November 22nd, 2010 / 2:59 pm
Craft Notes

A Student Cried in My Poetry Workshop

Every Wednesday at 11 a.m. I have a two hour and forty-five minute poetry workshop with thirteen other students.  We spend the first hour of every class discussing a book assigned to us weekly by the professor.  Then we workshop seven poems, each student turning in a piece to be discussed every other class.  Pretty simple.

This week something happened.  We were workshopping a student’s poem.  It was about something (I’ll just omit everything explicit about everyone and anything in this class) and followed a similar pattern to some other poems this particular student had turned in for critiquing.  People started talking about the poem in the customary manner, which is pretty much everyone suggesting different cuts, extensions, and changes that need to be made.

Then something happened.  I’ll preface this by saying that, without great exception, pretty much every student turns in the same poem every week.  Subject matter and stuff alter a little bit, but approach and word choice and style all seem pretty constant.

Okay, so the thing that happened was like this.  A student’s hand was raised and my professor called on that student.  The student looked at the professor and said something like, “Can I address [the poet] directly?” and the professor said, “Yes.”  Then the student looked at the poet and said something like, “When are you going to stop writing poems about [common subject matter and conceit in student’s poetry up to this point]?”  Everyone was silent and looked around uncomfortably for a few seconds.  Then the poet said something like, “I feel like every workshop is a battle and everyone wants me to make different changes and attacks my work.”  The poet’s face became very flushed and tears started to form in her eyes.  I looked around the room and then several people began talking at once, trying to explain that it was okay and that the instigating student was out of line.  I also tried to calm the poet down by saying something like, “Keith Waldrop won the National Book Award and everyone hated him,” but that didn’t come out quite right and my professor made sure to add, “Not everyone hated him.”  At the end of class the professor asked the poet to stay and talk.  I did up the buttons of my shirt and left quickly.

After leaving the class I could not stop thinking about what happened.  Both sides seemed a little fucked.  On one hand, the instigating student should not have bluntly and directly confronted her want for more variety in such a manner.  It was imprudent and insensitive and created an uneasy environment for the class.  On the other hand, the poet should not have taken this comment so personally.  It is important to separate one’s self from his or her work and view it objectively in order to be able to improve and develop as a writer.  It is also important to not take every criticism to heart because one person’s opinion is not diktat.

The class in general is not harsh, and the professor works to validate and commend all the students as much as possible (unlike my fiction professor, who bluntly says “This does not work as fiction.”), but the problem with undergraduate creative writing seems more in the students’ perception than their ability to write.  Though the crying student was by far the most interesting and extreme reaction thus far, it was not a total phenomenon.  Most students appear visibly pained and angry when receiving criticism.  Others have interrupted a workshop, trying to explain the purpose of a word or a style that was lost to the readers. Then, when discussing writing that is not one’s own, comments such as “I didn’t understand this, therefore the poem was not successful” and lengthy digressions into the annoyance of seemingly arbitrary capitalizations are quite without apology.  I try my best to make positive and/or helpful comments, objective statements, and maintain an unassuming expression during my critiques.  I’m not sure if the issue is maturity of character or unbridled attachment to their writing that makes undergraduate creative writing students so emotional and temperamental, but there is something there.

Regarding a discussion of Keith Waldrop’s recent National Book Award Winning collection Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, which we read as a class a couple weeks ago, several people questioned the merit of “collage” in poetry.  Waldrop had drawn from three novels in creating the collection, editing down and combining short phrases to create three new books of poetry.  Several students believed this to cheapen the work, and called it meaningless and impersonal.  Some said they could not connect with its style and upon learning its origin, disregarding its belonging to the Waldrop in any way.  It is very clear, then, that taste and personal relatability have the greatest effect in shaping the opinions of those college consumers.  And in this light, it comes as no surprise that students should be so attached to their own work—how it relates them to existence and connects them with others.  If this is crushed, then they are crushed.

Personally, I try to do everything to avoid that sense of building up an attachment to my work.  I write what I feel like writing.  I edit it, and I find it interesting to see how others would edit it.  I edit it more, then.  My greatest gain in this workshop, the first of its kind for me, is my desire to not become an entity connected with my output.  Every other week, I work to turn in a poem in a different style.  So far I have turned in a poem similar to some of my previous publications (no capitalization, line breaks at natural breathing points), a prose poem, a weird-shaped poem, an abstract narrative poem, and a poem with a lot of enjambment, divided into three sections.  I have also been writing a lot of list poems, but have yet to turn one in for critique.  When I walk back to my apartment, sometimes I walk with other people from my class for a little while.  One person said something like, “Are you experimenting?”  I tried to answer that, but I felt confused.  Shouldn’t everyone be experimenting?

