. That is all. We might be able to suggest that something is not working; we may be able to point out some really big blind spots. In our workshop, we read a great story-in-progress about a character I loved, a sassy cop, who happened to have an inconvenient crush on another male cop, only to find out from the writer that the story’s “he” was really a “she.” All or nearly all of us had misunderstood the character’s gender for at least the first opening pages; I continued to misunderstand for many more, so enamored was I of this “male” character who subverted so many cliches! (Or not. As a female, the character conformed more to type, unfortunately.)

We may be tempted to prescribe potential solutions, as I — bad workshopper — was tempted to do. (Are you sure the cop can’t be a guy? He makes a really smart and funny and likeable guy. I miss him already and he never existed, even in a fictional sense!) But in the end, the writer will have to supply the integrated solution.

But back to the larger problem, which suggests how easily workshopping can be an essentially conservative process, rewarding what is most familiar to us. Take a really good, published book. Now imagine it being workshopped.

Obviously, Hemingway (choppy sentences! Lack of transitions!), Faulkner (what the hell is going on?), James Joyce even in his less-experimental works (POV confusion! ), Henry James (wordy wordy wordy!), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (wait – we’re in the middle of the book and suddenly the main character dies and we’re told in parentheses!?) and nearly every innovative classic text would fail, disastrously. These would not be happy or fruitful discussions. Not that I can imagine Ernest or William or James or Henry or Virginia caring — at least I hope not. (Take the stones out of the pockets, Virginia. We love your work.)

But those are classics, some of them experimental. Those are exceptional authors and exceptional works. What happens if we take a somewhat more conventional book and workshop it?

I could choose any of a dozen books I’ve read this year, but to be neutral and fair, I’ll select the book that happens to be the one my MFA mentee group is discussing this week online, which I’ve read twice now, having forgotten most of the details after the first time around. (A mid-life MFA has its pleasures, but also its challenges.)

The book is Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides, told in the plural first person by an ill-defined group of narrators – adolescent boys – who are watching and reflecting upon the suicidal Lisbon girls.

Let’s take a look at the single most common comment that came up in our workshop, in reference to our own student works, two weeks ago: “This character doesn’t seem embodied.”

The Virgin Suicides narrators are completely disembodied. We don’t know much about them, though we are looking through their eyes. We don’t even know their names. We certainly don’t know their eye and hair color, whether they are fat or slim. They are not individuated – and that is the point. They are not described – and that too, perhaps, is the point.

In a 2005 3:AM Magazine interview, Eugenides said, “I don’t know why I seem to like impossible voices. I think it may come from religious literature, you get a voice that issues from a mysterious place and tells you things of the utmost importance. There’s something I like about that, about not being able to know exactly where the voice is coming from. Certainly, that’s the case in The Virgin Suicides where you don’t know how many boys it is. Is it one, two or a hundred, you don’t know. But the voice is compelling and holding your attention and it seems to me that only in novels and in literature can you come up with such voices. ”

Try explaining that to your fellow students in a workshop.

Virgin Suicides would fail the workshop test in other ways – just as it would fail many a book club discussion. The deaths of the virgins (sorry for the plot spoiler) are melodramatic and not credible or well-explained. (Admittedly, this bothered me, but it was so part of the author’s larger themes that I can’t do more than quibble.) Loose threads? This book is a moth-eaten shawl. But it’s also a thing of beauty and the very distinct vision of an author who writes with style and purpose, telling the stories he seems made to tell.

I could go on – but I’m well-past reasonable blogpost wordcount. Let me close here, reiterating that I loved my first MFA residency, and I’m not against workshopping (that evil gerund). In some (not all) of our 49 Alaska Writing Center classes, we will be using workshopping methods; any one who takes active part in a community of writers ends up critiquing or being critiqued in some way, and certainly sharing and learning how to parse feedback is an essential step in the lifelong education of a writer.

What I do believe is this: workshopping is an art, an art that must be learned and hopefully can be taught, just like writing. It demands thinking not just about our own work, not just about our fellow students’ work, but about all of literature, asking all the difficult questions: How do we understand what we read? How would different people in different times or places read this differently? What does it mean to be a responsible and informed critic? How has the fairly modern process of workshopping changed American literature over the last half-century (actually, a book has been written about just that topic, and I plan to read it soon, and would love to hear others’ opinions — perhaps even at this very blog).

It takes work to workshop. That’s the plain truth.

So much more to do; so much more to learn and discuss. Glad we’re all in it together.

4 thoughts on “Andromeda: MFA highlights and the perils of workshopping, with thoughts on Jeffrey Eugenides”

  1. I attended three of the Santa Barbara Writers Conferences some years ago. Much of what you wrote brought back fond and not-so-fond memories of various workshops. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. A wonderful, thought-provoking post. Your example of separating narrative from exposition reminds me of the Alice Munro stories I'm reading now – fiction, beautifully detailed, yet the expository sentences that pack the big punch.

    The object of workshopping – to get fellow writers to examine one another's work closely – is noble and good. But as you mention, in its implementation, it's easy to slide into safe truisms, as in your embodied characters example. In truth, the best writers are always learning and stretching and trying out new ways of seeing and knowing, and the MFA-style workshop may or may not be the best place for that to happen.

    BTW, for those of you who are guy-shy of MFA-style workshops, note that when Andromeda says our 49 Writers courses will incorporate workshopping, she doesn't mean that all will; we plan to offer a nice variety of options, from quick informational clinics to activity-based workshops (same name, different animal) to courses that mirror MFA-style workshopping.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Good point, Deb, about not all of our instructional offerings using workshop-style peer critiques (I changed a few words in my original blogpost to reflect that). Also, there are other great ways — ways we've experienced together! — to share and respond that are not full-blown critiques, per se. Sometimes these shorter opportunities to hear back what people "heard/read" in our text are equally fruitful.

  4. Love it love it love it- keep it coming. As I was tutoring a screenwriter -to-be last night I thought about how one has to keep reminding oneself of all of these things- like doing yoga every day to stay limber, or refreshing your hard drive to keep it moving. We're all to gain from your shared journey so please keep writing…(oops)

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