In 1997 I began my matriculation as an aspiring fiction writer at the University of California, Riverside, at the time one of the few universities to offer an undergrad degree in Creative Writing rather than as a sub-discipline of the English Lit major. This began a nonstop series of writing workshops that finally concluded when I earned my M.F.A. from the University of New Orleans in 2004. While first love was and is fiction, I was interested in being as multi-disciplinary a writer as possible, and took as many other courses in poetry, playwriting, screenwriting, and nonfiction as my schedule would allow.
Somewhere during those seven years’ worth of workshops myself and several friends began to notice that certain extreme personality types recurred with astonishing frequency among the student writers in attendance, especially in the upper-division courses. Over beers one weekend we devised a pseudo-Linnean system of taxonomy to catalogue them all, which we would tinker with whenever the mood suited us, emailing new updates back and forth after we moved on to our respective graduate programs. Most of that system and the accompanying terminology has since been lost, but using some of my recently rediscovered student notebooks, I’ve managed to reconstruct the more frequently recognized major categories.
Keep in mind that while tongue is firmly planted in cheek here, beneath the rib cage of all satire beats the heart of bitter truth. You may feel a certain uncomfortable twinge upon reading some of these. I know I do.
All he/she gender pronouns are arbitrarily assigned for the sake of expediency.
Snipers are relentless headhunters who enjoy nothing more than taking cheap yet often devastating shots at another writer’s work. They will mercilessly stalk through a submitted manuscript line-by-line, never failing to seek and mark the easiest of targets. When discussion time comes they open fire as frequently as the workshop leader will allow, reveling in the schadenfreude they cause. And just when the subject of their attack begins to think they’re in the clear, the Sniper will move in with the metaphorical coup-de-gras headshot.
From a Darwinian perspective they can be helpful to have around, as no one is better at identifying the weak points in a story, but the recipient must have thick skin, something most often ill-developed in undergrads and new writers. And bear in mind that the Sniper is ultimately just a garden-variety bully, who of course cannot turn those finally-tuned crosshairs on his own work.
If you ever find yourself in a workshop where the professor is the Sniper in question – as happened to me once – transfer out of there immediately. Trust me, the experience isn’t worth subjecting yourself to.
These writers would probably make excellent poker players. They take seats in the back corner of the classroom, furthest from the center of the Socratic workshop circle and as far outside the instructor’s line of sight as possible. Throughout the course of the discussion the Mute will sit with a carte blanche expression, eyes downcast, the occasional scratching of a pen across paper or the slightest of nods being the only indication he’s intellectually engaged in the proceedings. A Mute will never, ever speak until directly addressed by the instructor, and will then offer as concise a reply as possible.
Despite this verbal reticence, a good Mute will often return a manuscript coated in useful annotations. A bad Mute is merely lazy and hasn’t bothered to do the work.
In terms of physical sex the Fangirl does not of course have to be an actual female. This category is so named because writers of its type behave like gushing preteen girls obsessing over members of a pop boy-band (or, in the parlance of my post-grad years, the latest Twilight/Justin Bieber/Glee etc.). When it comes to her favorite writers the Fangirl is a smarmy, insufferable compulsive who constantly tosses out quotes, totes around spare copies of their books, and conspicuously references either their content or style in works of pure pastiche.
Should that beloved writer ever actually hold a reading on or near campus, the Fangirl dissolves into a sappy puddle of unrestrained glee, often seeming on the verge of wetting herself as the object of her adulation takes the podium and begins to read. Should you ever make the mistake of showing even the remotest interest in one of her idols, expect to be vociferously pressured into borrowing one of those spare copies, which will purportedly change your life.
Usefulness in a workshop environment: varies from individual to individual, but expect frequent comparisons or references to their idol(s).
In my personal, subjective experience, these are most frequently found in poetry workshops. While this is a category that actually has an enormous amount of subheadings (frequently self-applied), a Poser can be identified by one simple trait: he cares more about Being a Writer than actually writing. This person has a particular idea about the writer’s lifestyle cemented in his head and has set about living it to the fullest, frequently affecting a particular style of dress and flinging about polysyllabic rhetoric about the state of the arts, culture, humanity etc. “Because I am a Writer” is frequently cited as a legitimate reason for the copious consumption of drugs & alcohol, promiscuity, excessive moping, or anything else commonly associated with the “tortured artist” stereotype.
Ask a Poser about the actual meaning of anything he says or writes and you’ll likely receive a look of disdainful contempt, roughly translated as This ain’t about meaning it’s about feeling, so just go with it, pleb. They’re next to useless in workshop, as their inherently superficial nature negates any capacity for legitimate insight, yet they often refuse to shut up and cede the floor to someone else.