In the end, it seems that everyone is at fault.  Neither student should have reacted so harshly, and the workshop needs to evolve into an environment of careful and intellectual support if anyone is going to become a better writer.  And that’s the goal, isn’t it?  Sometimes we question why anyone takes a poetry workshop at all.  But, in reality, most of the students in my class probably won’t even be writing poetry five years from now.

I went to see Sam Lipsyte read recently, and when asked about his experience studying under Gordon Lish, now renowned as one of the most significant, and brutal, editors in the modern literary community, Lipsyte replied that he went into the class with the knowledge that it could be devastating.  He continued to explain the he knew he was ready because he was broken, and willing to be broken.  And maybe that’s the mindset everyone needs to take on in a workshop.  No one is entirely self-assured upon entering a workshop.  Be open to new writing, harsh criticism, and the acceptance that not everything you regard holy is truth.

* * *

[David Fishkind is a nineteen-year-old student of English and Creative Writing at NYU. He has been published throughout the Internet, in some literary journals, and by himself.]

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95 Comments

  1. Rachel Jane Andelman

      I do wonder to what extent if any the writer isn’t merely upset for being criticized, but for being criticized by a person or persons she may not necessarily respect.

      Back when I took workshops, I often felt my own work placing me into a kind of class hierarchy, where criticism from a writer I perceived as my equal or better would register on a completely different emotional scale than criticism from one whose work I considered worse than my own. Writers whom I believed were good could be as harsh as they liked re: my pieces without upsetting me too much, as I knew in my heart that every word they spoke was ultimately constructive. Writers I thought were not good could say little I didn’t find at least a bit offensive. Their like of my work could have the effect of me second guessing myself. Their dislike of my work could drive me absolutely nuts, as deep down I didn’t really feel like they had the right to judge anything that I did.

      I guess what I mean to say is that it is possibly helpful if a creative writing instructor comes out and addresses that students are going to have different sensibilities– which for younger students is probably where a lot of their senses of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ come from — and that it is possible to politely listen while also politely abstaining from emotional engagement– that, as a student, you should not consider it your job to care equally about what everyone has to say and be equally vulnerable to everyone. These are false goals which I think breed more resentment than comprehension.

  2. Charles Dodd White

      Agreed, Sean. Agreed.

  3. sara

      i think this might be one of the purposes of writing workshops in undergraduate studies; to weed out the undesirables, the ones that can’t hang. when you’re young it’s easy to associate your self worth with your work, especially because most ‘budding writers’ or whatever, write semi-autobiographically. pain is beauty, whatever whatever forever

  4. Rachel Jane Andelman

      Or to maybe express the same thought in fewer words:

      Instead of telling a writing student that there’s such a thing as a skin and that they need to get a thick one, an instructor should explain that there is something called a selectively permeable membrane and that they need one with a sophisticated filter.

      Because let’s be honest: we are talking about consciousnesses and not physical presences; we are trading ideas, not actual punches. Like, we agree there is a meaningful difference between these concepts, right?

  5. Tim Horvath

      Physical presences are somewhere between consciousness and punches, it seems to me. There are physical presences in workshop, I think, and the metaphor of “skin” is aptly chosen. You are being, it strikes me, maybe a little bit too Cartesian about things.

      On the other hand, the phrase “selectively permeable membrane” is great.

  6. Justin

      One thing that I do hate about workshops, on the other hand, is the padding that is encouraged, the soft petting of the ego, if you will. Maybe this isn’t intrinsic to all programs, but it is certainly is where I am. Everyone sits in a circle and says something nice about the piece that was read, which is silly and not helpful to the writer. “I really like your characterization.” Ah, thanks. Now, what sucks about my piece? What needs work?

      That’s the real shit writers need to know. Treating them like children is not helpful. I don’t think one writer calling the other one out in that manner is helpful, either, as it does not address any specific aspect of her work. But, still. Call other writers out. If their shit stinks, it just does, and the person should know as much.

      That’s all I got.

  7. John Minichillo

      Graduate school writers cry in workshop too.

