For the last few years I’ve been lugging this huge document box full of workshop comments everywhere, to DC, New Orleans, Oakland, Berkeley, with the intention of someday sitting down and going through it and revising all my old MFA stories.
Well, over the years I’ve revised all the stories that felt like they really had potential, and now I’m left with a few promising ones, but I still have this huge box of paper. So a few days ago I went through the box, being as ruthless as possible, and got rid of the comments for every story I’ve either already revised or will never revise.
And in the process I ended up reading a bunch of the comments again (or at least bits and pieces of them), and it was strange how little I cared about what my classmates and professors had to say. The comments were good–nothing wrong with them–and they’d certainly made the stories better, but I remember that when I first got them, they seemed so important. The reaction of workshop to my stories was something that mattered: something that affected my status in the eyes of myself and the world.
But now I can see how trivial it all was. The comments changed nothing, and meant nothing. Even in terms of learning, the comments were of far less value than I thought. The real value of the MFA was that I was held to a higher standard: that I couldn’t half-ass things or allow myself to ignore problems in my own writing. Three times a semester I’d turn in a story that I thought was perfect, and each time I’d see that it wasn’t. That was the lesson: there’s always something to learn; there’s always some way that you fall short.
I don’t think workshop is good for writers. It puts too much emotional weight into something that doesn’t matter. Who cares whether your instructor likes your story? Editors certainly don’t, and neither do readers. Furthermore, what does your instructor’s approval even mean? You interpret their praise as “good story” when what they’re really saying is “good try.” And as a result you learn the exact opposite of what you ought to learn. You learn that praise matters, and that the point is to turn in something that’s beyond criticism, when really the lesson ought to be that nothing matters aside from your own judgement. Instruction in writing is only worthwhile, I think, insofar as it teaches you to see what your instructor can see. If you get a comment, and there’s a sizzle in your brain and you think, “Oh my god, I knew that. I mean…I didn’t know it, but now I see it” then you’ve gained something.
But those moments were very rare for me, and I think it’s because I was too focused on parsing out “Is this comment good for my self-image? Or is it bad?”
If I could do it again, I hope that I’d be a better listener, but in my heart I know I wouldn’t be. When you’re in a grad program with other talented writers, there is too much that depends on your maintaining the illusion that you are, in some way, better than them.