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Avoiding The Workshop Story

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

In my advanced fiction class last semester, my professor warned us of a new phenomenon that has resulted from the explosion of MFA programs across the country: the “Workshop Story.” This is a piece that is solidly built, carefully constructed, and follows all of the guidelines of a quality story: fully realized characters, an abundance of scene, strong sense of place, conflict where something of importance is at stake, description and imagery, and yet, for all that, something is missing. Quoting Gertrude Stein, my professor said the Workshop Story is a story where “there’s no there there.”

To me, a Workshop Story is the worst possible kind of story a writer can write. Personally, I’d rather write a flat-out bad story, because at least when I re-read it, I can’t trick myself into thinking it’s a good. But a workshop story is more insidious: on the surface it appears authentic, profound, meaningful. But really, it isn’t about anything. It’s the difference between a Lady Gaga song—which is purposely fluffy meta-pop, reveling in its plasticity, and one of those awful adult-rock ballads you hear on radio stations like 101.9, The Mix!, which actually tries to sound earnest, but which is really just a hollow, soulless, overproduced pile of drivel.

I’ve been thinking about Workshop Stories lately because in my class this semester, all we are doing is judging the work of our fellow students (most of whom I don’t know personally since Columbia’s fiction writing department has 700 students when you combine undergrad and grad classes, as is our practice). The task is to cull the very best work for our literary anthology from a massive stack of 2,000+ manuscripts that have already been prescreened by our professors. As you may imagine, there is some remarkably beautiful work in there, some not-so-strong stuff, and yes, some Workshop Stories. Once I read one, I immediately thought of Randy’s words last semester: the story was good….and yet, there was no there there. On a first read through, you might think it passes muster. But as soon as you put it down, you’ve already forgotten what it’s about.

This of course leads into a question that every MFA student has been asked at one point or another: can writing actually be taught? The answer, I believe, is yes. But what my professor is getting at, I think, is that while craft can be learned, soul—the “there”– can’t. The problem is, of course, that it’s so difficult to judge our own writing. I can read others’ work and detect the Workshop Stories I come across. I can differentiate them from the really good stuff. But what about my own writing? Is there a way to tell then?

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4 Responses to Avoiding The Workshop Story

  1. On a first read through, you might think it passes muster. But as soon as you put it down, you’ve already forgotten what it’s about.

  2. Lara says:

    I agree with the first commentator. The likelihood of no "<i>there</i> there" in a work comes from writing to an "isolated audience", ie. the unique audience of your writing workshop. Ie. the moment an author thinks "[Workshop participant]Jack or Amy [or God forbid, the workshop instructor] will find this phrase particularly wonderful [laugh, cry, gasp, etc.]"

    Rather an author should write a story because s/he is passionate about it, passionate about what its characters say <i>to her/him</i>. So it’s not so much how to look at the work afterward to wonder if it is a Workshop Story, but to examine intent when beginning to write in the first place.

    Yes, writing under deadline can create Workshop Stories because an author feels pressure to perform. While writing technically can be taught, the <i>art</i> of writing is to dive into every project <i>for oneself</i>.

  3. To be able to determine if your work has the "there there" or if it’s a Workshop Story requires a period of time where you don’t look at or think about it. This will enable you time to put on your objective lenses. Unfortunately, not all of us are blessed with the luxury to do this. God bless friends and critique partners. They help put things in perspective for you.

    I also agree that writing can be taught. What you should and shouldn’t do to effectively express your thoughts. It boils down to whether your thoughts are dynamic or flat. Do they keep readers awake or bore them to sleep. I believe that requires trial and error. Many published authors admit they aren’t sure why one of their novels sold better than another. Keep writing and eventually your thoughts will jump off the page.

  4. Eliza Fogel says:

    What a continuous struggle. This is why I tend not to perform public readings, slams, where the story is not written for its truth and beauty and soulful purpose but rather for entertaining an audience. This medium tends to produce stories that lack substance and are meant to produce tears or laughs. Not always the case but sometimes so painfully obvious. I attended a reading a few months back and cringed as a student told a story that was an old, stale joke that had been endlessly rehashed over the years, leaving the tale flat and less than thought provoking. The audience still laughed. Whatevs. The great storyteller transcends the rules of workshops and produces memorable, honest words, the kind that stick in your mind like “pumpkin lace.” Can writing be taught? Maybe the fundamentals but creativity and authenticity–dare I say, no. Experiences can be had but you can’t force reflection or observation. The University of Iowa states: "We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.” I’m looking to be encouraged. +eli

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