  8. passingthru

      i strongly disagree with the conclusion “in the end, everyone is at fault” because it overlooks the true meaning of what was said. the first student wasn’t criticizing the work. she was criticizing the writer as a person. at that point, you can harldy fault someone for taking it personally.

      it was a passive-aggressive rhetorical question asked in an aggressive manner. it wasn’t said to be helpful, but to be mean. and maybe let off a bit of steam.

      i do wonder if the professor isn’t a little inexperienced. also sounds like better writing prompts/assignments are in order if most students are writing the same thing every week.

  9. Rachel Jane Andelman

      While acknowledging that our experiences are going to be a factor in how we perceive threats in our environment, it is my impression that the kind of workshop we are talking about goes on in a non-dysfunctional environment where students should expect to be criticized verbally and expect not to be punched.

      Talking about such a workshop, I would again argue that there is in fact a meaningful difference between the two and that students would be better served if their instructors would refrain from conflating the effects of having your story harshed on to having your flesh ripped open, therefore equating emotional hurt and mortal peril (also: emotional expression w/ involuntary acts like bleeding or bruising).

      Such a conflation does a disservice in that it unnecessarily triggers a lot of animal responses which finally get in the way of developing the sensitivity necessary for interesting work. I’m uh, guessing.

  10. Owen Kaelin

      Sigh… .

      Strikes… . First: Do not try to discredit a person in argumentation by accusing them of using phrases they’ve yet to use. It’s poor form and does not help your argument. Also, it’s not nice.

      Second: Do not attack anyone who has not attacked anyone. Again, it’s not nice.

      Third: There is nothing in what I said which implies anything you claim that I’ve implied. If you desire a thorough 5000-word analysis on the subject, well, I suppose I could give you that, but I’d bore everyone, and somehow I suspect you’d still try to find something to be dissatisfied about. …Also, I don’t feel like wasting my time.

      Now, the gist of what you’re saying seems to be essentially that an artist’s output has only partly to do with the artist. Were this true then a portion of your output must necessarily, somehow be floating in from somewhere else, which means that you have a co-writer.

      Who is your co-writer, Strikes?

      Art is created by the human mind. The human mind creates art through perception and analysis and then presentation, and that presentation is informed by a number of things, a major one of which is how the artist wants to be perceived by others (which affects stylistic choice as well as subject matter as well as the manner of presentation). To simplify: everything about the art process is personal, therefore by necessity the output is entirely personal. Your product is a creation of that complicated process of perception and transformation and is therefore a description of you — whether you like the thought of it or not.

      Sure, the subject might have nothing to do with you. It might even be based on research. But to make the work a work of art: the emotive and intellectual material involved needs to go through a human processor, and that human processor is the artist.

      Therefore: Art is Self. Incontrovertibly and utterly.

      If you don’t want to believe that your art is yourself, then that suggests there’s something about the elements expressed in your work that you’re ashamed of — which is not my way of arrogantly insulting you. My shame ends up in my work. I try to embrace it. I don’t try to pretend it’s not there; I see it and I explore it. I know that my work is me. That’s the point and purpose of art — like my dreams. The point is to work myself out, to figure myself out.

      Once that’s done, and I’ve manipulated the work into something that works on its own merit (since if you want your art to live then it cannot be a direct reflection of the self — like dreams — unedited by conscious analysis and the conscious ego) . . . perhaps that’s what you thought I was suggesting?), and then after I send it to some journal and it’s been put into print for strangers to read: then the audience comes in and turns the words into something else through their own subjective, personal lenses. Thus: if you’re the reader and you find some emotive and thought-provoking meaning in it then the work becomes you. If I find something in your work that moves me emotionally and/or intellectually: your work becomes me. It’s why we have books and authors and music and paintings and sculptures and films we hold dear, ones we say we “love”, even ones that make us cry, or ones that we say “changed our life”. There’s a reason these books mean so much to us.

      On Art as Self be equatable with craft — which is an interesting thought, I’ll give you — what makes it not craft is that process of figuring out. The transformation.

      I’ll bring up Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses) as an example. She literally hears her songs in her head (she was diagnosed w/ schizophrenia), her songs sing themselves to her in her head and she writes them down. She’s often described her songs as coming to her like “ghosts in the night, fully formed.” (That quote might be off a word or two, but that’s the quote I remember.) Now… does that mean that she’s not an artist but a craftsperson? That she merely copies down what she hears?

