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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.

The Sniper

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.

The Mute

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.

The Fangirl

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).

The Poser

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.

The Zealot

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.

The Bootlick

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.

The Tourist

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.

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Matthew Baldwin MATTHEW BALDWIN is a writer, martial artist and all-around misanthrope living in San Diego, California. He's published fiction and poetry in several small literary journals, most of which went out of business soon after. Make of that what you will. He currently holds a fourth-degree black belt in karate, a B.A. from the University of California and an M.F.A. from the University of New Orleans. In his free time he serves as a professional martial arts instructor, working mostly with teenagers. He's currently at work on both a first and second novel, and can be followed/harrassed on Twitter. And please, call him Matt.

74 Responses to “A Creative Bestiary”

  1. Tom Hansen says:

    Haha well done. I was kind of a combination of The Mute and Oppressed Genius

    • Matt says:

      Thanks!

      I look over this list and shudder to think at some of the things that must have come out of my mouth (or been written on my peers’ manuscripts) during my various phases.

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    Nice, Matt. I guess I’ve been in only 4 or 5 semester-long workshops ever, but I recognize everybody here.

    Poser, Mute, and Tourist are my favorites. Or least-favorites, I should say.

    I’ve seen another version of Oppressed Genius — the guy who is so convinced that his work is superior that he puts it on the table and sits back, awaiting praise. He cannot imagine that anybody would criticize his piece because, of course, it’s so well-done. His demeanor doesn’t change after the first piece, the second piece, the third all get ripped . . . he differs from your Oppressed Genius v1.0 in that he rarely defends himself: idiots didn’t get my piece; that’s their problem.

    Like you, I’ve put on some of these personas — Mute and Momma Bear.

    • Matt says:

      Oh yes, the Smug Bastard. I sure remember that guy. Came very close to including him, but thought he was just a touch to close to the Oppressed Genius in terms of his mentality towards workshop (different manifestations of the These Idiots Just Don’t Get It syndrome), but now I’m starting to rethink that. There really is something insufferable about those assholes, isn’t there?

      As one of my undergrad instructors once put it, “If the only person who gets what you’re doing is you, you’re doing it wrong.”

  3. Love love love this! I am seriously sending the link to all my students!

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Gina. I’ll brace myself for the deluge of hate mail I’m sure will be soon flooding my inbox.

      Poor Susan Straight had to suffer through four consecutive years with me as her student. I’m horrified to think what categories she’s list me in – or create from scratch on my behalf. It’s been ten years since I graduated from UCR and I hear she still tells stories about me to her current students.

      • That’s too hilarious, Matt. Wait, was Tod Goldberg already at UCR when you were there? You know he’s one of my Other Voices Books authors. Gotta know if you tormented him, too!

        • Matt says:

          Hmmm….not sure, but if he was there between 1997 and 2001, the odds are pretty good.

          I was an exuberent workshop participant, to say the least (that student who always volunteers), and constantly experimenting with genre. I turned in some shitty manuscripts, but I also spent our working on my peer critiques and annotations, and could always be counted on to participate.

  4. Hah! This is great, Matt.

    You’ll find the same kind of predictable group dynamic in any kind of acting class
    or songwriters’ circle. In my acting classes, you’d find types like you’ve described here and also,
    THE THESPIAN, who didn’t shower, would sit in a corner reading a tattered copy of anything Shakespeare –between ballet stretches. THE THESPIAN wanted you know that he was straight, no WAY he was gay, man…as he would attempt to make his way through every girl in the class.

    I’m actually in an online writing workshop at the moment and I think my role right now is
    SLACKER LOSER, because I didn’t re-up my firewall and some glitch is preventing me from logging on.

    • Matt says:

      Holy crap, I’d forgotten about The Thespian! The theater department was right next to the creative writing department at my university, and the Screenwriting classes were the literary tidal zone where we’d meet. The one big Thespian I had classes swapped his Shakespeare for some Sid Field, but otherwise was exactly as you describe. Made runs at a couple of my girlfriends, too. Asshat.

      He did, however, play a damn good Prospero in a production of The Tempest my junior year.

  5. Joe Daly says:

    This is one of those rare occasions on which I find myself delighted to have been a Classics major. That being said, you’ve also just described a typical law school class, and in particular- moot court. Some poor bastard will get up and give an opening/closing argument to a room full of wolves, and the ensuing carnage is never pretty. While writers are expected to at least be civil, lawyers are sort of expected to be ruthless, so the law school Sniper isn’t just having at the last zebra in the pack- he’s honing his own skills for later use in the courtroom.

