Ten MFA Archetypes To Avoid (Becoming)
Caroline Zancan Recommends You Not Be These People
Is 2020 the year you finally go get that MFA you’ve been secretly contemplating since your undergrad years? While I know it can sometimes feel like MFA programs are living, breathing, real-life satires, they really can make you a better writer. The writers in We Wish You Luck learn a good deal about storytelling in the program from which they’re narrating their tale (and a great deal about plagiarism, death, and carefully exacted revenge). But as with everything else in life, what you get out of it is ultimately going to come down to what you put in. Below are ten classic workshop archetypes who, despite their irritants, have a lot to teach us about what not to do in workshop once you finally get there.
The canon deep diver. Don’t be the canon expert and cite sleepy classics in support of a point you’re making about a classmate’s contemporary workshop piece. They kept publishing books after Raymond Carver! Some of them are really good! Try to think of a pillar of excellence in the vein of what that piece of fiction is trying to do that was written in, you know, this century. Part of a writer’s job is to capture the joys and miseries of their time, not Henry James’.
The crier. Crying is like masturbating: do it in your room! Even the most accomplished MFA graduates have had a workshop so brutal they were tempted to let ‘er rip before class was over, and I know, I know, that Raymond Carver guy was really mean and his point didn’t even make sense! No matter how harsh the criticism, nod politely and either discard or apply a milder version later. The more professionally you comport yourself in workshop, the more seriously your classmates and professors will take you, no matter how good or bad their advice was.
The broken record. Wait, where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, you just said it about the last story. And the one before that… Wait a minute! Don’t use the same piece of advice for the erotic historical allegory and the speculative postmodern fable. Think about what each piece you opine on needs instead of giving it your own secret sauce that’s not so secret by workshop three. The more universally whatever advice you’re offering can be applied, the less valuable it is in the workshop setting—it usually means the classmate you’re giving it to could’ve picked it up from a DUMMIES book on creative writing.
The politician. While alliances are great for politics and game night, they reek of insecurity in graduate level classrooms. No one believes you actually love all of Allison’s stories (or, sorry man, that she loves all of yours). She wrote that last one the night before workshop! Keep your credibility and give her a little tough love. Treat every piece of fiction you workshop as something you’ve come across in a magazine or literary journal, with no personal connection to its author.
The nodder. Bobbleheads are awesome when they’re of nineties pop stars or seventies athletes, they’re less cool in MFA programs. Don’t nod at everything your professor says like she just invented Cheetos right there on the spot. We all think she’s smart, that’s why we took her workshop! As out of touch as our most grizzled and storied professors can sometimes seem (I can think of several professors who still have AOL accounts) they can still spot a suck up, and it’s not going to change how much they like or don’t like your next workshop piece.
The human resume. Don’t respond to critiques of your story by listing all the contest honorable mentions it’s gotten—maybe if you take some of the thoughtful advice your classmates have it’ll win next time! All of your workshop mates (okay fine most of them) are offering advice to try to help you. Try really listening and taking in what they’re trying to convey to you before trying to convince them that you don’t need any help and your story is actually perfect as you submitted it. If you’re not here to try to improve your work, there really isn’t a point, not matter how prestigious the program!
Joey the baby kangaroo. Remember that Friends episode where Joey used a thesaurus to write a letter and it didn’t make any sense? A solid 10 percent of the things people say in MFA workshops sound like Joey wrote them with a thesaurus. Be the other 90 percent! It’s nice to sound smart, sure, but your workshop mates would rather you be clear and direct and give straightforward advice that they can, you know, use to make their stories better.
The flirt. Psyched to learn that the super hip narrative poet with the obscure literary tats that somehow manage not to be pretentious is in your workshop? Amazing! Don’t try to drop a line when you’re giving workshop feedback. Reading great literature to your new beau in the bath is hot (maybe? If you’re into that kind of thing?). Making a mockery of someone’s workshop by trying to flirt with them is not. Save it for the post class revelry—writers are thirsty bunch, especially right after they’ve been workshopped!
The lazy chef. MFA workshops are really only looking for the same thing Goldilocks was—something just the right amount “done.” Don’t submit something you scrawled off during yesterday’s lecture (Allison!) and don’t submit something you think is perfect and just want compliments on. You could submit “To Esme With Love and Squalor” to any MFA workshop in America and they would find something to critique about it. The ideal workshop piece is one you’ve revised as much as you can on your own, and now need a fresh eye on.
The rebel. Don’t spend the entire hour your story is being workshopped thinking up some random, not-terribly-relevant exception to a rule a professor just threw out as a helpful guideline under which your story might be improved. Yes, that rule probably does have an exception, and yes, rules were meant to be broken, but off the top of my head I can think of about four places in your last story where you might’ve applied it! I know, our favorite, living legend writers all broke the rules and that’s why we love them. I’m not saying you’re not going to join their ranks one day, but let’s assume you’re not there yet. That’s why you’re here!
We Wish You Luck is out now via Riverhead. Copyright © 2020 by Caroline Zancan.