      If you can say yes, it’s craft: you’ll intrigue me… it’d be an interesting discussion to have.

  11. thurston

      eye 8 pussy

  12. Owen Kaelin

      …Well… so long as you leave the bear skin home, I suppose that’s okay.

  13. Tim Horvath

      Hi, Rachel. Certainly there’s a difference and civility, generosity can prevail in tandem with scrutiny and demanding standards. I’m only taking issue with the idea that a workshop is just consciousnesses meeting. All responses are animal responses, those that cultivate sensitivity included. I read a striking piece by Robert Sapolsky in the New York Times Opinionator blog arguing that humans tend to experience certain metaphors literally, so that we feel moral disgust in the same way that we feel physical disgust. The brain conflates. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the physical/emotional act of bringing a piece to workshop even as we strive to accord intellectual attention to it, because ultimately literature is a fusion of all of these. Rather than denying the conflation perhaps it makes sense to acknowledge that it’s almost inherent in the situation and then take things from there.

  14. Owen Kaelin

      I’m not sure that a weeding-out is really necessary. I’m one of those people who thinks that everyone should write, so I don’t see discouraging people from writing simply because the teacher doesn’t see any potential in the person. Everyone should be creating art. I mean… all people have the ability to create art and can be ‘enriched’ or even helped by creating art.

      The only people I would consider weeding out would be those in intro classes who’ve taken the course because they needed an art elective and thought that creative writing would be super easy. This happens with visual art classes as well, of course . . . so I’ve always felt that with these people a harsh education is in order. In the same way that you don’t stroll into a Physics class and expect to be discussing Road Runner cartoons twice a week… you don’t walk into an intro writing class and expect to just pass in a diary entry and get an A.

  15. letters journal

      Crying is okay. Crying doesn’t mean not listening to criticism or taking it seriously. Some people cry. It’s okay.

  16. Owen Kaelin

      You mean, from how much they’re moved by someone else’s words?

      I’m not changing the subject, here, am I?

  17. John Minichillo

      Moved by the words of blunt critique of their work. Moved away from their sense of themself as a writer. Moved to realize it wasn’t there for anyone yet.

  18. Guest

      Hmmm, I can’t think of anything more useless or harmful than trying to “weed-out” writers in undergrad workshops.

      For one, 99% of them–even ones with talent who like to read–will eventually weed-out themselves on their own. Most people are more in love with the idea of writing than writing, even people who are readers and good with language: most of these people would rather do other things than write.

      So, there’s little point in taking the chance that you’ll crush and ruin a 19- year-old writer who could be part of that 1%, especially when he could very well possess the necessary persistence, drive, and determination and just needs his mastery of craft and life experience to catch-up, which often takes years.

      While one might argue that the persistent writer will persist regardless of harsh criticism, don’t underestimate the potentially negative influence of teachers.
      God knows I cringe when I think how in the hell some of my undergrad teachers were able to balance inspiration and support with frank criticism when discussing my terribly juvenile work. Their points on craft and technique were helpful, but their encouragement was, in many ways, more helpful because it made me realize that writing is for the long haul and the only way to succeed is to learn how to fail. Not sure a teacher can get this point across if he just goes on slash-and-burn fault-finding mission and tells the writer his work “sucks.”

  19. efferny jomes

      let’s all kiss

  20. puzzlingcreativity

      Flannery O’ Connor, when asked why she writes fiction, replied, “Because I’m good at it.” I believe workshops should always be challenging us as to question why we write, and while I don’t think people should be out to hurt anyone else, writers need to develop thicker skin (and a I-could-care-less-what-criticism-you-have-to-offer arrogance). Workshops are NICE. Real-world criticism is much harsher. Better we get that soul-shattering criticism and pick up the pieces now than be blown back by the shotgun of real life after investing in too much idealism about how everyone in workshop “loved” our work, so the real world should too.

      I try to think that whenever someone gives a comment like the one mentioned in the blog post, its effectiveness would be better conveyed if complemented by some objective analysis. Ban “I like” or “I didn’t like” in a workshop unless you’re ready to back it up with some textual citation and analysis.

      Writers, if they’re going to be big, need to be sons-of-bitches one day

  21. Guest

      I don’t know…is the purpose of a workshop to prepare one for harsh, real world criticism? I get what you’re saying, but a workshop is still a class, usually located on a college campus, which means that etiquette is important in order for the class to function. You can’t have students firing off random personal shots and then fall back on the, “oh, life’s tough baby, deal with it” line of thinking because such comments can ruin the class ethos and dynamic. It doesn’t quite work to compare such a comment within the context of a class to a negative review or posting on a blog.

