What to Save and What to Burn
I tried out for my middle school baseball team two times and my high school baseball team three times. All five years I was rejected, and all five years the coach told me that I nearly made it, that if I took a few more grounders and did some pushups and took extra swings in the cage I just might make the team next spring. Finally, after getting cut my junior year, I got fed up and decided to take up tennis. I worked hard the whole year learning the strokes and practicing volleys and footwork, and my senior year I started for the varsity tennis team. The approach that the middle school and high school baseball coaches took to informing me I hadn’t made the team was gentle and kind. It helped me to remain confident enough to try again the next year, and I enjoyed practicing and playing baseball for many years. I do wonder, though, whether something might have been gained by a sober and frank assessment of my potential as baseball player. I wasn’t very good, and they knew it. Could some of my frustration and disappointment have been avoided, and some of my effort have been redirected to tennis?
I’m in the middle of my second semester in the MFA Fiction program at CSU. Last semester I workshopped three stories, and so far this semester I’ve workshopped two. I had never taken a creative writing class of any kind before coming here, and the experience has been both intimidating and edifying. Recently I decided that I want to send some stories out to literary magazines, and in the process of making a revision and submission schedule for myself I’ve begun to wonder about the best approach to workshop. Specifically, I’ve been wondering whether part of the process is learning which stories to revise and which stories to scrap, or whether it’s better at this stage to treat every story as though it has publication potential.
My first semester can operate as a sort of case study to explore this question. Of the three pieces I submitted, my peers and professor thought that one was working really well, one was working sort of well, and one wasn’t working well at all. The latter story received such direct feedback (not mean but clear about the limitations of the piece and about the need for a major overhaul in order to move forward) that I’ve essentially scrapped it. I still have it, obviously, but I haven’t done anything with it. The pile of hard copies with comments scribbled on them has been lying next to my bed for the last several months. I have considered burning them and placing them into a decorative urn that could go on the shelf next to my socks. I can tell you that this feedback did not feel good when I got it. I think that every writer I’ve met (which isn’t all that many) has expressed to me that they experience a near constant crisis of confidence. A potential negative outcome of this type of direct and critical feedback is that it exacerbates this crisis of confidence and discourages the writer from taking risks in the future. It also discourages the writer from taking steps to revise the piece, which could be either a positive or a negative thing.
This semester both stories I’ve submitted have received feedback that felt like it did not include the first semester’s clear value judgments about the pieces as a whole. The difference in style between the two workshops has affected my plan for revision and for submitting the stories to literary magazines. The feedback from the first semester caused me to focus my revision efforts on the story that was well-received. I’ve done several revisions, each of which was examined by the professor who ran the first workshop, and her feedback has been invaluable to the process of tightening the story and making sure everything is working the way I want it to. I’m excited about the story and feel just about ready to send it out. My professor’s clear confidence in its quality has made me feel confident about sending it to top tier magazines, and I feel that I’ve learned a lot about the revision process. I’ve essentially scrapped the other two. I’m entertaining the thought of revising the one that got lukewarm reviews, and I feel icky about the other one. I think that story is dead. After I send the nearly finished story out I plan to revise the two from this semester. I find that I feel more confident about those ones, and they seem to me to have more potential.
There are serious confounds to the comparison between my high school sports exploits and MFA workshops, as well as to the comparison between workshop styles. For one thing, the stories have all been different, and it could be that I want to revise the stories from this semester because they’re better, and really do have more potential. For another thing I was a one hundred-and-twenty-five pound high schooler who couldn’t throw hard or hit a baseball far. I hope that I am not so objectively hopeless at writing. It would not have felt good to be told as a freshman in high school that I was in fact more than a few pushups from ever getting to play on the team. It would have hurt my confidence and possibly soured my outlook on the game itself. On the other hand, I probably would have turned to tennis sooner, and had three fun years on the team instead of one. As I get set to revise my stories and send them to literary magazines I find that I’m cherishing the feelings of positivity and possibility that I feel with regards to the two stories I turned in this semester. Maybe they’re a few sloppy sentences and a bit of thematic development away from being publishable. Maybe they’re not. The hard copies of my poorly-received story from last semester sit next to my bed, awaiting cremation. As I work I think about baseball, about tennis, about getting let down easy. I worry about destroying what has value, and about laboring over what does not. I wonder if part of the MFA is learning what to save and what to burn.