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The Writing: How do you negotiate the workshop gaze?

Hi everyone,

This week’s question continues the MFA series (#1, #2, #3) and is inspired by a response by JinJin to the my first writing class thread on Twitter from a few weeks again.

How do you negotiate the workshop gaze?

This question speaks specifically to the ways that we read each other’s work based on cultural and social assumptions. You can see how things can get crossed and primed for misreadings if the writer being critiqued is an international student or has a historically excluded identity.

Answer below and here for the next 45 minutes!

Image: Lover’s Eyes, unknown, ca. 1840. Watercolor on ivory. Painted into the middle of an oval pendant is the portrait of a person’s eyes and forehead taking up most of the frame. The portrait is at 3/4ths view. The person is white and has amber eyes and red hair.

The answer to this is that it's not your sole responsibility to bear your instructor's and peers misreadings of your work. One of the main reasons I dislike the workshop model in the first place. The workshop centers and favors the instructor as the authority, the bearer of correct and good, and relegates readings of the text to assumptions and possibly stereotypical readings by the author's classmates.

The workshop is a community space where parameters may be set to minimize misunderstandings and to empower the author as much as possible. It's the workshop instructor's job to create and institute guidelines—safety bumpers, as I think of them—so workshop is useful and productive for everyone.

If you have an instructor who you think would be receptive, I recommend reaching out to them and talking about this issue. Some of us are just following the format that we've been taught: the author is silent while everyone else speaks, but this doesn't have to be the case. I really liked the example structure Emperatriz shared from a workshop with T Kira Madden a couple weeks back: "an open workshop with dialogue encouraged where the author always has space to respond, ask for clarity, or move the discussion to a new topic." Allowing the author to bring their own questions and to moderate, with help from the instructor if desired, the terms of how their work was discussed, can be very empowering and make the workshop more community-oriented.

Of course, more likely you're in a situation where this is not the case. I've talked a little about this in 'How Do I Get Through My MFA Program.' Aside from leaving the program or class, you can be careful about contextualizing your work with specific questions about what you want discussed when you send others the work, or even write the questions in a note before the actual piece, similar to how footnotes make function to help contextualize the piece.

If you want to stay in the class and see merit in it still, even if the class format won't change, you have to ask yourself what exactly you want from workshop and be honest with the limitations of your peers and professor and play to their strengths. I wouldn't bring work in that would likely be misread—save those pieces for the people who can truly understand its depths.