  22. Anonymous

      In other words: hey, our language is loaded, and some of the words we use might be putting us in the wrong frame of mind. Let’s look at the words we use, and see if they’re actually helping us along, or if maybe they’re just dramatic and sound cool but ultimately make us take this situation more seriously than we should.

  23. Mike

      Did you actually say “nay”? I would have kicked your ass right then and there.

  24. flower boy

      Hilarious.

  25. reynard seifert

      i have only taken one creative writing class in my life and i laughed at most of the critiques i got, especially the best ones, if your writing is that personal it’s probably not good, no one cares about you, they care about themselves and what they get from you and that is all, if they act like they care about you they are just looking for affirmation that they are a good person who cares about people, your job is to entertain and to make people think about shit, if you’re talking about yourself you should at least be okay with people not liking you

  26. reynard seifert

      you write the best comments about nothing, stephen

      this question is for david, putting it here so he’ll see it, what was it like asking sam lipsyte a question to which he should probably have the answer tattooed on his forehead in the shape of a pentagram?

  27. sara

      what i meant by ‘weeding out the undesirables’ didn’t assume that the professor or whatever assumed authority figure is the one determining who is fit for the workshop or ‘a real career as a writer’. what i meant was that workshops are often a place where students can decide if this is something they’d want to do for the rest of their lives, if this is the kind of criticism they can use to their advantage or if it’s something they’d rather not experience, because it can often be painful.

      so, yes, negative teachers can be detrimental but often the experience of a bad workshop won’t be enough to dissuade a budding writer to stop writing. and i do think that often students walk into a writing class and expect to pass with a diary entry. i mean, i’ve seen it before.

  28. Guest

      I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. While your argument makes sense, my experience as a teacher of undergrad workshops has taught me that most students are too young to even know what creative writing is, let alone know enough after a class or two to decide if writing is something they want to do for the rest of their lives. It just doesn’t work out that way most of the time. The students often have a billion things going on at once and don’t have enough time to think about whether or not “writing is their calling.” They’re trying to take the workshop alongside a bunch of other classes, pay the rent, eat, deal with living away from home for the first time, etc. While a few determined students decide that writing is in their future, most of them won’t make any kind of “decision” until a few years later, a while after the workshop.

  29. Strikes

      Here is where my problem lies: “Your product is a creation of that process of perception and transformation and is therefore a description of you — whether you like the thought of it or not.” You are making some significant assumptions about what the self is and how it can be described. I do not necessarily disagree with how you describe the production of art, but I do not see any reason to equate an artistic product, or even a larger body of work, with “the self” except insofar as its existence depends entirely on that self. I personally would have said, “Your product is a creation of that process of perception and transformation and is therefore a creation of that process of perception and transformation.”

      I am not generally ashamed of anything I make. (Occasionally I’ll think something is a disaster and keep it to myself, but that’s fair.) What I meant in saying that I hope I am not my art is that I hope I am not limited to the things I make, not least of all because they can’t have sex or breakfast. I am proud of what I produce, at least enough that I show it to others, however much criticism I throw at it myself. But I have never felt, from the first stories I wrote when I was in second or third grade, that any comment made on what I have written, whether positive or negative, was somehow aimed at me.

      I would dispute, as well, the idea of transformation, in the terms that you describe it, as one of “figuring out.” I have never considered “figuring myself out” a personal or artistic project–I let myself happen, and while I’m doing that I write things. I hope they are “good,” which is not something I know how to define. I have a feeling it has something to do with truth, but that is another thing I have a hard time talking about. The works I produce certainly have some component of me in them, and I have a notion that they “could not have been produced” by anyone else–probably a true thing to say. That doesn’t mean it is attached to “me.” I operate under the idea on non-attachment, that in the trailmarkers I leave you can see where I’ve been, but you can’t see me.

      I am not sure what the anecdote about Kristin Hersh has to do with workshop. Workshop is intended, at least in part, to treat that component of art which is craft, which can be effectively improved upon in a critical environment. Otherwise it is just a support group, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I would hesitate to generalize this case out anyway.

