Friday, January 11, 2013

Further MFA Thoughts...

My last post (on how earning my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts enabled me to try my hand at novel-writing) got me reminiscing on the two years I spent up there and, lo and behold, in the midst of this Memory Lane, I came across a blog post by Patrick Ross.  Here's the link if you want to check it out Ross Blog and This Post too.  

Both entries from Ross, who is currently a student in the MFA program at VCFA, discuss workshop dynamics during residency.  I'm fairly certain that anyone who has been in a writing workshop will feel some sympathy for what he describes.  Recalling my own time in workshop, I can be candid and say that it often was my least favorite part of the residency (though this was, in part, because I liked lectures and readings a lot) and that, of the five workshops I participated in, some two were great, two were okay, and one was disappointing.  And sure, I can remember being frustrated and annoyed (though never insulted)... maybe embarrassed at times and on occasion feeling bad for another student who I felt got short shrift in some way.  

But more than any specific or general memory, Ross's posts made me realize how lucky I am to have experienced the workshop from the other side -- as a teacher.  I would go so far as to say that it wasn't until I was in charge of leading my own workshops as a fiction writing instructor that I understood the value, power, and true potential of the workshop, the reason why it is the core of every residency at VCFA.

First, being on the teaching side made me realize that the workshop is as much about the other students as it is about the one student whose paper is "on the table."  That is, the students who are offering critiques should be as open to learning and listening as the student who is receiving the critiques.  Too often, the dynamic only flows in the other direction -- the speakers talk to the the writer rather than to each other.  When I instruct I try to get the students to speak to each other and to let the writer be a fly on the wall as this group of readers  attempts to work their work through the piece.  

Second, I realized that it is absolutely crucial to go over, establish, examine, and explain the ground rules for the workshop.  Rehashing my own experiences, the ones that didn't go smoothly or effectively were the ones where the instructors and students assumed we all knew how to do this workshop thing.  The truth is, there are no set rules, and groups should be assertive about establishing their own.  Its also true that habits are hard to break: I often need to remind my students of the rules, and we sometimes begin workshop by setting goals (everyone talks once before anyone talks twice; everyone has to quote from the story when making a point) and we almost always end with a short debrief to get a feeling as to whether it went well for everyone. This adds a meta-discussion layer that is very useful; we all become more self-aware and involved in what it is that we are doing (and not just the doing).

Third, leading workshops has shown me that the teacher needs to be on the same level as the students.  I have seen first hand (from both sides) what happens when the instructor swoops in to comment in deus ex machina style.  A lively back-and-forth amongst four or five students suddenly comes to a screeching halt when the teacher wades in and summons up the voice of authority.  I try not to have the last word.  I also make a point to ask questions of others, to invite them to respond to me rather than listen to me.  

And that, I think, in an nutshell is what workshop is about... responding.  Explaining honestly what one read and felt and understood and misunderstood. In my time at VCFA I absolutely learned from every workshop that I was in.  But I have learned even more through teaching.

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