The Best of the MFA: Workshop


In my MFA in Creative Writing program we take three kinds of classes: craft courses, seminar courses, and workshop courses.

In the craft courses we focus in a particular area of craft. In my most recent poetry craft class we concentrated our study on the line, the element of poetry that makes it most unique from other types of writing. You usually know a poem when you see it because instead of letting the margins of the page determine line lengths, the poet determines the length of the line.

In the seminar courses we focus on reading and studying the type of writing we want to produce or the body of writing from which our contemporary works were born. Next term I’ll be reading a lot of great poetry from the “middle generation.”

In the workshop courses our time is devoted to writing and responding to our own work. I generally write a new poem each week and submit it to my professor and classmates before we meet. They each take the time to read and respond to my draft – marking strengths and weaknesses, challenging each word choice, asking questions to clarify my meaning or the poem’s situation. I do the same for each of them.

Then in class we take turns putting our poem “up for workshop.” During this time the other students and the professor discuss my poem while I sit quietly and take furious notes. I’m not allowed to talk because what I want is to get their impression of the poem without my clarifications. I want to hear what a fellow poet sees in my poem as it is on the page.

I feel like the workshop classes are one of the things about my program that I can’t replicate on my own. I can read any number of fantastic books (assuming I have the motivation to do so) on craft. I can stay up-to-date on contemporary poetry by subscribing to journals, visiting the library, or even being online. I already have a recommended reading list full of “essential poets” that is longer than I will ever have time to finish. I can do all of this alone, technically. (I have to admit, if I wasn’t able to sit in class each week with my classmates, I would miss the conversations surrounding all of this reading though.)

What I can’t do alone is read my poems from an outside perspective. It’s kind of astonishing to me, really, how different a poem reads to someone else. Almost without fail, if I go into workshop feeling confident about a poem, it gets deconstructed in a pretty major way. And likewise, often when I feel that I have a weaker offering it amazingly finds a more positive response. (More about all of this another day.) My writing as improved the most as a result of these workshops. I love and hate them. But I wouldn’t be as proud of my improvement as a writer if I didn’t have them. I know that much.

And even though I can’t replicate this part of my MFA alone, that doesn’t mean it can’t be replicated outside of an MFA program. It certainly can. Just not alone. Good writers become good writers with help: a circle of friends, a classroom of peers, or even an online community of strangers. (More about this later as well.) It can be replicated outside of the MFA program, it just can’t be replicated alone. You can’t be your only reader.

It is a great myth of the writing world that writers do their best work in solitude. Maybe that is true at certain stages of the writing process: I can’t get a word typed on a new poem if my husband is looking at my screen! But the entire process can’t be navigated alone unless you only want to write for yourself. Then it would probably work just fine, although I’m much happier with my own writing after someone else has had a look at it and I’ve made revisions according to the best combination of our thoughts. It’s a fascinating form of semi-collaboration.

Do you let others read what you write? If you aren’t in a formal program, do you think you could find a workshop substitute? What would it look like?


My Mini-Me (On Being a Student)

Things I Like Doing As a Student:

1. Having written something worth looking at again.

2. Having completed a revision that makes a poem almost finished.

3. Talking about writing.

4. Reading.

5. Going to literary events like book signings and poetry readings.

6. Thinking about writing.

Things I Don’t Like Doing As a Student:

1. Writing.

I thought I might be sort of the special case here, but this is true for me. I like having written. I like bringing a piece to class that I’m proud of – even if it will soon be reduced to lots of crossed out words and revision suggestions. I like being inspired by published writers and talking with my writer friends about the great things we’re going to write. I like this stuff.

But you cannot fathom the myriad ways I can avoid actually writing during my assigned time. Anne Lamott is a sweetheart to tweet about it herself. Very often her morning messages are some version of “butt in chair.”

Without fail, I put off writing until it cannot be put off any longer (as in, hours before deadlines). This is why I felt like I had to be a true student if I was going to become a better writer. Otherwise I just think or talk about writing, I don’t actually write.

