Guilt, Shame, and the Workshop Experience

(This is going to finish in a very different place from where it begins; please be patient.)

When the finalists for the directorship were announced, I had somewhat dismissive comments of Samantha Chang; recalling this, combined with the recent acknowledgement of our vague, anonymous audience, has led me to do some reflecting.

Sam was my instructor first semester, too, along with Grendel and TLB (and others). Sam was a very calm presence in the classroom -- I don't mean vague or ethereal, but her energy was always positive, rather than taking the form of closed off, negative, iron-clad criticism. She was willing to listen to an author; to not only have a polite, measured critique of a story, but to also try to understand an author's concerns. She was a sympathetic instructor, in other words.

(It's worth nothing that before Iowa, I went to an MFA-type Masters program where the faculty was very similar in personality to Sam: considerate, polite, helpful, sympathetic; as caring about the author as anything, I'd say.)

Anyway, second semester at Iowa, I had Frank. Big difference. I don't remember exactly who was in that workshop that's also on this blog -- kclou, certainly, and also bR (congrats by the way!) -- but I was up first, and to use dull parlance, Frank tore me a new one. The 'workshop' was about fifteen minutes of him ripping my story to shreds (mostly inconsistencies with language). At one point he actually wondered aloud if in writing the story, I'd gone to a "cliche-store," where cliches were on sale for a nickel apiece, which made it easy for me to buy so many of them.

I blushed and sweated the entire time. It was absolutely humiliating. I'll never forget the experience; it was the first time in any workshop (and I've been in MANY) that an instructor was so brutally honest. It was the antithesis of the Sam experience: unsympathetic and cold, rather than warm and gentle.

Yet when I look at the work I've done over the last few years, that day stands as a clear dividing line: crappy stories before, better stories after. I know it's easy to create faulty cause/effect relationships, but this one holds truth: the effect of being humiliated that day has had a larger impact on me as a writer than any ten of my other workshops combined. I approach writing diffently *because* of that workshop . . . and I think maybe that's why I was originally critical of Sam as a workshop instructor; it had little to do with her, more with me (my apologies to her, then, for the original comments). I was at a point where 'just' polite story-to-story criticism wasn't going to be as helpful as something more jolting.

Many of us seem to have more respect (if grudging respect) for teachers who were 'mean.' Any thoughts on this? Has anyone else had similar experiences? Is there a point where to actually teach a writer who thinks he/she knows something about the craft, an instructor has to 'shock' them out of that 'knowledge'?

If people HAVE had experiences like this, I wonder if we could collect them here, try to pass it on to something like P&W, if anyone has contacts to a magazine like that. A group essay on the effect of workshops would be cool. Who knows. Thanks.

(feel free to think/tell me I'm being stupid, too)


Jane said...

An interesting question. I think I've learned just as much from some of the the "gentle" teachers I've had as I have from the sterner ones. But the after-effect is quite different.

The "gentle" teachers leave me inspired about writing in general -- appreciative of its possibilities, motivated to continue, warm fuzzy happy happy joy joy, etc. This can be very nice and helpful in the moment, but wears off quickly.

The "mean" teachers' insights are harder to swallow, but really stick with me. Stick like a burr in my shoe. Because they're more often right on. And I find myself motivated in a different way: I want to show that bitch or son of one that I CAN write, and I DO have what it takes.

I guess my "ideal" teacher is someone like Elizabeth McCracken. She never sugar-coated her comments, but never made anyone feel foolish or embarrassed either. I wouldn't call her exactly "warm." More like Mary Poppins: firm, but kind. I dig that. It's the kind of teacher I respect the most, and the kind I try to be.

Jane said...

And yes, I bought "burr in my shoe" at the cliche store, now online at www.clichestore.com.

ian said...

Interesting. I had a similar experience with Frank, at least in the short-term. He savaged my first story: it prompted his infamous "abject naturalism" lecture. I went to the restroom at break and punched the wall.
(Note: Walls do not give.) Frank wasn't impressed with my second effort, either. He liked the writing, I think, but seemed to dismiss the effort as a whole.

Now, in both cases he was right. The stories were shit. Neither made my thesis, due not long after. I don't think I've looked at either since that semester. At the time, though, being stubborn and egotistical, I thought, "Well, Frank's not for me. We think about writing differently. I'll go take Ethan's class again."

Which is absolute bullshit, of course. Over time, as those bad stories have faded from my mind, as the bruises to my ego have faded, I've come not only to understand what Frank was trying to communicate, but to appreciate it. I mean, the man fucking bleeds literature. That gleam he gets in his eyes when he talks about opening Great Expectations and being transported to the graveyard with Pip....

