What Not to Expect From a Grad School Workshop
Lynn Steger Stronger is Not Giving Out Business Advice
I teach in a graduate art school. I teach in a graduate art school where I used to be a student, and where I think a lot about giving my students as much value, as much strength and confidence as writers, as I can give them as each new semester starts. There has seemed to me perhaps no greater impediment to students’ learning than when they expect a workshop to give them things it does not have the capacity to give.
Below are five of those things, with the hope that they can help you gain as much as you can from the strange, horrifying space that is those three hours, once a week, for all the time that you’re in grad school. It’s a flawed and varied project, workshop. It often fails. But, I hope, in not looking for these five things, you might find space for all the ways that it might make you slightly better at making choices as a writer than you were before.
I. It is not workshop’s job to “fix” your work. It is the project of the workshop to take your story apart and try to understand it. It is the project of the workshop to get inside the story and to try to show the consequences of the choices that you’ve made. Best case scenario, you’ll be better at making choices after workshop; worst case, you’ll take all the notes you got at the end of class, and all the notes you took while people talked, and try to apply them as if, somehow, a story were a broken thing to be fixed by the other people in the room.
II. It is not the workshop’s job to tell you what to do. It’s nearly impossible for readers, especially readers who are writers, not to be prescriptive. They think you need to kill Anya, but you love Anya. They think you need that scene in the coffee shop to go away, but that scene is the heart of your whole piece. They aren’t making these suggestions because they are absolutely the right choices; it’s because the way you’ve presented these parts of your story up until now hasn’t made those characters or moments feel inevitable and imperative. In other words, whenever someone tells you what to do, and you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to listen. At the same time, spend some time trying to imagine why they told you what they told you so that you might strengthen, and make that much more effective, all the aspects of the piece that you most want to keep.
III. It is not the workshop’s job to make you feel good about yourself. I make space in every workshop that I teach to talk about successes, not opinions. I loved this feels good but isn’t helpful. The sharpness of this dialogue helped me see these characters more than any of the descriptions is. We talk about the successes, but even this talk can feel like criticism. It’s exacting and specific and it’s not the ecstatic effusions that we all secretly hope for. You might have written a story people like and they might all hate it. I believe strongly that, if I’ve done my job well as a teacher, you won’t ever know whether I like your piece or not. The class’s opinions shouldn’t really matter to you. (I understand they do; I understand that none of us can help it, but I still think you should try.) Some people will always hate your work and some people will love it. But like and dislike are the least interesting part of the conversations you have in workshop. Those sentiments don’t tell you how and why you’re not doing what you want to be doing. They don’t tell you how and why you might apply your particular abilities to getting that much closer to the thing you want to make.
IV. It is not workshop’s job to help you with the “business side.” I will admit that I hated this fact about grad school when I was in it. I’m too practical, I whispered quietly to my professors. How will I live? I asked in office hours, my eyes wet. For a long time, I thought this was a failing of my program. I still do, in terms of thinking it’s important to be honest with our students about what it’s like to be in the world as a writer, but also, the truth is, most working writers don’t know much about the business side. Most of us don’t have much money. We have two or three jobs and we’re trying to get our next book done in random pockets between reading student work and copyediting gigs. We don’t know how or why books sell or what they’re worth within the market or even what that means. The project of the workshop is to help you get better at knowing how to make things. How to sell the things you make is a separate and ever-changing beast. It’s often a space of knowledge that we feel only more confused by the longer we’re inside of it.
V. It is not the workshop’s job to tell you it is worth the risk to be a writer. It is nobody’s job to tell you that you should do this. No workshop, no editor, no teacher has the ability to tell you whether what you’re making is worth the risk of making it. It was and is a risk to go to graduate art school. You’ve risked that copywriting job you had that could have turned managerial, the killer dental care that came with it. You’ve risked law school, took loans out. You’ve moved your partner or your children or the plant you finally got to not die last year across the country and it is not within the abilities, either of the workshop or your colleagues or your teacher, to tell you whether this choice was worth that risk. This is you deciding, right now, to be a writer.
You decided it before this, maybe. Maybe this is the first time you decided this with higher stakes. This will not be the last time you’ll be asked to choose this, and, each of those times, there will be no one there to say for sure this choice is good or right. When your first book fails, when your editor leaves your imprint just before your second comes out, when you get that awful review that you read every night for weeks. You might not leave school with a job or a book deal or health insurance. But you’ll leave a smarter writer, and this will hopefully prepare you to decide again about the next set of risks you’ll take.