We called, you answered: inspired by Lena Dunham’s nightmare vision of a University of Iowa workshop, we’ve collected real-life stories of what happens when MFAs melt down. Readers didn’t disappoint — if there’s anything a workshop’s good for, it’s a lifetime’s worth of cringe comedy. (Good writing is also possible, but by no means a given.) Click through for bitchy blog posts, unsolicited nudity, and of course, a few healthy doses of racism, all helpfully illustrated with canonical examples of side-eye.
I moved to New York in 2004 and didn’t really know anyone when I got here. Since I was a writer, I thought that a good way to start meeting some people would be to join a writers group. I joined one that would hold regular workshops/meetings, and a fun thing about it was that the meetings were always at a different group member’s apartment — so I was meeting people and learning my way around NYC. For awhile it was great — the people were nice, the writing was diverse, and the critique I would get was really useful. But then one week, I got the regular email from the group leader that said when and where the next meeting would be. Only this email very seriously declared that for this meeting, we would do “naked writers group.” And not “emotionally naked,” just… naked. People would come to the group, strip down to nothing and write — for reasons that were not explained in the email and still remain a mystery to me. The email ended with “I can’t wait to see the look on the delivery guy’s face when he brings our food!”
I didn’t go to that meeting. Or any other meetings after that.
“There Must Be Some Plantation-Owning Ancestors There…”
During my first year of college, I took an “Intro to Fiction Writing” class. I was such a young, naive freshman that I was starstruck by our professor because she was supposedly a professional writer even though a) I had never heard of her before in my life and b) she didn’t even have a fucking Wikipedia page. My hopes were shattered, though, during one of the first weeks of class when our professor turned to one of the students in our class, a black woman, and said “Oh, I know your father. You know, you’re much lighter than he is.” While we all started freaking out internally, it got worse: “There must be some plantation-owning ancestors somewhere there.” We were all scared first years too wimpy and terrified to speak up, and it was horrible.
Also, later during the semester, a (not black) classmate wrote a story from the perspective of a black man living in Harlem entirely in Ebonics that involved a character dying by choking on a piece of fried chicken. My professor said she really liked the voice.
“I Love Transgendered Stories!”
I had this professor for an intermediate nonfiction workshop my sophomore spring. I got some bad vibes from her pretty early on (despite the fact that she was white, she’d say she was “honorarily Chinese” because of her husband), but tried convincing myself to like her to make the rest of the semester bearable.
Because upper level workshops require an application, the professor knew that I was trans from reading my writing sample — I remember submitting an old piece of mine that was explicitly about the subject.
A few weeks into the semester she’s going through and reading out who is submitting when. She accidentally misreads one of my (female-identified) classmates’ name as Dave and then quickly corrects, which would have been fine, had she not then proceeded to pause and say, “You know, I love transgendered stories.” Looking directly at me (the only trans person in the room), she continues, “You should totally write transgendered stories.”
She also, among other things, told me that I should keep writing about trans things because it was just a “more extreme” version of “a classic coming of age story.” Ooof.
Kids These Days
I dedicated a semester to a project about how 20-somethings navigate relationships, and specifically communication around relationships. Partially this was to explore the content, but I also had never worked on a longer collection and wanted to see how that would work. In my first workshop on this topic, a (older-than-20-something) classmate complained about having to read the voice of 20-year-olds, and said that the entire content was just something she would never be interested in. Very constructive.
Later, she wrote about me and the (many) other college-aged girls in the class on her blog, calling us “sycophants” who cater to “educated men.” She thought we wouldn’t be able to find it.
This one guy got sore about his submissions always receiving harsh critiques, so his next submission was about the other members of the workshop. The names were thinly disguised but it was obvious who everyone was. Some of us talked beforehand and decided we would praise it and tell him it was the best writing we’d seen from him — which it was, though still not good. He was caught off-guard.
“My Mind Just Doesn’t Work That Way!”
One woman kept turning in a novel she was working on that was completely devoid of conflict and tension. In fact, the main character would often reflect upon just how perfect her life was. The faculty and fellow participants would constantly tell her that this just wasn’t interesting. One day she said to me, “[Professor] keeps talking about conflict and tension, but my mind just doesn’t work that way.”
This woman came from an Ivy League school and was on a full-ride scholarship.
In my first-ever writers’ workshop, I shared in a personal essay my recent realization that I was a replacement child for my sister, who was killed. It was a turning point that led to writing my memoir.
The next week in workshop, another writer shared his own piece about being born after his sibling died of crib death, and wrote a very similar story about realizing HE was a replacement child. Since I had hardly heard anyone use that term before, except in my research of psychological studies, I couldn’t help but believe the writer had lifted my revelation as his own.
I have since become much more accepting of writers sharing the same “aha” moments.
A few months into my first undergraduate writing seminar, the class—which, if I remember correctly, had never been what you’d call “functional” — ground to a halt when a white student opined that a famous African-American poet whose work we were studying just wasn’t very good. Furthermore, in her professional 18-year-old opinion, we were only reading this poet because of “affirmative action.”
Plenty of people jumped on her right away, including a few students of color, who (correctly) pointed out that her accusation implicitly questioned their right to be in the class too. There was some additional racist commentary. Within a few minutes, about a third of the room was in tears — including the instructor, who in retrospect was just a poor MFA student herself. The rest of us just looked on in shock and horror. From there, the semester progressed about as awkwardly as you’d expect.
This wasn’t part of a workshop, obviously, but I’d argue that it’s the kind of awful conversation that happens way more often in creative writing seminars than in English or humanities classes. It’s part and parcel of the tendency to “workshop” — rather than actually analyze — everything that the class reads, including the literature that’s assigned.
“All Women Seduce With a Lie”
In my freshman-year workshop, there was a pale, thin, freshman named Chad [a pseudonym] who wrote a piece about booze and women. He was inspired by other white, male writers of the 1960s. I remember the details of this story very well: the main character, also named Chad, was a womanizing jazz musician trying to make ends meet playing gigs at bars in Harlem and Greenwich Village. Chad’s compulsive, empty sexual escapades were compensation for lonely teenage years when he masturbated furiously. “Ew,” I commented in the margins.
The most cringe-inducing part of the story was the part when Chad met Nicole, the woman who made him feel something for the first time he could remember. Nicole’s breasts were described in great detail and compared to juicy fruit. I highlighted this line: “She told me no man had ever made her cum. But all women seduce with a lie. Later that night, drunk on whiskey, she did. Hard.” This was before women’s studies classes.
In place of sharing some kind of well-developed feminist criticism, I told writer-Chad that his story was “not believable.” What I meant was, “your fantasies of yourself make me deeply uncomfortable.”