#36: The Workshop, by Paul Florez
February 19, 2014
The most horrifying rite of passage for all MFA students is getting your writing workshopped by your peers. Just the thought of submitting your carefully crafted prose to a pack of bloodthirsty grad students is enough to make any aspiring writer run to the bathroom. If there is something wrong with your story, any inconsistencies or grammatical errors, you can bet your lucky penny they will sniff it out and bring it to everyone’s attention.
Last semester, when I was first workshopped, I wrote a story about a young Japanese man living in Nagasaki during World War II who was exploring his sexuality with a screwdriver when the allies dropped the atomic bomb over the city. Admittedly, the piece was weird and experimental, but that’s how we roll at The New School. I went into my workshop knowing I had done something outside my comfort zone, trekked unknown waters, and any feedback could only be constructive. After all, if I wasn’t pushing myself out of my safety zone, what was the point of workshopping?
Some of my contemporaries read my story as historical slash. What’s historical slash, you wonder? Think Oscar Wilde bent over and taking it from Honest Abe. While others thought I didn’t quite capture the feel of Japan in the 1940s accurately enough and insisted my piece was a satirical.
One guy even commented, “I can’t tell if you just have poor grammar skills or if you purposely misused words because your characters don’t speak English.”
In Twitter lingo, my first workshop as a grad student was #epicfail.
I want to point out that the feedback was indeed constructive and that the greatest honor any writer can ever receive is that someone read your story and thought heavily about it.
However for this semester, I didn’t want constructive feedback. I wanted to be praised. Yes, I know how vain that sounds but we writers often suffer from low self-esteem and occasionally need our egos fluffed.
I mentioned in a previous post on here that I quit my Devil Wears Prada-ish job in favor of pursuing writing full-time. Since then I got a three book deal, write for publications I deeply admire, and got a 4.0 my first semester. Not too shabby, right? Well, I have friends and family members who make the occasional comment, “I wish I had your life” or “It must be nice not having any responsibilities.”
On top of those hurtful remarks, my first book, which was published under a nom de plume, received a review that read, “I hope no children get ahold of this book because they will be deeply traumatized for life.”
Ouch! Publishing is a tough industry and with so many doors slamming in your face once in a while it’s nice to hear something positive about your talent. After all my hard work, countless sleepless nights writing about Japanese men masturbating, I just wanted a moral boost.
So I decided to submit a short story to my Monday night fiction class that had been published by our very own Slice magazine (shout out to Maria and Celia for all their hard work and sleepless nights). The story is about a young Cuban revolutionist trying to protect his family amongst the brewing political turmoil in Havana. It was a story I was proud of and took me two years to complete. Slice’s Beth Blachman even proofread it so I knew there wouldn’t be any comments about my grammar.
I expanded the story, edited a few parts, and submitted it to the hyenas for critique. In the week leading up to my workshop, I wasn’t nervous and was eagerly anticipating it.
“Ambitious,” my professor said, kicking off the class discussion of my story.
I smiled. Damn right it was ambitious, I thought.
“Um, I thought his story read like an essay,” one girl said. “It just felt like a magazine article.”
My eyes widen and fangs dropped. One thing to note is that during a workshop session, the person being workshopped can’t defend their story. They have to remain silent and let their writing speak for itself.
“Your story starts on page nine,” someone shouted.
“The explosion during the climax was very deus ex machina,” another said. “A cop-out if you ask me.”
One person even doodled broken hearts all over their copy.
I sat there, smiling and taking notes, nodding as if I were absorbing their feedback and feigned being grateful, but what I really was doing was keeping my inner beast at bay.
“You wouldn’t know a good story if it bit you in the ass,” I wanted to shout.
A few days after my workshop as I sat at the bar in the Jade Hotel, sipping a very strong lemon drop martini and carefully reviewing my feedback, I couldn’t help but think my peers were right with some of their comments (yes, even the broken hearts which were strategically place on the margins of my story).
“There’s so much good here,” one student wrote. “This story is more than just a fifteen pages.”
Per our syllabus, we meet with our professor to discuss the feedback we receive during workshop. When I sat down with him at a café on 6th totally geeked out on me. He knew the ins and outs of my story better than I did (I couldn’t even answer a fact about my character off the top of my head but he could). He was my very own fanboy, and was more read on the Cuban Revolution than I was.
It’s a hard lesson for a young writer to learn that just because you publish something, it doesn’t mean the story is perfect. Every story has its flaws, and it’s the job of my program and peers to realize those flaws so I can become a better ego. I am grateful for having such diligent and dedicated contemporaries who won’t sugar coat their opinions. In the end, I benefit from their feedback. Not them.
It’s also hard to understand that when we workshop, we aren’t workshopping for publication but rather for craft. And craft is something that should always be growing, and not stunted by ego.
Paul Florez is currently receiving his MFA in fiction at The New School. He is a contributor for the Huffington Post and his work has also appeared in Slice Magazine, Queerty, and The Advocate. You can follow his misadventures over on twitter @TheTinBot.