    That all being said Matt, I’ve never taken a creative writing class/workshop/seminar, but reading your piece makes me wish I had. Despite the boors, sounds like a good ol’ time!

    • Matt says:

      Oh man, I can’t even imagine getting up in front of a group of student lawyers like that, all fresh and hungry and desperate to prove themselves. I’d sooner run a mile across the Serengeti buck naked and slathered in fresh zebra blood.

      There’s a category I *almost* included here called The Martyr, who manages to piss off everyone else in the ‘shop so badly that they are relentlessly bagged on, whether their work is any good or not. Those experiences, however, were a little too mean-spirited, and not even remotely constructive to the workshop environs.

      And yeah, a good workshop can be hoot, especially when the students have had a few classes together, know each other’s strengths & weaknesses, and are comfortable giving criticism. The best ones I was ever in (or taught) felt less like academia and more like a party, which was not helped by the fact that we’d usually hit the campus pub for a beer afterwards.

  6. dwoz says:

    My favorite character, which I think is a sub-genus of The Poser, is “Indier-Than_Thou.

    The plumage is typically before-they-sold-out-ransom-note-graphics. Indier-Than-Thou reels off names of authors and works that you never heard of and in the course of a full and variegated life would NEVER hear of.

    They name-drop meta-seminal influences.

    A signature characteristic is that they’re 35 years old and call comic books “graphic novels.”

    • Matt says:

      I managed to finish my academic studies before the rise of the Hipster trend, and it makes my skin crawl to think what one might have been like as a workshop participant – probably manage to out-pose the Poser. Workshops would have probably ended in a display of gratuitous violence.

  7. Gloria says:

    I’ve never been in what I recognize as workshop, though I took classes where we critiqued each others work, so I get it. I took a Women, Writing, and Memoir class and I was totally the Drama Queen, but then, so was everyone (even the one guy who took the class.) I would say I probably acted more of the Mama Bear. Mama Drama. That’s me. That’s my new name. Thanks for that.

    • Matt says:

      If my experience is anything to go by, a class with that heading would attract Momma Bears and Drama Queens like no one’s business. But hey, part of the point is that these are phases a lot of go through during our gestation as a writer. Better to get it out of your system in an educational environment than on an episode of Oprah or Good Morning America.

      I’m totally going to see if I can get your boys to start calling you “Drama Mama.”

  8. Irene Zion says:

    Geez, Matt,

    Workshops sound perfectly horrible!
    I had envisioned them as lots of fun, with maybe some hurt feelings when people criticize, but you’d learn from the criticism.
    In a perfect world, I guess, huh?

    • Matt says:

      Oh, don’t get me wrong, they are a lot of fun. And sometimes exactly as you describe. It’s not as if you would get every single one of these personalities in each one; usually just one or two.

      Though there was this one time, in graduate school…

  9. Irene Zion says:

    Matt,

    I forgot to commend you on the title.
    That is a really good title.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks!

      I’ve been looking at 19th-Century bestiaries in the library lately. I like the format, and wish they’d make a resurgence.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Matt,

        I am particularly fond of Bestiaries.

        • Matt says:

          You should do this year’s Zion Holiday Letter as a bestiary style document. Your family’s large enough. You could breakdowns (Genus:Zion Species:Lenore), habitat description, and distinguishing characteristics for everyone!

  10. It’s been a long time since my days as an English major, but I think I’m probably a combination of a few categories in the classroom: a Mute Drama Bear.

    This made me giggle, Matt. It also made me want to permanently avoid writing workshops.

    • Matt says:

      I now picture you, wearing that big furry coat, sitting in the back of the classroom quietly weeping to yourself and not talking.

      Which, now that I think about, decribes someone I had class with senior year….

