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the ‘deadly competitive spirit’: avoiding Miss Trunchbulls

avoiding Miss Trunchbull

avoiding Miss Trunchbull

Recently, I ordered a book online called The Portable MFA, which offers readers the essential lessons that can be obtained in most MFA programs (as purported by its clever authors) for a mere $16.99. The text is divided into segments–just like an MFA program, too: fiction, creative non-fiction, magazine writing, playwriting, poetry.

Since I write mostly fiction, I read the fiction part immediately and found it to be helpful, definitely worth the small outlay of cash and the few hours spent reading it. You’ll have to buy it yourself to read Tim Tomlinson’s totally hilarious summation of everything he learned in his MFA program in eight paper-thin insights such as, “There are kinds of stories.” It reminded me of one of the communications professors in my graduate program who told a class of very sharp adult students that “Libraries have books.”

Just this week, recovering from the flu (sorry, that’s why I didn’t post Wednesday), I began the non-fiction/memoir segment of The Portable MFA and stumbled across this phrase of Peter Bricklebank’s: “the deadly competitive spirit” in referring to the intensified competitive experience among students in MFA programs like his own.

I’ve met this killer spirit. I first encountered it (in this case, a female Trunchbull) in a workshop in 2007. It was the first time I witnessed such an unbridled ruthlessness toward another writer’s work and my own work. It made me sick and caused me a lot of distress. I ended up leaving a workshop I was invited to join because I couldn’t stomach this spirit-killing critic.

I was introduced to this deadly spirit again when I foolishly joined a high-profile online writer’s group I’ll call The Virtual Chokie.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that most writers at that site were competitive to the “nth” degree. Without saying as much, few wanted anyone to do better than themselves. And newbies? Forget it. You got shredded. The site regulars would as soon as step on your neck with heavy boot as give you any kind of helpful advice or mentoring. Of course, their criticism was spoonfed to newbies like the worst medicine you’ve ever tasted–this is going to hurt me more than it is you. And if you didn’t turn around and kiss their asses in response: “Thank you for making me feel incompetent and worthless and for ruthlessly tearing apart my work,” then the alpha dogs would write diatribes about your lack of gratitude for the pearls they deigned to toss your way.

All of which was just bullshit. And to make matters worse, once one of the alpha-dog authors on the site tore your work apart, everyone else just lined up for their turn like spineless vultures. No one would speak out on my or anyone else’s behalf, not even to say, “Hey, you’re being overly harsh and unfair to this person.”

Very, very twisted vibe.

The best way that I can describe it is this: “I can only be up  by putting you down.”  And to think, I actually paid good money to be so patronized.

Well, they can keep my annual membership fee. Maybe they can put it toward some counseling for e-bullying.

Yes, there’s needs to be a requisite hide thickness to succeed in publishing. Most gatekeepers are going to reject your work. If you can’t deal with that or accept that, you’ll be forced to abandon your writing, which is the number one reason why most people are never published: they are too thin-skinned and simply give up.

But there’s no reason why you or I have to subject ourselves to these deadly competitive types, the Miss Trunchbulls of would-be authors. I’m sure Mr. Bricklebank didn’t use the word “deadly” for nothing.  The bad apple always spoils the rest. The bad performer always pulls the rest of the team down. If you get a whiff of a deadly sort of environment in an online or in-person group or in a class, run. Run away as far and as fast as you can to a group with a more constructive vibe.

It may look like a cool, happening place teeming with talent, but it’s a chokie, pure and simple.

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  • my author bio . . .

    I began writing creatively three years ago, fueled by midlife and a Curves' addiction. Since then, I have published short work in The Christian Science Monitor and Sirens Magazine in the same year. How's that for versatility!
    Sirens Magazine

    Sirens Magazine

    Also the Duck & Herring Company's Pocket Field Guide, The Giggle Water Review, Alighted, Wet Ink Press, America's Funniest Humor, Brilliant!, Laughter Loaf, Flash-Flooding, and the Greensilk Journal where my short story, "How I Boinked John Cusack" won editor's pick.
    The Greensilk Journal

    The Greensilk Journal

    My newest novel, THE SHAKER PROPOSAL, has received numerous accolades, the latest a fifth-place in the 2008 annual NWA (National Writing Association) Novel Contest.


    I am a marketing professional by vocation (but not by choice). My husband and I live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—the sounds, sites, smells, and flavors of which are a never-ending source of literary inspiration.