Avoiding The Workshop Story

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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?