Workshops are an essential component of any MFA program. A workshop session allows an author to be a fly on the wall—to hear objective responses to his or her work, insights that can be enlightening and useful for the author's revision process. At the beginning of each cluster, you will sign up for one or two workshop sessions (depending on the course/instructor). On the date your work is due, you will bring to class enough copies for the students and instructor; the class will take home your work, read it carefully and thoughtfully, and write detailed, insightful, respectful comments. At the next class meeting, when it is your turn to be workshopped, you will sit quietly and take notes while the class discusses your work.
Role of the author during workshopping:
While your work is being workshopped, you do not speak. Listen, take notes, roll our words around in your head to help you see your work from an outside perspective, and keep breathing. After the workshop has ended, if you feel strongly that you would like to make a comment about your work, or if you feel you need to answer a question or clarify an area of confusion, you may take a few minutes to the class. The instructor will ask you at the end of the workshop session if you would like to do this; feel free to simply thank the class for their comments and collect your copies.
As the author, it is important to remember that once your work has been handed to us, it is now something separate from you, and we as readers will look at it in this way. For example, if you write a personal essay for the Creative Nonfiction cluster about something that has drastically impacted your life, you may hope to receive sympathy from us, or some form of confirmation that we appreciate your struggle or your perspective. We will of course be moved by the essay’s content; that is the nature of the form. But as workshoppers, we will be looking at the essay as a piece of writing. We will respond to the way it is written, the language, the structure. This is our task. Do not feel, as we comment on the misplaced second paragraph that was dreadfully hard for you to write, that we are minimizing the weight these words hold for you—just recognize our role, to see why that paragraph doesn't belong there, doesn't give the essay the effect that was intended. We, as writers, will work to illuminate areas for revision that you would not have been able to see on your own. Our goal is to help you make your essay even stronger than it is now, so that the life story you want to tell will be told in the most effective way. You can take our comments into consideration, and then make your own choices for your essay. But: you will have seen how others see your work. It's a useful, rare thing. Once you’re off on your own, sending your work out into the great literary journal abyss, you will get little, if any, indication as to why a piece was not accepted for publication. Grab this chance while you have it, with both hands, greedily.
Role of the readers:
Every instructor has a slightly different slant on how to workshop. Each style has its own merits, and experiencing a variety of workshop styles is useful to writers. In a traditional workshop session, workshoppers do not speak directly to the person being workshopped. Usually, workshop sessions will last approximately 50 minutes. The workshop will be a discussion, a conversation. As a workshopper, strive for balance—do not sit quietly without offering your thoughts, and do not monopolize the workshop discussion or step on the comments of others. You are speaking for the benefit of the author, not to hear yourself speak, not to impress other students with your insights. Realize that we will not all agree about the work, nor should we. Do not continue to argue a point when there is disagreement; put your opinion on the table, then allow others to have their opinions—the author will have the task of sorting through our points of view and making use of our suggestions, while staying true to his or her own voice and intentions. Always be respectful in your comments about a workshop piece; while you are not directly addressing the author, be aware that the author is in the room, and offer insightful comments that are useful and appropriate to the situation. It is also important to separate the notion of "commenting in workshop to receive a grade from the teacher" from "commenting to help the author gain perspective on his or her work." Do the latter. In some classes, you will give the instructor a copy of your typed response to each workshopped piece; do not think you have to say out loud every sentence you have written down for the author—the author will read your words at home (or perhaps right after class, in the car, dome light on, in the parking lot). Workshop conversations are fluid; they change based on the impact of each other's reactions to the essay. Allow this to happen. Spend the workshop discussion time being author-focused—or more accurately, essay/story/poem-focused—rather than self-focused.
On your assigned day, turn in 12 copies of your workshop piece (or enough copies for the number of students in class and your instructor) in standard submission format:
- Print/copy on only one side of each page
- Single-space your name, address, and contact info at the top left
- Right-align the word count in the top right corner
- Use standard font size for your title; no bold, no underline, and leave a minimum of white space before and after your title
- Double-space the body of your story or essay; if your story or essay is fragmented, leave only white space between sections (do not use a row of ### or ~~~ or any other symbols)
- Insert page number and your last name right-aligned at the top of each page, beginning with page 2
- Your right margin should be 1.25” to allow for comments; top, left, and bottom margins should be 1”
- For workshop purposes, please staple your copies.
- Remember that when you submit to journals, you will need to research the specific details of each journal’s format requirements, and make any adjustments to standard format as needed.
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