    • angela says:

      matt, this is so great. in graduate school, i was definitely a Mute, and our professor – in fact the guy who ran the program – was a total Sniper. he’d hound people about typos and spelling mistakes, and things that could be fixed in two seconds, rather than looking at the story as a whole, and what we were trying to do, and keeping in mind we were writing full short stories every two weeks.

      i’m glad to say no one else in my class really fit the other categories, although at least twice people literally ran out crying.

      the writing classes i took after graduate school were a whole other ballgame – full of people who weren’t necessarily writers, but who simply felt they had stories to tell. Tourists, if you will, but i actually liked that. they had no writerly-baggage or egos. however, because these were memoir writing classes, many of us were Drama Queens, laying the total TMI shit out there.

      there was one woman whom everyone hated – maybe Munchausen by Proxy Drama Queen – who did so many things i despised, i have to make a list:

      1) on the first day, she wanted everyone to sign something that promised we wouldn’t repeat her stories outside of class or sell her email address to spammers

      2) when other people’s pieces were being workshopped, she’d ignore the whole class and have one-on-one conversations with the teacher

      3) she always hinted at how awful the shit she was going to share would be – keep in mind, this was already after the rest of us shared stories of divorce, infidelity, child abuse, eating disorders, living under apartheid, etc. – and what was her story about? that she had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

      SRSLY?

      luckily she quit the class by the third week.

      • angela says:

        oh shit, i didn’t mean to put this under Tawni’s comment. oops.

      • Matt says:

        I had a very similar experience with a grad instructor, which nearly led me to quit the program. He was a bit of a demagogue to begin with, and over the course of one workshop went from negatively critiguing one of my classmate’s stories to negatively critiquing her personality, to the point where she was in tears by the end of class. It was uncalled for and unprofessional, but because he was also the dean of the College of Humanities, there really was very little we could do about it.

        However, the writer in question submitted the story sans his modifications and won a Pushcart prize for it, which may be the best comeuppance I can think of.

        I’m thinking I should go back and refine the Tourist definition a bit. There’s a huge difference between a Tourist and an untested new writer. The Tourist has no interest in being a writer at all, they’re just there as a lark or to fulfill some basic requirement. No grasp of craft, and more important, no interest in learning it at all.

        Your Munchausen Queen sounds like the exact sort of person who’d bring out my inner sniper. What a ridiculous series of statements/demands.

  11. James D. Irwin says:

    I hate workshops.

    However a couple of my friends do our own with each other which are more productive. Mostly because people trust each other’s feedback, and feel comfortable enough to say they don’t like something.

    Usually in class in-depth feedback is ‘um… yeah… it was… good.’

    • Matt says:

      Yeah, a lot of my intial undergrad workshops were like that. “Well, this sucks.” To which the instructor would say: “Not good enough. WHY does it suck?” and then leave you wriggling in public until you came up with a justification for the intellectually astonishing critique you just leveled.

  12. Nicely done, I think you covered most of the repeat offenders in workshops I’ve been in. I remember grumbling about these types while expecting everyone else to acknowledge the genius of my own words. I was deeply oppressed.

    But when I think back on it, I wish I would have tried on more of these personas, been more experimental and loosened up a little in what I wrote and said. Instead, there was that needless rush, like you say, to take shape.

    • Matt says:

      You may have worn some of these coats without realizing you were doing it. I know I sure did.

      Part of learning to be a good writer craft-wise is also learning how to edit, and the best editors in my experience all have a certain combination of these different traits. It’s a matter of learning the right balance.

  13. mutterhals says:

    I hate to say it, but I’m totally The Mute.

  14. Becky Palapala says:

    As a Sniper, I feel it’s important for me to point out that schadenfreude (pain joy) is generally something one feels as a result of others’ misfortune, not something one causes. ;)

    In my own defense: I go line-by-line, but that’s more appropriate, I think, when one’s workshopping poetry, as I, almost exclusively, was.

    Anyway. I don’t have many of the sinister, sadistic feelings you attribute to Snipers. Among poets, I would classify myself as a craftster (though not a formalist by any means), which leaves me dealing in a lot of the architectural, mechanical, and execution aspects of a given piece of work rather than its intent or sentiment. My personal workshop philosophy has always been that it’s not up to the critic to barter in sentiment or to aim to harm or protect another writer’s feelings, just to decide whether or not ideas are being effectively conveyed and give the straight dope on how (and if) s/he thinks problems can be fixed.

    I can see how it might seem sinister to the more emotionally inclined.

    Nevertheless, I think one needs to distinguish between true sadists and tire-kickers.

