I’m sure that the vulnerability accompanying workshop is nothing new to veteran writers, but as a first-year student in the MFA program that utilizes workshop as a main form of pedagogy, it’s kind of a big deal. For most of my life I’ve written in isolation as a compulsion, and was comforted by reassuring myself that no one would ever read what I’d written (at least not on purpose). So, I poured out my every insecurity, rage, and angst into my keyboard, without ever worrying that the quality of it would be judged. To judge the quality would be to judge me, I thought. These are my deepest, darkest secrets, my feelings, me on this paper. How can I hand it over to someone and have them red-line it as though it were some impersonal Cosmo article? No sir. I will stick with my self-indulgent private compulsion, thank you.
Fast forward to last year. I’d finally discovered that writing wasn’t a hobby or passing fancy, it was something I’d been doing for decades and still did regularly – whether I liked it or not. Whenever someone asked me what my passion was, a little voice in my brain would always whisper, “you are a writer,” even though for most of my life I would respond by snapping, “THAT’S NOT A JOB,” but I digress on my former ignorance in that regard. Eventually, I learned better and finally allowed myself to actually fill the inevitable role of writer in all aspects of my life. This, however, meant opening myself up to my peers and allowing them to read my closely guarded personal confessions. Granted, my life isn’t that shocking nor my writing that bad, but these were still things I’d never shared with anyone, things that I placed a carefully curated façade in front of to hide.
I found that most other MFA students had had at least some form of workshop experience, either in their undergraduate degree or through other programs. I’d gotten my undergraduate degree in Humanities (intentionally steering clear of any creatively writing focused curriculum because I was – you guessed it – scared of showing my crazy) and only had maybe one or two very informal workshops in which I was reserved and conservative in what I shared. I was absolutely terrified of a real, grown-up writing workshop, but I also wasn’t about to take this program that I’d worked so hard to get into by half measures. So, I decided to go ahead and put my soul on to the paper and throw it into the communal kiln. I went to my first workshop fully expecting people to tell me that I was a crazy mess (WHO COULDN’T WRITE) and resolved to spend the evening afterwards crying. Okay I didn’t expect that exactly, but in the movie in my mind I did. You get the idea – it was nerve-wracking!
To my relief, people glazed right over my crazy dysfunctional content and went straight to what mattered – the writing. That’s not to say that the content was completely disregarded. It was noted, but no one judged me for it. In fact, almost everyone was downright supportive. And since I’d purposefully scheduled my workshop for later in the semester so I could watch the class’s responses to other manuscripts before mine, I noticed that other students were making themselves just as vulnerable as I was. People are actually interested in helping each other with the candor of the content – they see it and respect it, sure, but more importantly, they want to help make it better. They recognize that other students are baring their souls despite the scariness that comes with it and want to help them craft their writing into something that respects the gravity and vulnerability being offered.
Again, this is all probably common knowledge for experienced writers, but for me (and possibly other first year students), this is revelatory. Putting yourself out there after years of isolation is scary – terrifying even (i.e., correct use of em dashes? Probably not). But I think one of the most important aspects of a good MFA program is that it’s intent on creating an environment that is safe, constructive, and focused on the craft rather than fixing the writer’s issues or passing judgement on their perceived state of mind. I’ve found that this program in particular is FIERCE in making sure that students aren’t condescended to for their content, which makes me feel that much safer – and more grateful. I don’t think that had I come into the program by half measures that I would be getting as much out of it as I am – fear has thus far not improved my writing, so if it’s all or nothing, go ahead and take it all. I can always fix it in editing.
Erica Rudnick Macalintal is an MFA candidate for Nonfiction at the University of Central Florida. She is also completing a graduate certificate in professional writing. Interests outside of writing include husband Ken, dog Esteban, and general acclimation to life on Planet Earth.