I recognized (again) this unfortunate little trait in my daughter just yesterday. It was her semi-annual (or quarterly, perhaps?) tearful visit with me about why she thinks she should quit piano lessons (more on that here). And I lectured her and planned strategies with her and spoke life into her destiny as a musician, but what really made the difference was when I said, “You know, Ada, I’m the same way. I just hate practicing. But I love having practiced. It’s just the way it is.”

My mom calls it “disciplining your art” and it’s true even as much as it hurts. I am certain I would never have pursued poetry if I hadn’t had the opportunity to be “forced” into writing some poems and liking them. Also, it is true that when I actually do make myself write, I like the process. I like the words and how they arrange themselves into ideas and then how new ideas pop up from the words I thought were going to say something entirely different. It’s just so hard to do that. (I mean, the latest Downton Abbey is very likely available for streaming online at this very moment!)

Here’s to the Sisterhood of the Reluctant Practicers:

May our wills be shaped according to the means necessary to attain our desired ends.

May our spirits be encouraged even in our bondage.

May the fruits of our labor today be tasty enough to get us back in the chair again tomorrow!

Maybe what really helps is knowing we’re not alone. Thanks, Ms. Lamott.


*I should note that when pressed Ada is not actually interested in quitting piano. She wants to be a great piano player. She’s just interested in it being easier. She’s looking for a way to become great that doesn’t involve practicing five days a week. And, aren’t we all?

How About a Poem?

This week I read and studied a poem by Eric Pankey called “Lunar Calendar.” Go ahead and read it on the Poetry Daily website because I don’t have permission to post it here.

I wanted to look at this poem because I think it’s a good example of how poetry sort of works when it is working well, if that makes sense. This is one of my favorite kinds because it’s accessible on first read but gets better when you do two things: 1) Read it out loud, and 2) Study it a little closer.

Read it Out Loud

I wasn’t overly impressed with this poem when I first read it, but something about it seemed interesting. So during the time in our class when we are asked to bring up a poem from the week’s assignments for discussion, I decided to bring this one up. Sometimes I select a poem for this discussion time that I loved but other times, like this one, I choose a poem that I’m not even sure I like but that I want to know more about.

We begin the discussion by reading the poem out loud. As I did this in class – up until now I had only read it in my head – I realized the poem “sounded” beautiful. The interesting words, the way the consonants and vowels played together like dancers, the rythym established by the repetition. By the time I finished, we all sort of sighed after that closing line: “The moon, fluent in every tongue, remains mum.”

Even the end sound reverberated like a hum-m–m.

Reading a poem out loud changes the way you interact with it. Try it.

Study A Little

When first expressing my hesitation to choose “Lunar Calendar” for discussion, my professor pointed out that the poem uses the anaphora technique that is very common in poetry. Yet, I hadn’t heard the term or really noticed the form until this poem. Anaphora means a word, line, or phrase is repeated at the beginning of each line. It’s a way of establishing a repeating rhythm as well as a way of looking at a common thing in a new way.

In this case, the moon.

Pankey varies the line a bit, sometimes writing “The moon is” and other times using a stronger verb. The variation keeps the poem interesting. The repetition keeps it familiar. The anaphora provides a way to look at the familiar in new and unexpected ways. The first line, “The moon is a midwife who delivers a bundle of salt”, is gorgeous.

Besides the interesting diction/language, the poem also uses a set number of lines: twelve. This is where the title, “Lunar Calendar”, makes more sense. Twelve months in a calendar year. The poem seems to look at the moon in it’s different phases and gives images and metaphors that describe them.

So there’s your little poetry seminar for the week. What do you think? Did you appreciate “Lunar Calendar” more after looking it over a little more closely?

I certainly did. Later in the week, I used this poem as a model for a poem of my own. I chose a similarly familiar subject – the sky – and tried to follow Pankey’s pattern very closely. For example, when he used a metaphor for the moon, “June bug larva”, I used one of my own for the night sky, “pickled century egg” (the black egg in Chinese cuisine pictured above). When he used a scientific term, I used one that related to my subject. I wanted to imitate his moves so I could see precisely how he made the poem work so beautifully. I wasn’t as happy with mine as I was with his, but I did come up with some new and interesting lines.