    The Tire Kicker is the foil and sworn enemy of the Drama Queen, due to object/craft-centered rather than writer-centered attitude. Drama Queen feels devalued because, in Tire Kicker’s mind, Drama Queen’s self-obsessed work does, in fact, lack value for anyone who is not the Drama Queen, whose insistence on the royal nature of emotions is perceived as time-wasteful and contraindicated for writerly improvement by the Tire Kicker.

    In the Tire Kicker/Drama Queen dynamic, Momma Bear is seen by the Tire Kicker as a saboteur whose primary function is to heave delicious, distracting meatloaf obstacles onto the rocky path from point A (where we’re all shitty writers) to point B (where we get to be better writers).

    • Matt says:

      Yes, that’s an important distinction: Snipers are mean-spirited bastards. While they’re good at spotting problems that need to be fixed, they go about workshopping them in a way that harmful or derogatory, if not openly so.

      A Tire Kicker, on the other hand, is the best thing you can hope for: objective and unsentimental. Especially if they’ve got a good knowledge of the craft. Of course, if you’re given to treating your story/poem etc. like it’s your flesh and blood child instead of your metaphorical one, they’ll seem like your worst enemy.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        And not to belabor the poetics part, but the nature of the drama queen in poetry as opposed to prose is a bit different, I think.

        Mostly because among the uninitiated, poetry often has this reputation of being specifically about unchecked, over-the-top emotion, catharsis, and melodrama. People gravitate towards it thinking that it possesses no practical, objective, or fundamental best practices–that it’s utterly subjective, has no right or wrong or good or bad and that its very purpose is to indulge their emotionally exhibitionist tendencies (thus acting a bit like one of the Dust’s bumper stickers) or to validate their preoccupation with their own lives and feelings by–in their minds–elevating it to the level of art.

        So thinking that’s what you signed up for and finding instead that most poets don’t care about your feelings and, in a number of ways, poetry is just as, if not more cerebral and architecturally meticulous or demanding of emotional detachment than other genres is sort of a rude awakening for some.

        • Matt says:

          I loved seeing those students get disabused of their notions in class. They come in expecting to be the next generation of the Beats or whomever and find that instead they’ve got to learn the discipline of the various forms. “Wait – a ‘sestina?’ What’s that? ‘Meter?’ Huh?”

          Never got old.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, I’m no formalist. I hate scansion and would prefer to avoid formal poetry at all costs.

          But even free-verse has to have some kind of reason, some kind of purpose or structure or scaffolding or logic, even if the poet makes it up a la carte on a case-by-case basis. Everyone knows about sonnets, but it’s when they find out that rejecting formal poetry STILL doesn’t free them from the obligation of considering the nuts and bolts of what they’re doing that shit gets real.

          I mean, form matters, even if the poem is not formal.

        • dwoz says:

          Becky, I would go so far as to say that poetry is NOTHING BUT FORM. It’s utterly and completely comprised of form. Even random formless form is a form of form. And it’s either well-formed or ill-formed, almost always uninformed when it champions reform of the canon of formalisms.

  15. Would the Smug Bastard also be the guy who takes a CW workshop just to let others bask in his greatness and/or just to balk at all constructive criticism because of course you cannot improve upon something that has achieved perfection? Because I was always plagued by smug bastards both as a CW student and then a professor.

    Hmm, and who was I from this list … it’s worrying me that I don’t know! I was quiet BUT I’d offer criticism in the nicest possible package imaginable. I remember making a conscious effort not to ever tell a writer what to do but to suggest it, “you might want to do A or B,” and then state the ways in which that change could make *insert one strength of work here* even stronger. I guess I’m the Kill ‘Em with Kindness person … the Sniper with a Silencer, maybe.

    This was so much fun, though, Matt! And I have no kindly suggestions. But here’s an emoticon anyway :D

    • Becky Palapala says:

      The “shit sandwich” approach to critique is perhaps the most widely accepted and generally agreeable method. Even I, a sniper of sorts, try to use it.

      NICE THING / *criticsims* / NICE THING

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Excuse me, Becky, but you appear to have misspelled “criticisms.”

        Yes. I see that, Becky. Thanks so much. For your eagle eye and shit.

      • Gloria says:

        You actually do really well with criticism in a one-on-one setting. You **seem** like a sniper, but I think deep down inside you’re actually a…Tender Vulcan? Can that be a category?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, that’s what I was trying to get at with my (much) longer comment above. I try to stay matter-of-fact, honest, and productive. I don’t abuse people. But the flip side is that I don’t fling out complimentary filler, either and if I think there’s a problem, or 100 of them, I’ll say so.

