The workshop is the core of the creative writing M.F.A. Most graduate programs in creative writing require that students enroll in at least one workshop per semester.
Despite the ubiquity of the workshop model, critics of M.F.A. programs have long argued that being read and critiqued by other beginning writers may not be the best way for aspiring authors to hone their craft. Writers who have been through workshops, however, tend to disagree—and their increasingly noteworthy publishing track records indicate that the workshop can, and often does, lead to published books and powerful, inventive writing.
The typical graduate-level writing workshop has three elements. There’s the workshop instructor, a published author who directs the discussion and keeps the trains running on time; the writer whose work is being critiqued; and the rest of the class—all writers who, when they themselves are not being critiqued, function as a crack team of critics. Depending on course size, an M.F.A. student might workshop 15–25 pages of prose two or three times a semester; while poets in smaller group sometimes workshop as much as a poem (or even two) a week.
Workshop prep for both students and faculty consists largely of reading and critiquing. Proponents of the workshop argue that this teaches writers as much about craft as writing does. “Contrary to popular belief, if you are really interested in being a writer, then you must be a stellar reader, and this is truly what the M.F.A. is for—to make you a better reader,” says Scott Cheshire, who graduated from Hunter College’s M.F.A. program in fiction and whose debut novel, High as the Horses’ Bridles, was published by Henry Holt in July. “Cynics will scoff at this and they are welcome to—‘M.F.A.s are banality machines, etc., blah blah....’ ”
While a writer’s work is under critique, he or she is usually barred from speaking, a practice that mimics the real-world relationship between writer and reader—if, e.g., a reader is bored by the opening paragraph of a book on the new-release table at Barnes & Noble, there is, after all, no writer present to explain the thought process behind that long-winded description of the weather. Workshops attempt to address such problems when stories, poems, novels, and memoirs are in their infancy.
Rebecca Dinerstein, whose debut novel The Sunlit Night sold to Bloomsbury for a rumored six figures (it will be published in June 2015), credits workshops she attended at NYU with helping her to realize that the first draft of the novel needed to be completely reimagined. “Unfortunately and fortunately, my first M.F.A. workshop revealed to me that my novel made no sense. It had no structure, no plot, no order. In the summer between my two M.F.A. years, I restarted the book from scratch. My workshop readers helped me preserve the book’s essence and redesign the book’s action.”
Brittany Cavallaro attended the University of Wisconsin for her M.F.A. in poetry; it’s an intimate program that accepts only a handful of students in each genre and opens for applications in poetry only every other year (during off-years, it accepts applications in fiction). Cavallaro’s poetry cohort at UW-Madison consisted of six other writers. “We had all of our workshops together,” she says. “In short, they saw every single thing I wrote for two years. My cohort didn’t just see my poems as individual pieces (though that was a consideration); they were also always able to speak to how my project––and later, my manuscript––was evolving. If it seemed like I was just rewriting an earlier poem, they’d tell me. If a poem felt like it could be in that collection, they’d tell me that, too.”
Cavallaro’s first full-length poetry collection, Girl-King, will be released by University of Akron press in February 2015. When she began the program, she was coming off a nine-month writing dry spell. Her first workshop kickstarted her writing, and she produced nearly 40 poems that initial semester. “Not all of those poems made their way into the manuscript, but they formed its spine,” she recalls. “Nearly every poem in the manuscript was workshopped, and the ones that weren’t were looked at by my friend Jacques J. Rancourt, who had been in all my workshops and who is my first and best reader.”
The opportunity to find a best reader in a grad-level writing workshop is one of the great benefits of M.F.A. programs—writers often talk about relationships made in workshop that have transcended the classroom and become part of their processes. “The best thing I took from workshop was getting to know other writers whose minds worked entirely differently from mine and whose minds I coveted,” says Alexandra Kleeman, who attended Columbia’s M.F.A. program from 2010 to 2012.
Kleeman started an extracurricular writing group with people she met in workshop, including Sara Novic, whose debut novel is forthcoming from Random House. “I wrote the first half of my book in workshop, almost like a serialized novel—my classmates would often be reading new chapters as fast as I could write them. I didn’t revise substantially during my time at Columbia because I was still moving forward with the plot—instead, I treated the workshop as a place to get feedback on what was working and not working,” says Kleeman. The manuscript eventually became the draft of her first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, which will be published by Harper in Summer 2015 and was sold as part of a two-book deal that includes a collection of short stories.
Louise Krug’s memoir Louise: Amended also began in workshop, while she was enrolled in the fiction track at Kansas University’s M.F.A. program. “When my book was being workshopped, it wasn’t even conceptualized as a book yet, just a bunch of short ‘stories,’ as I was calling them at the time because I was too chicken to face the fact that they were memoir,” she says. Once Krug owned up to the fact that her stories were really nonfiction, she learned that the process of workshopping nonfiction comes with unique challenges. “It can be hard for your classmates to comment on the ‘narrator’ if they know the narrator is you,” says Krug. “It can also be tough to hear criticism of your actual life rather than just a fictional story.”
Krug’s next book, an essay collection, will be published by 99: The Press in 2015. She credits the workshop process, in part, for her publishing success. “My workshops gave me a lot of moral support, helping me believe that my writing did affect readers, and that it was worth it to keep at it, keep querying editors, keep revising... all of it,” she says. “If I didn’t have that belief instilled from my workshop teachers and classmates, I don’t know that I would have pursued making a book.”
M.F.A. workshops help writers manage the delicate balancing act between the process of writing—which is incredibly isolated and individual—and the necessity of writing something people want to read. “I think of workshopping as a way to read your own work through the eyes of others—a scene that you write gets refracted by those around you, and suddenly you have several different readings of it, each with a different momentum for how it might be retooled or reshaped,” says Kleeman. “Even misreadings are valuable because they help you find something in your material that you wouldn’t come up with intentionally––they help you think beyond yourself.”
Cheshire dismisses the view held by many critics that M.F.A. programs are “banality machines” that generate uniform and predictable writing. But it’s hard to take these critics seriously when authors with M.F.A.s are responsible for works as disparate as, say, Paul Harding’s Tinkers and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Harding is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate; Diaz attended Cornell; both titles won Pulitzers).
Julie Buntin is a freelance writer living in New York City.