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The Five Stages of Workshop:
What You Can Get
from a College Writing Program

by Kenneth Nichols

Perhaps it’s just my perception, but one of the great things about speculative fiction is the high percentage of readers who become writers. How can we resist the pull to create new worlds or test the bounds of science or recast societies to fit our needs? The best of the genre combines big ideas with literary skill. Ideas? Those come naturally. Where can one go to acquire that skill and benefit from the experiences of other writers?

I’ve had the fortune of being a part of three university creative writing programs: a conservatory, a liberal arts college English Department and, currently, an MFA program. These programs are a beachhead against the societal tide that deems a starlet’s DUI of more importance than the latest Orson Scott Card. It’s also a sanctuary from everyday concerns, a place where ambitions can be nurtured. And sometimes, it’s even a place that will frustrate a writer into questioning their own abilities.

This is the point.

If your goal is to make that transition from SF reader to SF writer, college writing courses are a great way to push yourself to the next level. Even if you’re not an English major, what kind of experience can you expect?

While there will always be highs and lows, being surrounded by like-minded people is a big help. You’ll hear about new authors, new theories about storytelling and understand what it takes to become a professional in the field. Writing is a solitary pursuit, so when writers get together, they enjoy helping each other out and talking shop. (Sometimes in a coffee shop.)

Every English department is different. As you’d expect, undergraduate writers are generally less developed than graduate-level writers. Take a look at the professors’ publications. Are they postmodern poets? Are they novelists who produce volumes of historical fiction? Don’t worry if you’re not interested in producing stuff that’s exactly like theirs. All storytelling is bound by the same rules. A good teacher helps the student become the writer they want to be, no matter the genre. Sometimes (okay, most of the time), you’ll be the only SF fan in the room. This is a learning opportunity for you and your classmates, some of whom will have their own uncommon interests.

Soldiers have obstacle courses and 25-mile marches to break their spirits and test the limits of their endurance. Writers have the workshop. Many budding writers are intimidated by the prospect of putting their story on the chopping block. They’re terrified by the idea of finishing a story and asking their friends to tell them what’s wrong with it. To most writers, stories are as dear as children. Workshop is just like being told your baby is ugly and stupid.

Grief has five psychologically recognized stages. Coincidentally, workshop students go through the exact same emotions:

  1. Denial: “They just didn’t understand my story. If they would have seen the allegory, they would have gotten it!”

  2. Anger: “Those idiots don’t know what they’re talking about. Most of these morons can barely read!” (During this stage, the writer may enjoy hitting tennis balls, spending time in the batting cage or building something with hand tools.)

  3. Bargaining: “If I tack on a happy ending, people will like the story better. If I take out the whole carnival subplot, they’ll probably think the denouement is more congealed. I’ll mention Tom is Jerry’s father six more times so it comes through.”

  4. Depression: “I’m a terrible writer. I should just give up. Where’s the whiskey?”

  5. Acceptance: “Okay, so that guy felt it took too long to get into the story, so I should tighten it a little. And maybe it’s too confusing to have unrelated characters named Marian, Mariel and Muriel. I’ll fix up that piece and hope my next is a little closer to where I want to be.”

The acceptance stage is where you want to be and where you’ll get the most benefit. If you’re an aspiring writer and you have a head full of ideas and a stack of stories on your desk, immersing yourself in a college writing program is a great way to take your ambition to the next step.

Copyright © 2008 by Kenneth Nichols

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