  30. Owen Kaelin

      I used to love critiques in writing classes. I loved talking about my work, about my ideas and thought processes and so forth. It was fun. I also liked critiquing other people’s work (not criticizing), I guess it made me feel like I was being helpful to people, like I was putting in a hand in making a potentially good writer better. (And I was never mean about it — occasionally there were those who were slightly cruel, I never liked it — I only said something if either I wanted to express that I was moved by something and how I thought it could be made more effective (if I thought that it wasn’t effective enough) (and it helps to call people’s attention to these things: we often do not notice these really interesting little things in what we write; oftentimes they’re accidental) . . . or I said something if there was something that bothered me and I felt they should stop doing it because it would make the piece better. I liked this. I thought it was fun.

      A lot of my classmates hated it, dreaded it.

      Admittedly, though… I didn’t get enough challenging critique, and people tended to be really quiet about making comments on my work. I think I should’ve been challenged more.

      It occurs to me that maybe, for an artist, if you’re not challenged in school then when you are inevitably challenged when you get out (because, let’s face it, the art world is brutal — the world of visual art notably more so than that of literature) . . . then the criticism is going to hurt a lot more and it’ll be harder for you to negotiate that criticism, to take what is applicable and dismissible and still be able to write. I still have a lot of trouble with that, even though I have a lot of strong ideas about art. I worry constantly about how people perceive my writing. That kind of obsession can be paralyzing.

      I liked critiques in art classes too. I looked forward to them.

      But in general, as we all know, people are nervous about critiquing other people’s work in a way that they think might hurt those people. They’re much more comfortable with paying compliments. “I really liked…” and they leave it at that. It ends up being up to the teacher to be the bad one, but the teacher always wants to stay out of it, to be impartial.

      It’s a problem I don’t know how to fix.

      Anyhow, finally, Lightindragon: I think I agree that professors should regularly be asking students why they write… but I don’t agree at all that they should be “sons-of-bitches one day”, or that they should develop an arrogant attitude.

      I don’t think that James Frey’s “I’m better than everyone” arrogance is a good model . . . nor Salvador Dalí’s “worship me, I’m a genius” model (to cross into another medium) . . . nor do I think my own neurotic mix of arrogance and insecurity is a good model; I’d hate to suggest that any writer should end up like me.

  31. Owen Kaelin

      I think I understand where you’re coming from, which is that you don’t want people thinking that they know who you are just by reading your work. If I’m mistaken let me know, but if this is basically what you’re thinking I’m saying, then I want to clarify, because that’s not at all what I’m trying to say.

      In fact, I’ve argued for a long time that, in effect, the audience’s perception of your work as something artistic is a perception of their self, not yours. You might have a few people here and their who think that they can read you by reading your work, but really what they’re reading is their own self. …Because the perception process changes your work into something that is not you but rather them. They can’t know you at all, and they can’t know you through your work . . . all they can know is what your work says about them.

      All I was saying before was that because your art is dependent on you alone and nobody else (and any input anyone else makes is always processed by you and therefore the result is an aspect of you) then that art (not the craft — more on that in a moment) is you.

      When I say that ‘your art is you’, I admit I’m taking some poetic liberty, here. I’m trying to point out that the work is the product of nothing else but the artist, and that therefore, by extension, any criticism of the actual art is a criticism of the artist.

      When it comes to the craft, though: you’re right, that even though craft, too, is affected by the self, by the way you perceive and then process the world . . . critiquing craft is not something that can be described as being a critique of the artist in any way but superficially.

      I guess I did a poor job of explaining.

      But as for art being a means of “figuring out”… yes, as far as I see it, that’s basically what art is all about, figuring things out. I think that’s the case for the audience, too. The audience sees something in the work which they feel says something about them, and this contributes to the puzzle of the Self . . . it contributes — comfortably or uncomfortably — to our ongoing struggle to figure out who/what the hell we are.

  32. James Yeh

      I don’t think David was the one who asked the question, merely someone who heard it and documented it.

      But I’m confused, Reynard. Are you calling Sam Lipsyte a devil-worshipper or some kind of Lishian lackey?

