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?