Anatomy of a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience

24resizedJust saw my friend Alex Kane's blog post about the aftermath of going to Clarion West (which is a six-week summer workshop for SF writing that was taught, this year, by Neil Gaiman and a lot of other good writers who are about a tenth as famous as Neil Gaiman). He had a really good time and posted a very solid and moving description of a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience.

I myself went to Clarion when I was just a lad. Only 20 years old. Couldn't even go to the bars. It was very hot in East Lansing. And I definitely had a good time. But, well, here's the last mention of my Clarion experience in my journal (from 17 hours before I left).*

"Perhaps the happiest moment of my Clarion experience was when I discovered that two months ago I booked my departure ticket for Friday evening rather than Saturday, as I had thought. Mentally, I never want to leave Clarion. But physically, I need to get the fuck out of here. My body is completely breaking down on me. I can't sleep more than three hours a night due to horrendous coughing fits. I'm suffering from a low-grade fever and I think I'm getting an ear infection. Since [I'm] going to Europe on the 8th of August, it's really great to know that I'm going to be able to get an additional night of sleep."

This bears a strong resemblance to my feelings at the end of Sewanee and at the end of pretty much every writing workshop I've ever been in. I start off feeling all comradely and wonderful. But by the end, it's become a grim, nightmareish affair. And when it's all over, I feel only a tiny bit better than when I started. I think this might just be a personality quirk, since other people seem to have Semi-Mystical Workshop Experiences all the time.

You know what I'm talking about. It's like, when you go to a workshop and you come back feeling inspired and transformed and utterly different as a writer.

For me, the things I've experienced that've been closest to SMWE's have been the two learning experiences that've been the least like a traditional workshop.

The first was Nick Mamatas' 9-week class. There were only 4 people in the class, so everyone could be workshopped every week, if they wanted. And I did want! There was no week in which I didn't turn in something (although one week, what I turned in didn't get workshopped by the whole group). And (in my recollection), for the last 5 weeks, what I turned in were stories that I'd written during the class.

Three of the stories that I workshopped in that class ("The Snake King Sells Out", "Inside The Mind of the Bear", and "A House, Drifting Sideways") sold, as did several of the stories I wrote, but did not turn in, while the class was going on ("What Everyone Remembers", "The Ships That Stir Upon The Shore", and "No Victims") . As did four of the six stories I wrote right after finishing the class ("Man-Eater", "Another Prison", "Tomorrow's Dictator", and "An Early Adoption"). All of these, except "A House..." and "No Victims", were at more than five cents a word.

What made the class good is that the workshop experience wasn't a traditional one. Because the class was so small, the workshop was fairly short (maybe 20 minutes) and instructor comments tended to predominate. In most cases, while the comments were good, they didn't lead me to make massive revisions to the stories in question.

The other great class I took was last semester, when I took a distance-learning class with David Marusek, through a writing center in Alaska (where he lives). David is one of my favorite SF writers, so when I saw on his blog that he was offering one-on-one tutorials, I knew I had to take one.

For that class, I started by turning in a story. Then he gave comments. Then I revised the story and turned it in again. Then he gave more comments. And I revised it yet another time. And then he gave me final comments and the class was over.

For this one, the key was the second revision. For both revisions, what I ended up doing was a total rewrite (I could submit all three versions to a magazine, and no editor would know that they were related). But the second rewrite really forced me to abandon some of the lazy, poorly thought-out stuff I'd allowed to bog me down between the first and second rewrites. And the result was a much more rigorously thought-out story than I'd previously been used to producing.

The habits of mind I got in that class have helped me in all my fiction since then (even realist fictions). It's just the habit of knowing what I know and knowing what I don't know and knowing what I need to know. Now, whenever I am bogged down with a story, I try to think about what questions remain unanswered.

Anyway, I think that, for me, a good class is one that doesn't let me get away with stuff and one that inspires me to write better stuff. And most workshops at least attempt to do that. But they also come with all kinds of other stuff that bogs you down. For instance, summer writing seminars require you to leave your home and go to a strange place. That seems very counterproductive to me. They're also a huge social scene. Which is great, but also complicates the writing. And, finally, the workshops themselves are often punishing experiences that operate, on some level, by battering you down. When you have 22 people giving comments on your story (as was the case in my Clarion), it's just a lot going on, a lot of opinions, a lot to take in.

My MFA workshop definitely falls somewhere in the midpoint. It inspires me to produce better work and it doesn't let me get away with stuff. Nor is it too complicated by personalities. However, the fact that you spend years in the same program as the people you're workshopping with does tend to take the edge off it, in some ways. Like, in most workshops, at the end of the class, you might be friends with the people, but you're definitely not in workshop with them anymore. In an MFA program, you're gonna be doing this together for week after week after week.