  33. James Yeh
  34. reynard seifert

      yeah i misread that, all coffee + twinkie – food = bad mood reynard = my bad

      i just think it’s a stupid question to ask anyone who studied with lish

      the fact that sam lipsyte worships the devil does not surprise me, james, i do that every time i buy fast food

  35. puzzlingcreativity

      True, arrogance can be harmful, but the point was that writers must believe in themselves and the value of their thoughts independent of other’s personal tastes. I’d say “pride” works better, but arrogance sounds cooler since it harkens to sons-of-bitches like Hemingway and Faulkner. Workshops should be challenging, at least in terms of critique, because it’s the only opportunity we can get constructive opinion, things that could be revised, things that don’t work with the context created. The real world of criticism seeks only to destroy voices deemed unfit for the mainstream.

  36. James Yeh

      Hmm. I think it depends on how much you enjoy slight variations of the same thing. Everybody has the same general experience of Lish, I think — harsh, volatile, demanding, occasionally bizarre — but everybody’s particular experience is endlessly different. Maybe this is a weakness, but I’m actually pretty fascinated with how slightly varied those experiences can be. From friends I’ve heard anecdotes of anything from one of his favorite sayings — “if someone comes up to you in a car and asks you to get in, get in!” — to his making a recent student go to the madhouse, to his apparently wildly bushy eyebrows. It all seems pretty fascinating to me, and now that I’m thinking of it more, I’d probably be just the one to ask such a question, though maybe in less public of a space, and with more drinks.

  37. Richard Thomas

      “He continued to explain that he knew he was ready because he was broken, and willing to be broken. And maybe that’s the mindset everyone needs to take on in a workshop. ”

      ^ this

      But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of idiots in workshops. There are a couple voices to listen to whenever editing or workshopping, imo:

      1. First and foremost, your own. Establish a voice or POV and stick to it.
      2. A mentor, teacher or other author(s) who gets you and like(s) your work, to provide encouragement.
      3. The rest. Pick and choose what makes sense. Listen, be truly open, mull it over, chew on it, and then most likely disregard about 75% of the comments.

      I’m in an MFA at Murray State down in KY, a low-res program since I work FT as an art director. I submitted a couple stories to get into the program – my “best” work. By the time we got to the workshop, several stories had been accepted. In fact, all of the work I submitted to get in got accepted. I kept trying to swap out stories but we ended up talking about a story “Underground Wonderbound” that got into Vain Magazine. At the end of my story, we had decided to tell the group that this story had been accepted. My teachers and I debated even mentioning this to the class, but they wanted this to segue into a discussion on submitting, since I was very active and most were not. (I’m a bit older than most in the program, I’m 43.)

      Well, one guy, he slammed the paper on the ground and said “Well, I guess they’ll just publish anything these days.”

      Wow. I thought the story had been fairly tight, as did the editors at Vain, only making a few minor edits, but it just goes to show that there are always things going on in a workshop above and beyond the writing. I understood how people might be upset that they’d taken the time to read and criticize my work, but really…this was not the right reaction.

      This will blow over. If that poet can’t get past this, then she’s doomed.

  38. reynard seifert

      actually i enjoy slight variations of the same thing a lot and i would love to read a collection of essays about people’s experiences in those workshops, but i’m not interested in hearing what a writer has to say about it in two minutes, in front of an audience comprised of people who may or may not know who gordon lish is, and it just seems trite to me at this point

  39. Topher

      I look forward to a 17 year old telling me about a history class he went to and the lesson he learned that most of us have known for years.

  40. Matthew Simmons

      I like this guest essay quite a bit, but got stuck on this:

      “I did up the buttons of my shirt and left quickly.”

      I am now convinced that you are in a poetry workshop that requires all its participants to discuss each other’s poetry either open-shirted, with one’s naked chest exposed; entirely shirtless; or entirely naked—and if the third option is the real one, I think you are holding out on us and I look forward to your naked workshop essay.

  41. Owen Kaelin

      I don’t think being a son of a bitch helps anyone. What’s so great about asshole writers?

      I am guessing that Lightindragon really meant that a writer should be tough and should believe in his/her own writing. So… I’m not really criticizing him/her, just trying to clarify . . . I don’t like mean people and I don’t like the idea of colleges fostering mean-ness.

      I remember Dennis Leary (I think it was him . . . him or Dennis Miller) saying something like “I learned how to be mean on the road.” I remember thinking, “What the fuck? Who in the hell needs to learn how to be mean?

  42. adult

      fuck tha youth yah

  43. adult

      shirtless faggots yah

  44. James Yeh

      yes, the audience is key, as is the ability to go on for a duration longer than two minutes. maybe one day we will get that essay collection

  45. david

      i don’t answer questions at readings, that’s retarded