“Ink and paper are sometimes passionate lovers, oftentimes brother and sister, and occasionally mortal enemies.”
I can recall every single time I presented my work in an M.F.A. workshop: I was rarely ever called first, and if I was given the option to volunteer, I would never volunteer myself first. That was my first and only rule. And no matter how confident I felt about the work I was presenting that day, I’d always feel scared to death about how my professors and the other students would react. The responses were usually positive, yet often frustrating.
The most important lesson I learned was that one “thing” that burdens a lot of creative writing students as they engage within a workshop environment: competition. To be more specific, the misinterpretation of the idea behind “competition” as it works within the apparatus of a creative writing workshop.
It’s perfectly understandable, of course.
I don’t believe this constitutes a failure in the process. If anything, I believe it’s more a product of user error than anything else. You never hear anyone complaining about the equipment at their local gym not being able to function properly as the reason why they’re not getting the proper workout, and therefore the proper results. You also don’t blame the local gym if you're overfed.
Like the local gym, a creative writing workshop does offer an environment and a context: a space where you can engage with other developing writers. Even better, you’ll engage with other writers who (at the moment) are bigger and stronger than you, so to speak. This is where that element of “competition” can disrupt or confuse the routine.
The biggest mistake that a student writer can make is to interpret “competition” as a “race” rather than a “routine.” This is troubling and unstable ground for a writer because “process” is a routine--a forward movement. It’s a system directed to some end, a series of steps that produce a change or development. It’s a method of doing or producing something that doesn’t involve any types of placement or ranking systems that arrange writers by perceived talent, skill or creative output. It’s the cultivation of experience.
Therefore, it’s a lot safer to think of creative writing workshops as “equipment with purpose,” much like the equipment found at the local gym: each one designed to isolate a specific region of your creative musculature. And the same can also be said of the feedback you receive in a workshop. An unnecessarily competitive approach can dilute the feedback, which can be the most important piece of equipment, allowing writers to grow stronger within the routine.
In the end, students that feel they’ve taken part in a successful workshop feel that way because they worked as if they had an equal share in each others' development--like workout partners. Attentions are balanced equally between their own creative work and their fellow students'. Students complement one another as counterparts rather than as competitors. One spots the other, and so on. The “spot” (constructive criticism and feedback) is the most important piece of equipment. As I mentioned earlier, if a student is lucky, they’ll expose themselves to other workout partners that are bigger and stronger. A student writer doesn’t grow “stronger” unless they challenge their limitations and push themselves beyond their initial comfort zone. In order for them to exceed those limitations, they need the “spot” to help them adapt. The routine then becomes a collaborative effort. Only then do they grow stronger.
I’ll never forget those moments when a fellow student writer showed me the same amount of interest in my work as I did theirs. They wanted to see me grow and succeed. And now, I want just the same for them. And because of that, I’ll never forget them.
Born and bred on the rough streets of Miami, Michael Pagan once, after watching the film Black Swan, seriously considered abandoning his dream of becoming a writer in favor of becoming a prima ballerina. Luckily, he realized writing poetry was more manly. Michael is a recent graduate of FAU's MFA program, and currently resides in Deerfield Beach, FL where he continues to work on his first book of poetry, his first novel, and his ballet, of course. His interview with Forrest Gander was published in Coastlines Magazine and in The Rumpus. His poetry has appeared in Bridle Path Press and is forthcoming this March in the Eunoia Review.