An appellation that sounds harsher than it means to. These are the religious writers, who are frequently but not exclusively Christian. It’s not the choice of religion or the severity of it that matters, it’s that the Zealot simply filters everything through the polarized lens of her faith. When she’s writing happy fluffy bunny stories about noble righteous people living an idyllic sin-free lifestyle, the rest of the workshop can simply critique her submission and move on. When she’s giving the work of her classmates the hellfire-and-brimstone routine (and I’ve seen it go both ways, sometimes in the same person) workshop can become a hostile, uncomfortable place.
Within the first week of workshop this person will affix themselves to the instructor as firmly as a remora on a shark. From then on everything the instructor says is revered as gospel truth. The Bootlick will purchase and consume books by any writer the instructor reveres, quote the instructor outside of workshop, make copious use of the instructor’s office hours, and engage in numerous other acts of nauseating sycophancy.
Every piece the Bootlick writes is tailor-made to fit the instructor’s aesthetic, and his critiques of your pieces will be in much the same vein.
The Oppressed Genius
Somewhere down the line, this writer developed an acute self-determined awareness of the limitless nature of his skills. The Oppressed Genius actually considers workshop highly detrimental to his creativity, and is only deigning to attend because the university requires it before handing him his degree. After all, how can his work flourish when moronic regulations force him to waste his time in the company of incompetent hacks shepherded by a teacher that encourages and rewards their mediocrity?
The Oppressed Genius is a delicate creature, possessing a massive yet fragile ego, craving adulation while simultaneously scorning those who give it. Arrogant and demeaning when critiquing someone else’s work, any criticism of his own provokes a level of silent fury equivalent to a dormant but active volcano.
The Drama Queen
The Drama Queen is a steadfast practitioner of the notion of art-as-catharsis and treats workshop like a twelve-step program. Each and every piece this person turns in is an attempt to “connect and understand” with some snippet of past trauma, death of the family dog, daddy didn’t love them enough, et cetera et cetera ad nauseam. Worse still, the Drama Queen is perpetually guilty of reading imaginary subjects (frequently her own) into another writer’s work regardless of their actual content, and defends them with a level of passion that would do the most ardent Zealot proud.
For the Drama Queen the workshop submission is that venerable eye into the writer’s soul, and she will continually extol each and every other member to embrace their inner pain and let it free; written critiques feature the phrase “Thank you for sharing this.” Expect tears and assorted other histrionics should the majority of peer feedback on her work be negative.
Deep down, each Drama Queen wants workshop to conclude with a teary group hug.
The Momma Bear
Helpful and friendly to the point of manic cheerfulness, this person wants everyone in workshop to get along. The Momma Bear is brimming with platitudes, and never has a harsh word to say about anyone’s work. She will reach as far as she must for a compliment on even the most turgid manuscripts, up to and including doling out niceties on things like syntax or punctuation.
While this agreeable nature makes the Momma Bear relatively useless in workshop (she’s simply too nice to be truly objective) her presence can be crucial. The ego-stroking she hands out can be a necessary boost to fledgling writers, but more importantly, when one or more Sniper is bearing down on an undeserving victim, the Momma Bear will throw herself in the line of fire, intercepting and countering shots aimed at the writer in question.
If there’s one workshop member that immediately draws out my inner Sniper, this is it. I have a special level of wrath reserved just for these people. The Tourist is everything the name implies: a noncommittal visitor, poking around to get the taste of things but not particularly interested in settling down. They’re not Creative Writing majors, or even writers of any stripe. If you’re very lucky, the Tourist in your workshop might be a refugee from English Lit, but even that’s rare. In most cases he comes from a field completely unrelated to the language arts, and through some act of chicanery managed to smuggle himself onto the class register. He will without exception write the biggest pieces of crap you’ve ever seen, riddled with grammar, punctuation, and tense errors. His feedback on your manuscripts is by turns shallow, superficial, and ignorant, and when he’s not causing outright harm by being in the workshop in the first place is at the very least wasting the time and energy of people better off dedicating it elsewhere.
While I wholeheartedly encourage anyone who wants to try their hand at writing, there’s a time and place for dilettantism, and a dedicated workshop, especially an upper division one, just isn’t it. The rough equivalent would be my crashing an advanced Law colloquium without having completed the prerequisites, an act that both leaves me grotesquely unprepared and forces the others to carry my dead weight.
Other categories exist, but those are the principle ones. This list is not intended to be all-inclusive, by any means, and readers are encouraged to add any contributions they like.
And if it seems I’ve been at all unfair or unjustly mean-spirited, allow me to forestall any recriminations by confessing to the following: I am not exempt from any of this behavior. During my time in the trenches of higher learning I was at various times a Sniper, a Mute, a Momma Bear, and on one occasion I won’t delve into further, a serious Fangirl. College is that time when your identity as a young adult begins to take shape, and for me that process was determined by the act of writing, the crafting of each sentence on the paper an act of discovery.
In all the best ways, it still is.