But I don't think I could've responded to his—or any "mean" or "honest"—criticism any other way over the short-term. I needed the shell of my ego to survive the rest of my time at Iowa, to nuture my fantasies of six-figure book deals and being the subject of a tortuous (and torturous) Julie Englander interview.

Now that I'm poor and slogging through year two of my novel and scraping together part-time jobs, I realize that it isn't the "mean" words Frank directed towards me that mattered. (Hell, after two years, I have exactly one Iowa-produced story that has had any success.) It was the passion for literature that prompted his cutting, but necessary, honesty that mattered. I can only hope someday he opens my novel and gets that gleam in his eye.

dunkeys said...

In light of Ian's post: by "mean," I guess I don't actually mean (ha!) the nature of the instructor, but more the presentation of feedback. "The experience of the critique" more than anything, I suppose . . . not the motive behind the critique so much. Most competent teachers recognize significant flaws in writers -- it's just easier to listen/harder to forget when it's presented in a more shocking way. And I agree: Frank's style comes from passion and intelligence, not general crankiness.

And that cliche store IS pretty awesome, isn't it?

SER said...

In general, harsher critiques do stick with me longer *if* I feel as though they are specific and have truth to them. I never really believe positive feedback, and I suspect many writers are the same, since many of us are neurotic and sensitive and prone to pessimism.

My one really bad workshop experience was with MR, and (at least to me) it just seemed to be a general dislike of the story, without any specifics that could help me learn in any way. Her main feedback seemed to be that the story should be "completely reconceptualized," with no explanation of how to do that. It was a discouraging experience - partially because of the obvious feelings of failure I had, and partially because it was so vague that there was nothing I could do but grasp at straws (thanks, clichestore.com!) in trying to figure out what, if anything, to do about it. "Scrap the story" isn't the most helpful advice in a workshop format, although at some point that might be the kind of thing that you'd want a first reader to tell you.

I think MR was off in general that year, since I wasn't alone in getting this kind of vague, negative critique. Obviously, when she's really engaged, she *does* read your story for its best possible version, then helps you see the path to get there (yes, I got a package of 12 cliches for a dollar at clichestore.com!). The semester I had her, though, she didn't really communicate an aesthetic, and she seemed prone to reading stories in an ad-hoc way and then arguing about them (either pro or con) almost more for the sake of intellectual exercise than toward the goal of improving them. I felt as though that was the workshop in which I learned the least, just because there were few specifics to react to (one way or the other).

Vampiro said...

I believe I was sitting right next to you, dunkeys, for that holy ass-tearing. It was not pretty, especially for our first story in our first workshop with FC. If it makes you feel any better (I'm sure it won't), I really think we were all shocked into better behavior by that workshop, at least regarding the precision of language. I'm sure not one of us let a metaphor go by without double-checking it, and those are habits that stuck. We all learned from that, bud. And I think we should thank you for taking that bullet for us. (There does seem to be a great deal of product placement in this post for the cliche store).

My concern with that workshop was the fact that it lasted 15 minutes and that there wasn't an iota of discussion about any aspect of that story beyond word choice and careless metaphors. There was still plenty to talk about, yet we were either too stunned to say anything or Frank did not invite further comment. (I believe it was the latter.) That gave it a feeling of absolute finality. But, if only to waver a bit, maybe that was a good thing, too. I've been in too many workshops where people were unduly kind in order to make up for someone else's harsh comments and all it did was water down an otherwise scathing, uncomfortable, and likely accurate critique.

My first great "shock" into being a better writer occurred when I was an undergrad. I'd taken a general creative writing workshop with a fairly renowned poet. She was generous and happy to work with me, and I think she treated me the way we all tended to treat those in the classes we taught that showed genuine interest in writing rather than sleepy interest in an easy English credit. The semester after that class I wrote what I'd still call my first real story, something complete and full that it thrilled me to finish. I asked her to read it on the side and came back later expecting a lot of praise mixed with helpful criticism (my first mistake). She was appalled by the story and made it clear. She pointed out that the implications of the story were misogynistic and cruel, and I felt like I'd been gut-punched by the time she was finished. Sure, it is worse when you are eviscerated in public, but it hurts like hell in a dark office, too.

I think what I learned from that and this is that the true horror is when you realize the truth of what the person is saying and you always thought you were better than that. It's when you get called out for not being rigorous enough, and if the beating hurts enough, you'll either quit or get better. I think we all spent nearly as much time analyzing the faculty strengths and weaknesses as we spent analyzing the proper use of the space break. FC had weaknesses aplenty, but we all walked out of that workshop with some better habits.

And, SER, as much as I marvel at MR as a lecturer and writer and brain, I feel like you described my own workshop experience with her exactly. I'm not sure who you are, but we might have had her that same off-kiilter semester. She told me that if I wanted to write about a woman in a story who had a certain sexual hunger & curiousity, my 25 page story would have to include another 100 pages about the history of female sexuality, or something like that. Um, I disagree. No gut punch there.

