Monday, October 1, 2018

My First Time: Darrin Doyle


Stuart Dybek
My First Writing Workshop

My first workshop in the Master of Fine Arts program at Western Michigan University was taught by Stuart Dybek. The class met, as most graduate workshops do, in the evening. I remember being nervous but excited by the sense that I was now joining the “big leagues” so to speak. I was thrilled to have the chance to enter a community of people who devoured literature and longed to create art. I had taken undergraduate workshops, but I was optimistic, quite honestly, that this class would do nothing less than usher me into a new life. At age 25, I had finally begun to sniff at the possibility of a career rather than a menial job (of which I had worked a dozen in my life at this point).

Stuart (he told us to call him Stu) had asked a second-year MFA student to bring copies of a story to class for discussion. Since the class only met once a week (this pre-dated electronic story distribution), Stu wanted to hit the ground running. The idea was that the class would take a 30-minute recess, disperse to find a comfortable nook where we could read this short-ish story (8 pages or so), comment on it, and re-convene to workshop it.

The workshopping second-year student in question (I’ll call him Frank) was an older gentleman of medium build, probably in his early 40s. He had longish hair beginning to go gray. I offer this description for visualizing purposes only.

The story was a Vietnam War story. I don’t recall much detail about it; it was decently written. Nothing terribly good or terribly bad. After our short break the class gathered, and we engaged in what I thought was a productive discussion about the story’s strengths and weaknesses. From my perspective, it felt great. We talked seriously and deeply for a solid 40 minutes, balancing praise with suggestions; nothing contentious or controversial was mentioned. When we were finished, Stu asked Frank if he had any comments or questions for the group.

I’ll never forget the pregnant pause and the way Frank drew a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. “I could go point-by-point,” Frank said, “and tell you all why you are wrong. But I’m not going to do that.” There was a definite change in the air at this point. “Andre Dubus says that the danger of workshops is that other people will tell you how they would write the story rather than how the story needs to be written. That’s all I’m going to say.”

Stu flashed a bemused look, then a resigned one, raised his eyebrows, and said, “See you all next week.” We were dismissed. I wandered around outside on the way to my car, encountering another new MFA student. We both were pretty shell-shocked and angry. Why had we bothered to read and comment on this dude’s story if he clearly didn’t want or need our advice?

Happily, this experience turned out to be the exception rather than the rule in graduate school. Over the next three years, I completed my MFA; a few years after that, I earned my PhD in literature with a creative dissertation. The vast majority of my workshops were extremely helpful, and I wouldn’t have accomplished anywhere near what I’ve accomplished without the help and guidance of my mentors and peers. Over the years, in addition to working with Stuart Dybek I’ve received invaluable guidance from amazing writers/teachers like Jaimy Gordon, Elizabeth McCracken, Brock Clarke, Michael Griffith, Denis Johnson, and Christine Schutt. My peers, too, provided inspiration, wisdom, eagle eyes, and a feeling of camaraderie for which I will always be indebted.

Often we’re warned about the dreaded “workshop story” – that piece of writing whose vitality has been sapped by too many grad school critiques; that piece of art once rife with potential now beaten and crushed into something lifeless, something safe and tepid and designed to please everyone (therefore pleasing no one). I’m sure that at times creative writing workshops can have this result. However, my experiences reflect the opposite: the workshop as a safe place of experimentation, of exploration, of inspiration. I could never be the writer I am today without these experiences to challenge and push me.

These days I’m the teacher in the workshop, and fortunately I haven’t had any Franks in my classes. I sometimes miss being the student and having the opportunity to share my newest stories with a diverse group of smart folks. The truth is, however, that my students’ writing and conversation–and enthusiasm–continues to inspire my fiction year after year.

Here’s hoping Frank is finding inspiration in his writing life, too.


Darrin Doyle is the author of Scoundrels Among Us, a short-story collection now out from Tortoise Books. has lived in Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Cincinnati, Louisville, Osaka (Japan), and Manhattan (Kansas). He has worked as a paperboy, mover, janitor, telemarketer, pizza delivery driver, door-to-door salesman, copy consultant, porn store clerk, freelance writer, and technical writer, among other jobs. After graduating from Western Michigan University with an MFA in fiction, he taught English in Japan for a year. He then earned his PhD from the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of the novels Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story (LSU Press) and The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (St. Martin’s), and the short story collection The Dark Will End the Dark (Tortoise Books). His short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Harpur Palate, Redivider, BULL, and Puerto del Sol, among others. He currently teaches at Central Michigan University and lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan with his wife and two sons.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.


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