By Eric Olsen
Is the standard model of the writers’ workshop at all relevant any longer?
I’m starting to have my doubts. I think the disaggregation (or disintegration if you prefer) of the traditional publishing biz is going to lead inevitably to the disaggregation (or disintegration) of the standard workshop model. Or it should. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
I think this could in fact mean more options for young writers looking to learn how to write and how to navigate the new publishing environment of e-books and self-publishing, and how to promote their own books, and do it all in a supportive community of like minds, and at prices they can afford. And, I think, it also means more opportunities for the rest of us. At prices we can afford, too.
By “standard model,” I mean what’s also known in some circles — often with a snide curl of the lip — as the “Iowa model.” The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was established nearly 80 years ago at the University of Iowa, and what they created there has, for better or worse, pretty much been the model for almost all the other programs established in the years since: two or sometimes three years of workshops, one each semester, where you put up a story or chunk of a novel or a poem or two every now and then and the instructor, who maybe will have read the work in question — or maybe not — makes a comment or two, and then your fellow students have at it. Plus the required mix of lit classes — one or two a semester — and a smattering of electives if you’re so inclined, and occasional readings by visiting literary luminaries, and then schmoozing at post-reading parties with said luminaries who, if all goes well, will get roaring drunk and do something really, really stupid so you can talk about it later. And then you finally end up with an MFA and maybe a publishable work, or at least something you hope is on the way to being publishable.
It’s not at all unlikely that these days, you’ll also end up with several tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt.
And chances are, during those two or three years in a workshop, you won’t have learned a thing about the sorts of professional practices you’ll need to know about in order to make a buck and pay off those loans. Unless you can get a teaching gig, of course, which these days is becoming less and less likely.
The standard, or Iowa, model developed at a time when the publishing business was highly organized, or aggregated, if you will. While the writer wrote, his or her agent sold the work to a publisher and worried about the fine print on the contract. And the writer wrote some more. And the publisher had actual editors on staff who understood the intricacies of English grammar, and these editors would edit the work the publisher just bought so the writer wouldn’t look like a dork because of all the typos and ungrammatical constructions (remember those days? I do…), and the writer would write, and then the publisher would have the book designed and printed and distributed, and the publisher would then also actually promote the book. While the writer would write some more.
In other words, the standard workshop served as the talent spotting and talent development arm of this highly organized system, and once in that system, all the writer had to do was, of course, write.
But those days are gone. Hell, they’re long gone. The system was starting to fray at the edges even when I was in the Workshop 30-plus years ago, but I didn’t realize it at the time. None of us did. Now the writer has to do more and more of what the publisher used to do, to the degree now that more and more writers are publishing themselves. Who needs publishers?
And who needs the old-fashioned workshop?
Of course, the disaggregated workshop may not offer an MFA, but so what? Teaching gigs are harder and harder to get. You might as well write, right?
All this came to me at the annual meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), in Boston last month (in a blizzard). I moderated a panel discussion titled “What We Wish We’d Known.” Our four panelists, all graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, talked about what they didn’t learn there, but wish they had, and so had to learn later, often the hard way. They also discussed a related question: Should a writers’ workshop offer instruction in “professional practices,” and if so, what do we mean by “professional practices”? Or should a workshop be a refuge from the real world, where the young writer concentrates on his or her Art. Get the Art right, after all, and the real world will come knocking at your door. Or so one can always hope….
As I told the audience in my introductory remarks, I think a writers’ workshop should offer some systematic instruction in the basics of trying to make a living as a professional writer, instruction in such things as how to read a contract (and how to tell if your publisher is screwing you out of your e-books royalties, an increasing problem, it appears — see Scott Turow’s item in the 4/9/13 New York Times, for example, “The Slow Death of the American Author” .
Or how to most effectively submit a manuscript to a publisher or agent; or why editors feel the need to do what they do to a perfectly good bit of prose, and how to work constructively with them; or how to give a reading; or how to organize an AWP panel that doesn’t suck (mine, of course, did not suck); or how to schmooze at parties where there might be an agent or editor or someone else who might do you some good lurking about; or how to give good interview if you’re heading out onto the job market.
And now these days, it seems a must that writers also know how to use the social media and other digital means to promote their books, given the fact that fewer publishers than ever can now be bothered to do so (which of course doesn’t stop them from still taking the ever bigger chunk of any revenues). And since teaching is always an option for a few, how about some instruction in the basics of running a class?
Stuff like that….
Our panelists included two of my classmates from Iowa, Jane Smiley and Doug Unger, and two more recent graduates, Vu Tran and Lucy Silag (Jane’s daughter). Of the four, only Lucy was firmly in the professional practices camp with me.
Next in this series:, what a disaggregated workshop looks like, with examples….