Pete said...

It was probably random luck, but the harshest crits I got at Iowa were from other students. Most workshop teachers seemed either politely indifferent to my work, encouraging, or vaguely (but not harshly) critical.

I don't mean that as a criticism. I saw the same teachers give great advice to others, both harsh and complimentary. I think it was probably something about my work, or for that matter, my complete lack of self-awareness.

I want a teacher that teaches me stuff. I don't care how they do it. Some doing by being harsh, some by being supportive.

Iowa did teach me, very quickly, to crave harsh critiques. I wear them as a badge of honor; I'm proudest of my work when it is polarizing. I remember the first shredding I got-- in which I was accused of both racism and misogyny, not to mention being a generally bad writer-- and how proud I was to have pissed someone off that much. (Needless to say, I don't take such accusations lightly, but I also have the self-confidence to know they aren't true. I used to play in a band that was threatened regularly for our offensive antics. Mostly, we were just stupid, but it gave me a thick skin.)

But I wouldn't say that inspired me any more than the critique for the same story that was wildly complimentary. I needed both of them; one without the other would have felt hollow.

And that's just me. And I still take it personally. I'm pissed at people who don't like my work. But they have my gratitude, and are often friends for other reasons.

Jane said...

Ian, I was there for the critique you mention in Frank's class, and I definitely felt for you. We all did. And learned a lot from it as well. It could easily have been any of us, but it sucks to be the sacrificial lamb.

It seems to be a common experience to hate Frank's workshop while you're in it, and then appreciate it later. Certainly that was the case for me. The man was indifferent (at best) to my work, a lazy teacher in some ways (no written comments, and often nothing more than a 10 or 15 minute discussion on certain stories...grrrr...) and yet I find myself quoting him constantly when I teach writing, and appreciating the disciplined approach to writing his espoused.

On a slightly related note, I recently went back and looked at some of the stories I wrote while at Iowa. Ptooey!

Charlemagne said...

Sure as shootin', Dunkeys!

I had quite a similar experience in my first workshop at Iowa. After reading my first poem aloud, Jim told me that he "Wouldn't like write like that if someone put a gun to my head." And yet, that was a great moment of teaching.

He went on to tell me some constructive things and I began to break out of the "talky" language I had used to that point in my poems. Don't get me wrong, being talky is ok to a certain extent, but the way I was doing it was uninspired and boring. That moment was probably one of my top 3 most informative at the workshop. Hard, menacing reaction backed up by suggestions was the way it came across, and an excellent teaching style.

Much, much better then Marvin's comment after reading 10 of my poems in under 10 minutes at the Cottage that I should just give up and become a high school teacher. We then discussed the merits of the rebuilding Chicago Bulls. Now that didn't help at all. It just made me think he saw something he stylistically didn't like and shut down because he couldn't/didn't want to deal with it.

Vampiro said...

I've continued to think about this because it's an interesting question. We've all had such visceral experiences with it, I think. Unfortunately, this post is dropping like a (brick? millstone? tank?).

I wonder if somehow the harsher and more startling experiences we've had with criticism aren't more effective because they affect the very core of our intuition as writers. These sorts of criticisms have made me write better without having to think about it, like a child startled into pulling a hand from the candy bin and walking with genuine innocence away. Whereas, the softer and more thoughtful criticisms, I think, can often become the sort of surface noise and consideration that can sometimes hinder the writing process. I know that sometimes I get too self-aware and too cognizant of things I've heard I ought to be doing, and it can really stifle my work, even when the advice is good. I wonder if these gentler criticisms become something to think about (potentially bad or at best difficult to digest) while the true beatings fundamentally alter whatever is at the base of where the work comes from.

dunkeys said...

Though this is doubtfully being read anymore, here's another thought. I've been thinking about how to turn this type of feedback -- shocking and effective, as long as accurate -- into something institutional (you know, at that MFA program we're all going to run together in ten years. Natch).

Vampiro's experience one-on-one with the instructor sounds best; it seems that in a two-year program, a student and his/her thesis advisor could have a formal meeting at the end of the first year. This could be an occasion for a 'reality check' of sorts. Not a workshop, not a bunch of story-specific comments: just addressing the writer's strengths and then weaknesses. A one-sided conversation. It could be preceded by a dialogue, but I'm somewhat convinced that the effect of a harsh critique is stronger, more lasting, when it stands out in sharp relief: it's not softened by discussion or 'talked away.'

I was lucky enough to have this happen naturally in workshop during the first year, but I imagine that many people would love something like this; an end of first-year 'evaluation' with an advisor who knows your work well.