The Shit-Drenched Rose Move

There’s this thing that happens a lot in writing workshops I’ve noticed after a decade or so of teaching them. For those outside MFAland: in a writing workshop, everyone but the writer of the manuscript talks about that MS at hand, discussing their reading experience and suggesting things for revision.

Now: suggestions can be useless. “You might have a scene where your protagonist goes to Frankfurt. It might be neat to see them in a European airplane hub, since they keep talking about customs and beer….” But some are useful: “The narrator speaking in this essay seems unhappy with her upbringing, but I can’t understand why. We might get some flashbacks of seminal moments from her childhood, portraits of her parents, etc.”

One true thing about workshops is that some students?not those being workshopped, but those participating in the conversation?will take another’s suggestion to help a MS as some kind of personal affront. Like an argument against the kind of writing they feel driven to champion. What happens in this instance is that such a student says this: I don’t think this piece needs some long-winded memory about how her mom was mean to her, or some belabored history of her mother’s upbringing. It’s not about her!

This sort of thing drives me crazy. It drives me up a fucking wall.

Imagine, if you will, a wedding that two people are planning. Probably they’re related, or will soon be. They are standing in the banquet hall where the reception will be held, trying to figure out some ways to make it not look hopelessly generic. The sister of the groom points to two empty corners. What if we get some sprays of roses to put there? Maybe on pedestals? That might look nice….

The sister of the other groom looks at those corners and frowns. I don’t want these wilted, weeks-old roses drenched in birdshit at the reception! I mean: who wants to look at that?

What we hope to teach CW students is to access and then be led by the force of their imaginations. At home, that imagination is tasked to make new things we haven’t seen before. In the classroom, that imagination is tasked with envisioning a better MS than what they have before them. Some folks, when you suggest a thing, can only imagine its worst incarnation. Or maybe it’s this: they hate the suggestion so much they reductio it ad its most absurdem, and suddenly the talk becomes less about the possibilities for the work at hand and more about What Writing Is and Should Do.

Once a workshop becomes an argument about What Writing Is and Should Do (as opposed to How This Piece At Hand Might Better Achieve Its Aims), that workshop has been voided by its hubris. You’d be right to stand up and walk out of the room.

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