Studying · Writing

What I’ve learned: it’s not always easy

This place is breaking me.The good kind of breaking, the way you smash open a walnut shell to get to the goodness inside of it. Still, I can’t imagine it’s pleasant for the walnut.

The way MFAs in Creative Writing work in general is that there is a workshop component. This means, at AU at least, that you hand out copies of your work to everyone one week: they go away and read it, annotate the typsecript, and then write you a letter outlining the strengths and weaknesses of your work. The following week, you are “workshopped”: yes, it’s turned into a verb. That means you sit there, silently, while your classmates discuss your work, guided by the tutor.

It’s a  scary but wonderful process. It’s illuminating, and although it’s terrifying being with second and third years who by now are experts at this, they are the ones with the most informed comments. We aren’t just talking “this part was boring”, or “I didn’t like this”. (In fact, we aren’t really allowed to say “liked” at all.) We’re talking strategic, intelligent points about things like rate of revelation and amplification and the importance of not hitting the same note on the emotional spectrum over and over again.

The first three chapters of Inevitable, the book I worked on for two years, were workshopped last week. It was extraordinarily helpful, and I was pleased that after a couple of years of going to a writers’ group where we commented on each other’s work, I have acquired a thick enough skin that I was able to smile at the compliments – and from this group of people, they are genuine and meaningful – and take on board those of the comments that I thought would improve the work.

But then, a strange thing happened. After we are “workshopped”, we get to make a one-to-one appointment to see our tutor. (I’m supposed to call them “professors”, but I balk at this slightly, because a “professor” is a very specific thing in British English.) Anyway, mine is great – I am so glad that I chose her as my first Fiction Writing teacher. It was a great hour and a half: productive, encouraging without being flattering, full of useful suggestions. But here’s the thing: I kept hearing my voice break slightly. At several points during the hour and a half, I was horrified to realise that I was on the verge of crying. It was odd. There was nothing unkind about my tutor; in fact, she said highly encouraging things, like “you walk in the door with a great skill set, and I’m going to push you hard to make sure you get better”. She reassured me that I am totally meant to be here. But I’ve felt down ever since.

It might be because she encouraged me to put aside Inevitable for now, and concentrate on short stories. I’m a little scared of short stories, but I had no intention really of doing much with Inevitable this year, so why this should be hard to take I am not quite sure. It might also be because she encouraged me to work on my sentences, when – let’s face it – I thought my sentences were, in the main, quite good. It might just be because when your baby is being yanked this way and that, it’s a little eye-watering. I don’t know.

And then today an even odder thing happened. I was in non-fiction workshop, listening to someone else’s work being critted, and I wanted to cry again. It was a great piece, which I thought worked really well as it was, and yet people had so many suggestions for how to improve it, many of which I disagreed with. I’m not getting it, I thought. I don’t get it. I’m working on an assignment for this class, and having a lot of trouble with it, and if this is what they do to an excellent essay, what are they going to do to mine… and, at this rate, how am I going to stop myself from crying? Because that would be embarrassing.

It’s nothing to worry about, I know. New things are always overwhelming. I will look back next year when I am one of the scary second years who knows a lot and smile encouragingly at the little ones who might be experiencing the same thing I am now. I’m here to learn. I’m here to get better. I’m here to be as good a writer as I can be. And if the bone has to be broken so it can be reset, then so be it. I just hope I can keep from crying in front of fifteen people.

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