My foray into a traditional MFA program hasn’t been going well. I’ve learned that they’re unfriendly to both speculative fiction (which I write) and anything even a little bit intellectual (something I’ve observed in critiques of others’ work). I’ve become skeptical of the workshop format and have made arrangements to switch to a low-residency program where I can spend more of my time working one-on-one with authors. Still, since it’s too late for a refund, I’m trying to stick it out for the rest of the semester.
One of the things, and I’m hearing this a lot, is about my work not being emotional enough. We spend a lot of time talking about emotions—in authors work, in each other’s work. Or should I say they talk about it. They’ll discuss how they felt about a scene, if a line evoked emotion and I’m thinking “there’s something emotional here?” I can’t see it. I’m more interested in the intellectual questions posed by a piece of work or the puzzle presented. Still, I get this a lot, that my work is academic, that I’m not putting my emotions into it with the assumption that it is and should be my goal.
In my CNF class last night, I workshopped a piece about when I hitchhiked through the southwest in my early twenties. I was homeless and an activist at the time. It was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek piece, mocking my youthful impulsiveness and impracticality a bit, with tales of close calls and how I finagled my way out of them. The bulk of the critique centered around how I wasn’t showing my emotion, the fear and terror I “must” have felt, how I felt about the people I encountered along the way. It was suggested that I must have not realized there were predators in the world and that when I realized it while hitchhiking, I would have been terrified and I was simply not connected with my emotions.
That’s the thing, though. I _was_ disconnected from my anxiety. I had an urgency to experience life and see what’s out there, I was fiercely independent and had a certain rootlessness but more than anything I _didn’t_ feel anxiety, at least not for very long and certainly not so much that it prevented me from doing things. The first time I remember feeling anxiety was when I was 26 but it didn’t really instill in me a whole lot of caution until my sister died when I was 29. Any minor scares (such as winding up in the truck of someone creepy) weren’t traumatic precisely because I’d part ways at first opportunity and immediately meet up with some other kind-hearted and well-intentioned stranger. This alleviated anxiety rather than drive it home precisely because it cemented my belief that I could take care of myself and get out of any scrapes I might get into.
I wanted to quickly explain this at the end but the teacher refused to let me. I was actually surprised since in my fiction workshop, we’re given that opportunity and I’d always heard this was part of the format. This confusion led to me trying to clarify why I just wanted to say something really quickly. As it turns out, the teacher is one of those people that doesn’t take well to questioning, so that got her hackles raised a bit. So, trying to explain that I wasn’t going to defensively react to the criticism but wanted to clarify what may have been a misunderstanding based on things other than the writing which came across as being rather dismissive of my classmates, at which point she got openly offended (although I’m not sure why).
Thing is, I thought I needed to address the emotionality issue. In this case, it wasn’t traumatic—I went on to move to one of the towns that I visited and hitchhike whenever I got cabin fever—and to write myself as afraid or as a victim would be to write a fiction. So, that’s not really useful feedback. If my writing, fiction and non-fiction, is not _portraying_ the detachment as intentional, what I need to hear is how to more effectively capture that detachment in a way that people see it as integral to the work.
That’s the problem with workshops, though. People don’t look at the overall project, usually. I hear my classmates trying to push one another not to be better writers but to produce the content _they_ want to read. Admittedly, it’s not the first time that I’ve heard I should be traumatized by something that wasn’t perceived by me as a bad thing, still, I’m interested in feedback that will help me with my project. I didn’t pay six grand (out of pocket) to be told that they want me to write emotional, coming-of-age tales (both in fiction and CNF) and it’s hard to take that sort of feedback seriously.