The structure of the Spalding MFA brief residency workshop is worth talking about. You may not ever attend a formal workshop but it’s easy to emulate the procedure in your critique groups. Alabama’s own Hudson Strode, first professor in the Southeast to have a novel accepted in lieu of a thesis used a similar model. You would simply do this on a smaller scale. Each workshop has one or two mentors, depending upon size of the group. Most critique groups have a facilitator.
Louella Bryant, author of several children’s books and more recently a creative nonfiction work, While in Darkness There is Light: Idealism and Tragedy on an Australian Commune, led our cross-genre workshop. I already hold an MFA in Fiction and have two poetry chapbooks published and one full-length poetry book, plus I’ve written two novels and a collection of short stories in manuscript form, so it was logical for me to study cnf, right? Well, what writer do you know who is logical? Of course, there was no logic in it, no more logic than you’d find in the colors of a tie-dyed shirt, except that I’ve had several personal essays published during the past year, and it suits me to write short true pieces.
A few weeks before the workshop, participants receive what is termed the worksheet. It consists of 20-25 pages of work from each participant. These pages may not be published work, nor should the work be brand new, but should be edited as well as the writer can manage on his own. Each participant is required to read and annotate the pages once, to read the pages a second and third time, and finally to write at least one-half page of comments or suggestions about each piece. This is the most thorough consideration of her work a writer could hope for, except for the one-on-one she will receive from her mentor during the remainder of the semester.
Sena Jeter Naslund is the Director of the Spalding writing program, and she sets the tone and philosophy of the workshop and teaching: be positive, be generous with praise, yet, be objective with suggestions for improvement if you think improvement is needed. On opening night of each residency she always says, “Your competition is not in this room. It’s over in the library.” It is a known fact that if you start a critique with a negative comment, the rest of what you say will not be heard. It’s human nature. So the student whose work is last in the worksheet is the first to start the critique and everyone chimes in with what they perceive as the strengths of the piece. Following that are suggestions for change. Finally, the author is allowed, not to argue his points, but to clarify any huge misunderstandings or ask questions of the group.
That final step in the one-hour critique is the weak point of most groups I’ve been a part of. Authors, if given half a chance, will defend what they’ve written and how they’ve written it until the group grows long in the tooth. That seems so strange to me. In this case group members have paid good money to be in the workshop so it behooves them to accept as much as they can and at least consider the suggestions. A mentor at Spalding said it well, “Trust the impulse, but question the suggestion.” As the author you are always free not to do what is suggested to improve the work, but as the author you would be smart to take a second look if more than one person is confused after reading the same portion of your manuscript. It is always the author, and only the author, who will know what kind of ointment to apply to the ailing lines. Sena told me once that you should think of revision not only as cutting away material but also as adding to the material. Clarification is good either way.
On the last meeting day of the workshop, each participant is asked to revise one page according to the suggestions given by the group. The digital world has changed everything. Ellie had us post our revised pages into Dropbox so that we could view them on our computers or iPhones with a code we were provided for Wi-Fi while in Reid Hall. It was amazing to see how the other seven students had incorporated our suggestions for change into their work, and what a striking difference it made.
Next week, Kathleen will share some of her writing and special techniques to make your writing pop.