An amusing story about MFA’s, workshops, and the darlings we all know, by our own Editor Mary Troy.
The Darling of Workshop
You are working on a story. You write two sentences that are as clear and pristine as a silver bell at midnight, and you wonder how they will go over in workshop. You think your peers will be impressed. You picture the group reading your sentences and thinking Wow. She’s good. But as you continue writing, your character, Imogene, the lapsed Scientologist and dishwasher at the Golden Flapjack family restaurant and her need to steal the money collected for the kid with Leukemia take over, and without realizing it, you stop picturing the workshop, but are writing for the story itself, writing to see where Imogene’s decisions will lead. Soon a miracle happens and you get so caught up in Imogene’s world you miss dinner and margaritas with friends and you don’t return your mother’s call or even check facebook. You end up with a lovely, zany, wild, crazy, funny, tragic, and profoundly moving story about loneliness and sex and economic instability. You love it, or at least you know you could if you had time to rewrite pieces of it, especially those few paragraphs of exposition that are less than lovely. You turn it in for workshop and immediately you realize the class will hate it, and you wonder why you didn’t write something they’d like, though you have some hope one or two of them are smart enough to see what you intended with Imogene. When workshop comes around, your hopes are dashed. All agree the story is bad, very bad. Phrases like waste of time and worst ever are used along with words like sluggish and sophomoric and confusion and clichéd, hackneyed, and boring. Someone says he saw a show about this on Dr. Phil, and a few even scoff at the name Imogene. Your place in the workshop has been established, and it is low.
In truth, no one said any of that mean stuff, for your peers and teachers are nice and believe in positive reinforcement, but you did hear all that and more. What’s worse, the comments were so far from the mark, they could have been about another story entirely. But the more you think of it, the more you understand the workshop is made up of silly sheep who want the same old bloodless and soulless stories. The kind of stories no one but other writers want to read. For god’s sake, the general consensus was that a scene was needed on page five when Imogene’s father picked her up from pre-school, and that could not be more wrong. That is not a time to slow the action, for it’s backstory and not pivotal to the plot and what sort of morons would want a scene there? The kind who do not understand where the meat of the story is.
But if they don’t understand, maybe, just maybe, it is your organization, or maybe those lovely lines on page one about parent and child bonding that seemed so wise have to go. And if you rework the beginning, cut out the double meanings and great symbolism, no one will think you need a scene on page 5. But speaking of scenes, maybe the workshop was just hungry for a scene someplace, anyplace. Maybe you could begin with Imogene and the two Russian men in the hotel room overlooking the airport, emphasizing her surprise at how gentle they were even though she said she liked it rough, a lie of course, and then skip ahead to her returning home to her arthritic dog. And of course you should mention Imogen’s role as travel manager for the senior citizen tap dancing troupe, the Tinsel Toes, earlier. Then, if you cut out the nosey neighbor, the ending will be more organic and not like a punch line as two others said.
This train of thought can take a week, or many months, or could happen in the time it takes you to get home from class on the light rail, your mind clicking and clacking along on a similar track. But no matter. When it comes, it’ll likely be sooner than if you’d not had a workshop, because it is the workshop comments, even those far from the mark, that have helped you reevaluate your story, have become a shortcut to a better story. (Though you should know the story will get worse before it gets better.) And the shortcut works only if you did, in fact, let the story take over, and only if you finally cared more about Imogene than about being the darling of the workshop. For if you had written for the workshop, something that would have been accepted and even praised, it could have been that bloodless and soulless story you do not want to write. At least it would not have been your story. And it is partly the rejection and your reaction to it that has made, will eventually make, the story better. As any writer who has been there will tell you, there are a few benefits in being the darling of the workshop, but none that last. None at all.