Head Space: Writing for Workshop vs. Play

By John Mcdonough January 28, 2014  |  Community, Fiction, MFA, Poetry, Uncategorized, Writing  |  no responses

In late October I received a phone call from a close friend at a rival MFA program (I use rival as an affect, in reality I like to think we’re all in this together). He’s a poet, and so began telling me of a challenge he was embarking on with a few fellow members of his program and another close friend. The goal was deceptively simple: write a new poem every day in November. Even Saturdays? Even Saturdays. And Sundays? Sundays too. I should join them, he suggested, knowing full well that as much as I may admire it, writing poetry is just not my jam. It doesn’t have to be a poem, he offered, you could do a flash piece instead. Right. A new piece of flash, every day, for thirty days? Micro prose isn’t exactly his jam either. He’s an insistent sort of friend though—If you miss a day, who cares?—and I the type that can be worn down. I agreed.

As I think back about the work I posted to that never-ending email chain, it’s striking to consider the difference between it and the writing I do for workshop. Of course, it’s not just that I experimented at times (and against my better judgement) with poetry: with a looming midnight deadline and a goal just to write, the work I produced was freer, weirder, less anxious. I wrote for fun, I wrote without intending to ever revisit: instead of working I played.

Though I wrote without intending to revisit, I have—just now in fact—for the purposes of this essay. They’re as scattered as I remember: flash fiction about mucus; poetry about Derrick Rose; an essay about Yahoo! Answers, cop-hating songs, and my police officer uncle; even a ghazal. I wrote what was close to mind while taking formal/lingual risks and strange flights of fancy. Most everything is half-baked, barely sketched, or just a start, and surprisingly, while not all of it is good, they’re not all bad either. I could see myself reviving some of these, pulling lines or ideas or even whole drafts out of November’s graveyard, taking what started as play and turning it into work.

Which leads to my central question: why do I differentiate between writing for play and writing for work? Why don’t I put my weirder, less-polished instincts on display in workshop? When it comes down to it, in the week or weeks leading up to my critique, instead of writing to experiment I often find myself writing to perfect, dreaming of turning in stories so polished my drafts come back crystal clear. It’s an absurd goal—certainly more absurd than writing a poem or piece of flash every day for a month—and I wonder if my work would be better off if I worried about it less and opened myself more to the joyful freedom of play.

For what it’s worth, I view my attempt at the November challenge as more success than failure. I started out strong—writing something new for thirteen straight days—before tumbling off the wagon and writing only four pieces in the final seventeen. I could have done better and I could have done worse, but despite the rules of the game—a new poem every day—it was still ultimately writing: what’s important is not the amount, but the amount you take away.


John Mcdonough


John McDonough is an MFA candidate in Fiction. Hailing from Chicago, John’s passions include flash fiction and non-, the Chicago Bulls, and his beautiful dog, Kima.

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