By Eric Olsen
In my previous post, I talked about the panel discussion I moderated at the AWP meeting in Boston titled “What We Wish We’d Known.” Panelists included four Iowa Writers’ Workshop grads — my classmates Jane Smiley and Doug Unger, and a couple grads from a generation later — Vu Tran and Lucy Silag (Jane’s daughter).
During my opening remarks, I argued that I thought a writers’ workshop should offer some instruction in what I call “professional practices,” such things as how to read a contract, how to know if your publisher’s trying to screw you on the e-book royalties, or how to give an effective reading, or, perhaps most importantly these days, the nuts and bolts of self-publishing, and how to use social media to promote your book…. since your publisher, should you have one, probably can’t be bothered.
I argued in these opening remarks that the “traditional” workshop seems to avoid such topics, and that as a result, was in danger of becoming irrelevant in this rapidly changing publishing environment. I also argued that perhaps this might not be such a bad thing….
All of this was a distinctly minority view. Lucy, in fact, was the only one of our four panelists to agree with me. Lucy received her MFA from Iowa in 2011. She’s the author of the Beautiful Americans trilogy of novels for young adults. She now lives in New York City, where she’s working on a novel about “the dark side of knitting” (and yes, apparently there is a dark side). She’s also one of the founders of The Greenhouse Workshop, and I’ll have more to say about how Greenhouse and other “disaggregated” workshops like it could be the future of writers’ workshops.
Lucy argued that MFA programs should “provide opportunities for their students to become familiar with the nuts and bolts of being paid to be a writer in the same way that other graduate departments understand they have to make sure their graduates are paid to be mathematicians, or physicists, teachers, public administrators, and so on….”
After she received her MFA, Lucy stayed on at Iowa and worked in the math department’s professional development program (aka “professional practices”), helping grad students prepare for the job market. Thus her views on the matter are informed by experience.
Vu Tran spoke up eloquently for the other side: “I feel that writing—creating art, if you will—is an intensely personal thing, and no amount of professional preparation will appropriately prepare you for the world or the intensely personal way you will confront it. Most importantly, no amount of professional preparation will ensure that you’re going to write better books.”
True, I suppose, but I’m not sure one excludes or even interferes with the other. Shouldn’t a young writer know something about contracts and e-book royalties, or self-promotion via social media, or the nuts-and-bolts of self-publishing while also writing better books, or trying to write them? Certainly some insights into the pub biz might help a young writer make a buck, which might then afford him or her the luxury of writing better books….
Vu was born in Viet Nam and grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He got his MFA from Iowa and then a PhD from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where he was a Glenn Schaeffer Fellow in fiction. It was in Las Vegas that he also honed his poker game, and when you consider the sorts of things a young writer might want to know on leaving a workshop, how to play poker for money and win has to be up near the top of the list.
Vu’s fiction has appeared in a variety of journals including the O. Henry Prize Stories. He’s a recipient of a 2009 Whiting Writers’Award, and is now putting the finishing touches on a novel, This or Any Desert, which is set mostly in Las Vegas, but also in Viet Nam and an island off Malaysia. It’s forthcoming from W.W. Norton.
“Learning professional practices might help us get a teaching job,” Vu says, “protect our writing interests, and look after ourselves and our family more responsibly—all crucial things to learn of course. But again, that professionalism does not always make for great literature. What makes for great literature then? I have no fucking idea. Not yet. And I feel it’s my job as a writer—as a person who believes that writing is a vocation—to figure that out on my own and for myself.”
When the panelists were done speaking, I asked for a show of hands from the audience: “Who is associated with a writing program that offers instruction in professional practices?” There were about 100 in attendance, not bad considering the fact that it was Saturday afternoon on the last day of the conference, about the time when conventioneers of any sort normally begin blowing off any remaining sessions and drifting toward the nearby bars. Two hands went up.
Two out of 100. I kid you not.
The two folks who raised their hands happened to be sitting next to one another, as if for mutual protection, in a back row, closest to the exit, as if to make a quick escape, if necessary, and which they in fact did before I could pump them for details, beyond the fact that one was from the creative writing program at Rutgers Newark, the other from the University of Arkansas. Later requests to both programs for more info went unanswered.
A couple days before our session, I’d gone to a session titled “Educating Writers in the 21st Century,” and it was here that I got an inkling of just what the future of workshops might look like. The session was put on by Grub Street, based in Boston. Grub Street was founded in 1997, well before the Internet reshaped just about every aspect of modern life. And yet I think it’s perfectly positioned to serve the writing community much more effectively than traditional workshops in this era of digitization, social media, self-publishing, and e-books…. and at a price young writers (or old ones, for that matter) can afford.
In a description of the session in the AWP catalogue, the folks at Grub Street write, “How is it best to educate writers in the 21st century? What do writers need today that they didn’t need ten years ago?”
Grub Street’s description goes on: “Grub Street has radically shifted its approach to developing new and emerging writers by broadening the scope of its offerings and by teaching skills in areas traditionally left to publishing houses.”
As I mentioned previously, I think the disaggregation of the publishing business will lead to the disaggregation of the traditional workshop model. But the folks at Grub Street seem to have created a “disaggregated” workshop even before the publishing business itself had begun to come apart at the seams. They’re ahead of the curve. And by the way, it was at the Grub Street session that I heard the word “disaggregation.” As you’ve no doubt noticed, I fell in love with the term….
Next in this series: more on Grub Street and similar programs including The Loft in Minneapolis and Lucy’s own Greenhouse in New York City.
What do you think? Workshop as refuge, professional practices, or something else?