Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Old Stuff and the New

My first semester of Workshop at UAF could reasonably be described as a disaster. Fairly early on, I submitted something that should not have been submitted, spent an hour of class time having my writing abilities attacked from every angle, and then drove home close to tears, seriously considering giving up my quest to be a writer. I just wasn’t any good, I realized.

They didn’t like the plot. Didn’t think the characters were interesting. Didn’t like the metafictional technique I had tried to employ. Thought it was riddled with clich├ęs and pointless. By the end of the session, the discussion degenerated into complaining about the sentence structure (not enough variety, bland and boring to read . . .) and one woman came damn close to saying that anyone who would write something like this couldn’t possibly be a good writer.

For the rest of the semester I felt anxious and scared every time I had to submit something. I stopped reading the written comments by all but the teacher and two or three other people who I knew made an effort to say nice things on top of pointing out the problems, and who, when they pointed out problems, didn’t try to turn it into a story they would have written or suggest that these are mistakes only a very bad writer would make.

And I didn’t submit a single thing for publication the entire semester.

The problem was that I had turned in to Workshop something that I had written as an undergrad, a full year before. It was a piece that I thought was pretty much ready already. I’ve since noticed similar problems in other people’s work. There will be a story that seems of much lower quality than the other stuff that writer submits, and you find out later that this is one he or she wrote several years before. I would almost say that when you start grad school, you should write 100% new stuff and accept that everything you wrote before, or at least most of it, was just practice. But at least dramatically revise anything old that you do feel has potential (and I mean preferably rewrite the entire thing from page one).

You grow as a writer extremely quickly in an intensive grad school setting, and it doesn’t take long for your skills to far surpass wherever you were at before you started the program. This is a good thing. But it also means that you have to accept that not everything you ever wrote is good. I’ve heard that it generally takes something like 100,000 words of crap before anyone can write anything publishable and while a number like that (my own approximation of an approximation) isn’t exact, certainly not for each different individual, I think it’s true that you get better and better as you go and most people don’t start getting really good until they begin to seriously devote themselves to honing their craft.

One way that a lot of people do that is by joining an MFA program. Yes, you have to be at a high enough level that the people reviewing applications see your potential for you to get into an MFA program to begin with. But still, you’ll most likely become such a better writer so fast that most anything you had written previously won’t be a good representation of what you do. And if you’re dusting off stuff that you wrote a year before just to have something to turn in, you’re not really getting one of the major benefits of Workshop: motivation to always be writing new stuff.

1 comment:

Master Dayton said...

You bring up a lot of good points here. My first workshop experience was similarlly devastating, and ended on Thursday night with a lot more beer than I had drank in years. But the nice thing is if you have a few good fellow writers to encourage you, you really do get that much better that much faster. The jump is huge, in the same way that I know I'm that much better a writer now than I was even last year upon graduating. BTW, just sold a flash fiction science fiction piece, and am completing my last major revisions on my novel for the November send out. Hope you're getting some acceptance letters, as well.
Shane