          Like, if you’re asking me about the poem, let’s talk about the poem. If you want to talk about your feelings of insecurity or inadequacy and get some good old fashioned sympathetic back-rubbing, let’s go get hammered at the Tap-N-Grill and cry at each other.

          I mean, there’s a time and a place for that sort of thing, and it’s at a bar. At 1 am.

        • Oh, the venting of feelings thing — this reminds me of the personal defenses in CW workshops, the in-between-sobs “but this is a true story about my dear, dear grandmother who passed away yesterday” sort of defenses for why something couldn’t be changed, etc. Why bring something so personal and raw and fresh that you cannot handle criticism on it just yet?! Oh how I hated ending up as the asshole who’d unsuspectingly lobbed the shit sandwich at the emotionally fragile writer. That was always me. I guess that definitively answers which one I was in the group!

          The Tender Vulcan — I SO love that Gloria.

        • Matt says:

          Call me a bastard, but I never actually cared about crossing that line. As my undergrad mentor Susan Straight (who I referenced above) said more than once in workshop, “Just because it actually happened doesn’t mean it’s a good story.”

          There I go, being a Bootlick again.

    • Matt says:

      That is the Smug Bastard through and through. Don’t waste your breath giving him criticim – he’s already figured it all out, and if you just don’t get it, well it’s you, not the story. Asshole.

      I never went out of my way to be nice, especially as a workshop professor, but I always tried to frame my criticism as such: “This doesn’t work. Here’s why. Here’s what can be done to fix it.” Eschewing notions of sentimentality, as Becky says above. It’s all well and good that this is a paen to your dead dog, but the reader isn’t bringing that sentimentality to the table when they sit down to read your story; you have to provoke it in them.

      “Sniper with the Silencer.” Nice.

  16. Mary Richert says:

    Hah. Well, I’m a little embarassed to admit it but I was a combination of Drama Queen, Momma Bear, and Oppressed Genius. I really thought I was the best thing ever. In truth, I was kindof a pain while also wanting to make everyone happy all the time. Yeesh. Sometimes I wish I could go back to college and do it right this time.

    • Matt says:

      Everyone, especially around the sophomore year, thinks they’re the best thing ever. The deconstruction on the student writer’s ego is a crucial part of their development as a creative; it’s only when you learn that you’re actually not God’s gift to literature that you can actually set aspirations to become so.

  17. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Thank you, Matt. I needed a good chuckle! I may be a conflation of a number of those beasties–thus an abomination of my very own.

    I remember well The Sniper from my workshop days. I’m not sure he actually had a soul. Friends from the same program I went to, but who graduated well after me, still talk about their Drama Queen.

    Perhaps you have a bestiary of teachers in the making?!

    Oh, and I’m sending this to friends.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Ronlyn. I was wondering if people would laugh at this or think I was just being mean-spirited.

      Snipers are dicks, but every now and then their crosshairs land on someone who truly deserves it; an Oppressed Genius, say. Then it’s fun to just sit back and watch the lead fly. There some graduate school workshops I wish I’d had popcorn for.

      I thought about doing a teacher’s edition, but I between grad & undergrad I only had about 8 different professors, all but one of whom were very good workshop leaders; they knew when to lead, and when to let class discussion direct itself.

      And please, forward it on!

  18. D.R. Haney says:

    I’ve never been in a real writers’ workshop; I was only in a writers’ group, which fortunately didn’t contain any of the types you mention here. I suppose a few of them, or variations on them, could have been found in the many acting classes I took. I shudder to think how I might have been categorized — a version of the Oppressed Genius, probably, though once I remember distinctly remember acting somewhat as the Sniper. I was thoroughly criticized by another student after doing a scene, and when she did a scene, I took revenge. Oh, yeah.

    I’ve been an observer in writers’ workshops, and I’ve been struck by the number of the comments made by participants, versus what I knew of acting classes. The criticism was much more open and articulate (naturally, since it was coming from writers). Long discussions would ensue. It scared me, a little.

    Of course TNB could be, and has been, accused of sheltering too many Momma Bears.

    • Matt says:

      I’m pretty sure most of my theater friends would be able to compose a list similar to this. I only ever took one acting class (introductory level, just so I could get a better feel for developing dialog in my writing), but I can imagine the level of competition that could occur between two actors vying for control of a scene.

