Is there value in writer’s workshops or other group-oriented programmes intended to nurture writing skills? What do writers get out of the experience? Can you even teach someone to be a writer?
These are questions that have created heated debate in the writing community. Some arguments have become notoriously public, as Laura Miller’s Are MFAs Ruining American Fiction? highlighted in Salon.com a few years ago regarding a raging back-and-forth between Mark McGurl and Elif Batuman.
Most people writing about MFAs or writer’s workshops tend to focus on the programme and the horde coming out. However, what’s rarely discussed is the combustible coming together of the individual and the horde and the programme, and what it can do for – and to – the writer.
The quality of the experience tends to break down along leadership, peer, and personal lines. Here’s what this means:
As in corporate and governmental life, leadership defines the group context. Get an autocratic mentor or teacher and watch a handful of impressionable fledgling writers die in the nest. Get someone who withers in the face of conflict and the group is at risk of being bullied by stronger (and maybe wrong-headed) individuals. Be fortunate enough to be guided by a gracious, generous, powerful instructor and it could change your life.
The person at the head of the room comes in all stripes. Salt of the earth, egomaniacs, doofuses (or is that doofi), natural born teachers, jerks, useless slugs, you name it. Some may be genius writers but worthless as mentors.
One famous writer deigned to head up his first writing workshop. Each day he showed up late and left early. In between he showed only indifference and scorn. He berated the workshop, the participants, and the writing. On the third of five days he simply didn’t show up any more. One of the participants, a psychiatrist, called the experience “demoralizing”. They thought they were there to learn some tips, rub shoulders with the elite, and come away with a great story to tell their grandchildren. He thought he would be leading a group of professional, spotless talents. It was a complete mismatch and a disaster.
There are writers who have at some point in their careers been told by their instructors that they were not writer material and should quit, only to go on to become world class, award-winning authors. This is because – and only because – their determination to write well exceeded any criticism or humiliation. Without that almost laser-focused determination even brilliant writers can be broken.
In these settings a writer might be lucky enough to come across a true giver who will find one promising line in an otherwise futile literary effort and teach the clueless writer to see the workability of that one line or paragraph or page or idea, and build a personal voice around it. There are those who know what they’re talking about and can manage a handful of disparate personalities and writing styles without preference or prejudice, and make them bloom.
That’s what leadership can do.
Let’s talk about the participants. Believe it or not, what you get out of it depends almost equally on the motives of those with whom you’re participating, including the mentor or teacher.
Egomaniacs, blue-hairs, the mentally disturbed, the gifted, the gorgeous, professional workshoppers, the spookily enlightened, the broken, the fixed, 12-steppers, dopeheads, the retired, emotional infants, fresh-faced youth, narcissists, self-prescribed experts, self-defined geniuses, the hopeful, the hopeless, rich, poor, middle-class.
The group stew can be anything from an eclectic mix that, in the hands of a master, just fires up the literary taste buds, to a bubbling, stinking, toxic mess with the power to kill or at least seriously disable a promising future and relegate someone to a quivering pile.
People in writer’s group scenarios bring all kinds of baggage. Sometimes it will be a great mix with minimal collateral damage, and the experience will be enough to spur a writer into the final, soul-killing leg of the journey. Participants may find themselves developing intimacy with a manuscript that, years later, will send a colleague into the literary stratosphere. That’s exciting.
Members participate equally with submissions and critiquing, creating an atmosphere charged with passion and direction. Even the suggestions that clearly won’t gel with the intent of a writer’s project still give pause for thought.
Other times it may be the opposite. For some their sense of themselves as writers creates a categorical sense of others as writers. I’m a writer. You’re not. So there. The intent of some in the group might be to take down the competition so they themselves come out on top. They might use intellectual or personal attacks. S0me divide the world between Literary and Not, either dismissing writing they deem too commercial or using literary critiquing practices as a weapon to demean others. Who has the right to write, or even call themselves writers, can enter the crevices of the writer’s group construct and poison the atmosphere. If you’re in a writer’s group you can quit. If you’ve paid for a writing workshop or creative writing class you’re stuck.
Shake it up and add anxiety-ridden writer and you have a sure-fire cocktail for one wild trip.
What you come away with really depends on your motives for participating in the first place, how you perceive your own role in the group and in the writing world, and the strength of your writing conviction. For some it could be a pinnacle moment, for others a devastating, demoralizing exercise in regret. For the rest: anything between.
The actual venue by which any programme is defined is a very small part of group writing/critique.
Writer’s workshops tend to limit the amount of writing that can be reviewed and critiqued (usually just pages), which can equally limit the ability to understand the project holistically, resulting in misdirected advice from people who cannot possibly grasp voice, style, or narrative value from just those few pages.
Writer’s groups are generally unprofessional collectives hoping against hope that communing and commiserating with other like-minded people will be of some help. The upside is community and audience. Participants can share the ups and downs of the writing experience, and learn from each other. They become each other’s feedback. The risk here is twofold. First, writers might find themselves amongst people who take themselves too seriously, waste time, manipulate the meeting with irrelevant conversation, or get too personally involved with each others’ lives while the writing becomes adjunct. Second, a writer’s group can simply become a matter of the blind leading the blind, which is no more productive or helpful than shaking up a Magic 8-ball.
Institutional coursework or programmes generally have the advantage that someone with credentials is in charge, but that still doesn’t guarantee a good experience. Whether working one-on-one with a writer-in-residence or whether you choose to audit a class or pursue a degree, the greatest advantage is that the bar is generally set higher for entry. Writers have a better chance of being with others who take the work more seriously than they do themselves.
Some organizations have turned workshops and classrooms into a virtual art form. If you can get in and if you can afford it, great. Joining a writer’s group, workshop, or class is less about the context and more about who’s there, and what happens between everyone in the room. It’s a dynamic. You can pay ivy-league tuition and still get a stinker of a group, while the previous cohort produced a handful of famous names.
The group writing experience will always be a mixed bag. Whether a positive or negative experience they serve – at the least – one important purpose and that is audience.
Can someone be taught how to be a writer? No. There are too many intangibles that go into it, including natural genius – which the rest of us, lamentably, can’t learn any more than we can fake.
What these programmes do is discipline the writing process, thinking, intellect, editing and self-editing skills, critique and analysis. The eureka! moment can’t be taught at any price, but the path toward it can certainly be smoothed and cleared. Whether or not anyone comes out a writer or even a better writer is entirely dependent on what s/he brought to the process in the first place.