This kind of writing, called modeling or imitating, is a common poet’s practice and one I’ve learned a lot from. If you are interested, take a poem you love and try the same thing.


*image credit: Rebecca Sows “The Century Egg” on Behance


Let’s Pretend We’re in Class Together

And in this particular class (meeting on Mondays from 5 to 9 p.m.) let’s pretend we’re focusing on The Sentence. That’s right. I’m in graduate school and I’m spending 8 weeks just studying the sentence. This information either thrills you or makes you feel very, very sleepy.

If it makes you feel sleepy, your work here is done. Thanks for the click-through but you should feel no pressure to stay for the rest of this post!

If it thrills you, then keep reading! I thought you might be interested in how my submitted sentence for the week changed during workshop.

Here’s the scene: you can sit beside me around the big conference-style table in our classroom/computer lab. My classmates have not given permission for me to release their names or likenesses here, but I can let you know they are generous, funny, and smart. You’d like them.

Our professor projects the sentence onto the big screen in the front of the room and reads it out loud. Here’s mine (from a personal essay I’m working on):

There were two unexpected results from my new reading habits: first, I got hooked on the stories, and, second, I realized I had unintentionally found the long-hidden portal into conversations with boys.

As my professor said, “It’s fine, isn’t it? Gets the job done. But what can we do? What options do we have?” And then we spent probably 15 minutes discussing this sentence, crossing out words and putting them back again, rearranging the order of the elements, anything to find a clearer way to say what I was trying to say. Here’s what we came up with:

My new reading habits produced unexpected results: first, I got hooked on the stories, and, second, I found the long-hidden portal into conversations with boys.

What do you notice? It’s shorter for one thing. We cut out redundant words: you don’t need “realized … unintentionally” when you already have “unexpected.” Also, “There were” or any version of the to be verbs make boring beginnings to sentences. They take up space, really. So we cut that also. Now the sentence gets right to business.

Some of the sentences we worked on didn’t get shorter, we added to them instead. Maybe there was room for description (my grandmother’s blue and white gingham apron vs. my apron) or specificity (the tall pines vs. the trees).

It was a fun exercise and made me think about how much time could really be spent on a piece of writing in revision. As a poet, this exercise is perfect because a good poem is often just a few sentences put together. Each word in a poem has to do a lot of work. I’m used to the sentence-by-sentence game with a poem, but I realized that it works for prose as well.

If you want to try it, start by selecting three or so of your own sentences (from different works) and just tear them apart. Don’t be afraid to try things. We found that if we dismissed ideas too quickly we ended up without many changes. Often it wasn’t the first idea that worked, but we had to see that idea before we landed on the best idea. (Note: I think this might be best – to start with, at least – as a group exercise. I know I’m not as critical of my own work as I am of someone else’s. And I seemed to have NO ideas for how to change my sentence until I heard other people begin to talk about where they saw room for change.)

Don’t think of it as fixing your sentences. Because that will make you skip right over sentences that are fine now. Think of it as discovering new possibilities in your sentences. You may not need to correct a mistake; you may just want to find out what else you can do. It’s a fun little game.

See you next week! Don’t be late.

One Word 365 for 2014: Sow

1 a :  to scatter (as seed) upon the earth for growth; broadly 
2 b :  to strew with or as if with seed
3 c :  to introduce into a selected environment 
4 d :  to set in motion :  <sow suspicion>
5 e :  to spread abroad 

I like the One Word 365 idea. Instead of New Year’s resolutions, it asks you to search that unseen depth of yourself for a single word that you can use for the year as a guide. I like to sit quietly for a few minutes and just say words to myself until one sort of “sticks” or feels “right.”

That’s what happened with last year’s word Devotion, and it’s turned out to be significant. I narrowed my focus of study down to creative writing and then even further to poetry. It’s been a perfect fit. I love the challenge and the work. I’m writing bad poems and some that have promise. In any case, I’m writing and learning and rewriting. I’m reading as much poetry as I can find: decoding how Plath uses unexpected words, how Bishop works in received forms, how Kenyon exposes an image. I devoted myself and have been rewarded personally and in the very real terms of an MFA fellowship at Creighton.