      And I’ve done a deliberate sniper thing, too. I put a lot of effort into my critiques, so it irks me when I get one back that just’s lazy or poorly done. Puts that person on my shit list for a while.

      The best workshops has the feeling of what I imagine a proper intellectual’s salon to be: open trade of creative back & forth by poeple genuinely interested in the arts and strugglng to better their grasp of the craft. It’s why I finally made the decision to go to grad school after pevaricating on the matter for a while.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        I suppose, in a sense, the writers’ group I mentioned was akin to your salon, though it wasn’t nearly so rarified, and there was an awful lot of glad-handing. People generally just said, “Nice!” no matter what had been read aloud, with a few citations of lines that went down especially well.

        That doesn’t sound familiar, does it?

  19. This should be handed out with every MFA acceptance letter. Love it.

  20. Zara Potts says:

    Gee. I don’t know which one I am.
    I never took a writing class – but I did do lots of drama. I recognise some of these characters from those classes -although there was always Mr. Scarf Wearer and Miss Ballet Tights in drama class.
    Maybe the stereotypes stretch all the way across the creative arts?

    • Matt says:

      Pfft, Zara, everyone knows you’re a Sniper.

      I bet you and Stephanie could create a nifty list of drama types (Dramatis Personae! Bam, there’s your title!). She already contributed The Thespian above.

  21. Richard Cox says:

    I only ever took one writing class, one semester during my undergraduate work, which was worthless. So I don’t have any context for your categories.

    I’m sure the categories exist on this site as well. You should have TNB contributor examples in your categories. That would have been fun. Hahaha.

  22. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Ha. I was a good Mute.

  23. J.M. Blaine says:

    I confess.
    There was a phase where
    I thought maybe I should attend
    MFA school at (snif)
    Vanderbilt, no less.
    I was told by the head
    that I should attend
    some of their mixers
    & readings & so
    I did.

    Oof.

    I’m just some dude
    who writes about drunk chicks in jail
    & how playing Super Zaxxon with the bag boy
    at Piggly Wiggly while listening to
    Skid Row is as
    good as life gets.

    You reaffirmed that fate
    stepped in, sir.

  24. I’d like to add one: the Quoter. The Quoter has a special form of tourrette’s that results in them stringing together quotes rather than actually speaking original thoughts. When they quote themselves they should be punched in the throat.

  25. Abby says:

    I’d like to think that I was a self-sniping sniper, but I could very well just have been the garden variety type. Oy.
    In my defense: I, like Leon (The Professional), had rules about who I targeted.

  26. Nice…. this should be in a primer for MFA programs! Perhaps with ironic little pen and ink illustrations?

  27. Elizabeth says:

    Oh how I long to share this with future students! And to work remoras into more of my writing. :) I thoroughly enjoyed this, Matt, even while recognizing myself instantly as the Mute, with a bitter side of Drama Queen. But the good Mute! The good one!

  28. I’m very definitely a prime example of a Mute. And yes, I make a fine poker player.

    I’ve never taken a writing course but back in university I went to a couple of my tutorials and saw these people in action. I never did, however, see a Sniper.

  29. Greg Olear says:

    This semester, I’m teaching a creative writing workshop, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that none of these types are in my class (well, maybe one or two). Next semester, it will come back and bite me on the ass, I’m sure.

    Funny stuff, man.

  30. Khadija says:

    Very funny – the Tourist made me laugh especially. I think I’ve been the oppressed genius – I generally hate workshops LOL. Thanks for this especially since I am starting a workshop series in a few weeks…I’ll look out for myself ; >

  31. In my book (design/engineering background) a workshop is a room full of tools. Hang on…

    What I really like about this piece is that it’s super clean. I see you’ve filed it under “Writing”, not “Rants” – which is good because it’s emphatically not a rant. It’s pure objective observation; it must have been a constant effort not to start going “..and this cock-knocker thinks he’s sooo much better than everyone else…”

    But no! You’re the David Attenborough of the creative writing workshop. “Here…in the corner…the Oppressed Genius stirs…”

    My CW “education” is limited to something like eight Tuesday nights in 2001. It was a terrific experience, although as we were all Tourist/Momma Bear hybrids, it was a bit cuddly, like the group Duke mentions up there. A little more criticism wouldn’t have come amiss.

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