Also, the pace of an MFA workshop isn't quite fast enough to create that euphoric cascade of realizations that is necessary for a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience. If you're turning in a story every month, then your blood doesn't get up and your adrenaline doesn't pump in the same way that it does when you're turning in a story every week or when you need to do a complete rewrite over a weekend.


*My Clarion posts are the oldest thing on this journal that a person can access. I cringe when I read them. The person who wrote them seems so callow. I wonder if I'll someday cringe when I read posts like this one?

If you go to a workshop with the expectation that people will lavish praise on your writing, there is a nonzero chance that you will be destroyed

you suck

A bunch of my friends are going to writing workshops this summer, so I thought I’d share the most hard-won piece of advice that I possess: don’t go there looking for people to tell you that your writing is great.

What makes this advice so hard-won is that I’ve gone into so many critique situations looking for that kind of validation and I’ve rarely gotten it and the not-getting-of-it has melted me into a boneless jelly of self-hatred. And now I don’t look for it, and I am much happier and much more willing to take criticism.

Now, I know I am going to get a ton of comments where people are like, "Oh, of course it's stupid for people to look for validation at workshops," but c'mon, let's be real. You do it. Or at least you've done it. You don't admit to doing it, because that is gauche. But you know if, deep down in the back of your brain, you're really hoping that the instructor will tell you that you are amazing. Honestly, it's really hard to not hope for least in the beginning.

The reason it is so dangerous to look for validation is not because you never get it…it’s because you sometimes do get it. Let’s face it: in every MFA program, Clarion class, and workshop, there is a star. And when you are that star, the validation that you get from your teachers and classmates is so intoxicating that it can become addictive. The impersonal world of submission and rejection offers no pleasure which is as exquisite as when your workshop leader—frequently a well-published and critically acclaimed author—tells you, in detail, why your story is excellent.

That has almost never happened to me. But the few times it has, I’ve gone home shaking. The excitement frequently rendered me unable to sleep. That joy was capable of nourishing me for days.

I think I am lucky to have not been given too many tastes of this joy. Because when you take too many hits of that crack-pipe, you start to need it. And chasing after validation starts to affect your behavior. You feel the need to run all of your work through some kind of critiquing process. And if the critiquers don’t like it, then you start to hate it too. And you start waiting for people to validate you: you wait for an authority figure to tell you that you’re ready to publish, or ready to write a novel, or ready to send a story out.

Recently, a writing colleague told me about a person who’d been working on a short story for ages and ages and felt like they had finally finished it, and then they’d put it up for critique and received a really wonderful and positive critique from a well-known SF writer.

Which, okay, is wonderful…until you stop to think…if they’d finished the story, why did they put it up for critique? And the answer is that they were looking for someone to tell them that it was finished.

But what if it hadn’t gone that way? Many very well-regarded novels have received a few negative reviews, after all. What if this story had received a lukewarm or a negative critique? The answer is that the author probably would’ve spiraled down into another round of revisions and rewrites.

That’s insane. At some point, a writer should be able to take control of their lives and their work and say, “No. This is finished. This deserves to be published. I believe in it, even if no one else does.”

Because the alternative is to put your self-worth into the hands of anyone who might possibly offer you a kind word.

And that’s a terrifying place to be. I should know; I used to be there. Sometimes I’d get negative critiques that would haunt me for days. Several summers ago, I got one that I literally could not stop thinking about. When I woke up, the first thing I’d think, even before “I’m hungry” or “I need to pee,” would be “Shit…I got that critique.”

I was so devastated by this critique that it called my whole future into question. I could not go to an MFA program if I was going to continue to react to criticism in this way. I couldn’t ever enter a workshop situation again if I didn’t sort this out.

So I did. I was driving on the 880 (I have a lot of epiphanies on the 880) when I realized that the reason the critique had affected me was because so much of my self-worth is tied up in being a good writer. And if someone had had such a negative reaction to a story that I’d liked so much, then it meant I might not be a good writer, and if I wasn’t a good writer, then I wasn’t really anything.

Right there on the highway, while I was crossing the Dumbarton Bridge, I did some mental reshuffling. I told myself that I was not, first and foremost, a writer. I was just a guy who wrote stories. And if the stories were bad, it was no big deal, because that was not who I was. And it worked. Ever since then, I’ve gone into critique situations with zero expectation of validation and no matter what gets said, I tend to walk out of them with very little angst sitting on my shoulder.

Yes, this is a really hokey and shopworn epiphany, but it’s also an epiphany that people can go their entire lives without having. There are really famous writers who die inside when someone says something negative about their writing. Don’t be one of them!