This year I feel drawn to the word Sow. I know it has a lot to do with my writing because I’ll start submitting in earnest this summer and fall. But it also has to do with my life in general, I think. Sowing healthy habits into my family. Sowing love into my relationships. Sowing a hunger for learning into my students. Always and in everything, sowing hope into the darkness of the world.

It’s work, I know. I’m not pretending it will be a clean or easy process. But I can only prepare my own soil. In everyone and everything else, I can only plant a seed. Only toss my poems out for the editors to accept or reject. Only remind my son that his online activity is as real as his face-to-face interactions. Only push seeds of unconditional love and acceptance into the hearts of my smart and beautiful daughters and hope their soil gives it food to grow.

I can only sow. And I’m hoping that remembering that will help take off the pressure and the fear of how my seeds are going to be received and just let them go. I can only sow.

So how about you? Have you considered a One Word 365 for 2014? I’d love to know what it is if you want to share it in the comments. And feel free to blog about it and sign up here with the other One Word people. Or just hold it close to your own heart and make everyone wonder. Your call.


May Your Days Be Merry and Bright


Macy near the Clydesdale corral at Santa’s Woods where we accompany Grandma and Grandpa and other family members each year while they select a real tree. A nice sunny day is always welcome on this annual day-after-Thanksgiving tradition.


My mom rightly noted that it looks like Santa brought me some teenagers this year. While it’s not technically true, it certainly looks like it!

Merry White Christmas from us! And Happy New Year!


Can Football Make Your Son a Better Human?

My twelve year-old son plays tackle football. He loves it. I hate to love it. But I do.

I read the articles advocating a quick retreat from the sport of American football based on its “culture of violence” and I get it. I click every headline on CNN that mentions a tragic football injury. I wonder if we’re doing the right thing to let him play. I wonder if I’m going to regret it. I ask everyone I know their opinion. Which just leads to more confusion. (My dad always says opinions are like arm pits, everyone has two of them and they both stink!)

But on the other hand, when he plays I know it fulfills something in him that feels almost primal. Maybe it’s that masculine hero thing. Or the natural tendency toward war and conquest. Possibly the spiritual draw toward a noble brotherhood. Any or all of that may be true, but it is for sure true that football is a joy for him.

And it’s a joy for me, too. When I see him make a catch I didn’t think he could make. When I see him stand on the sideline and shout support to his teammates. When I see a coach rehearsing a play with him, showing him where he went wrong and how to fix it. When every boy on the field works together toward one goal and they win. I love it.

You can understand my conflict with football. But I’m starting to develop a more sure footed sense of my real opinion, even as I acknowledge the complexities of the issue. Let’s start here. Have you seen this?


What gets me about this video is the wide receiver at the end, the one who tears up when thinking back on how the beautiful gesture changed him. How many times have you seen a middle school boy share feelings like that? How valuable is it that he had that opportunity to express himself emotionally in a healthy way?

This weekend my favorite middle school football team played for the league championship. They had finished the regular season undefeated. They played as sure and as selflessly as any team we’ve ever been part of. Heading into the championship game they knew it would be a battle – the opposing team was undoubtedly as skilled and as motivated. And they did battle.

But they caught some tough breaks. Even after making four straight goal line stands and holding their opponent to only 16 points (one of their touchdowns a defensive take-away), in the end it just didn’t work out in our favor. As in any game, there were things we could have done better, but there wasn’t failure for lack of competing. We lost the game by 10 points.

And we were heartbroken. And there were tears. Big, genuine, sobbing tears. From not just my soft-hearted, emotive twelve year-old, but from the big guys on the team, too. They sat together on the sideline and from my husband’s perspective, “You’ve never seen so many weeping middle school boys.”

And I love them for it. And I love football for giving them an excuse to cry. Because a good cry once in awhile will do wonders for your soul. It’s true, even the comedic philosophers of our age know about it. Once we’d been home for awhile, reminded ourselves of some of the game’s highlights (personal and team victories), my son felt better. Maybe he even is better.

Today, that’s why I’m sure I love football again. (The last time I was really sure was when I wrote this post from two years ago.)