By Eric Olsen
In a couple previous posts, I argued that the disaggregation (or disintegration) of the traditional, highly centralized publishing biz that mediates between the writer and reader will lead to the disaggregation (or disintegration) of the traditional, college-based writers’ workshop, the “Iowa model,” as it’s sometimes called. Or these changes in the pub biz should lead to changes in the college-based workshop, I argued, if such workshops are to continue to serve the needs of their students.
But I think I was a little hasty in my pronouncement. For one thing, the traditional writers’ workshop, based as it is in a college or university, is well insulated from the real world; it doesn’t have to change, so why should it? Change is hard. Besides, for some young writers, the college-based workshop can be a pretty sweet and productive—and even transformative—couple or three years in which to do nothing but write. And at the end of it all come out with an MFA and maybe a work that’s publishable or at least one that’s on the way, and maybe even a teaching gig. What’s wrong with that?
Nothing, of course. But it seems that very few of these college-based programs also offer their students any opportunities to acquire the tools they’ll need once they leave the comfy confines of academe—“professional practices,” as I’ve been calling them—so they can survive and maybe even thrive in this new, fragmented, and rapidly changing publishing environment of e-books, self-publishing, and promotion through the social media, so they can keep on writing, and maybe make a buck while they’re at it, so they can then pay off the tens of thousands of dollars in student loans they’ll likely have taken on getting those MFAs….
And so I think a different workshop model is going to take on new relevancy. I think the real action going forward will be in community-based workshops like Grub Street in Boston, the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the new Greenhouse Writers’ Workshop, both in New York City, The Loft in Minneapolis, or Hugo House in Seattle. And I think we’re going to see a proliferation of new workshops that look much more like these than the Iowa model of yore.
Unlike that old model, which caters to a small and rather homogeneous cohort of talented young writers who’re all pretty much at the same point in their careers, these community-based, “disaggregated” workshops, as I’ve taken to calling them, serve writers of all ages in all stages of their writing careers, and without burdening them with tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt. True, they don’t also burden their writers with MFAs, but one has to wonder what good an MFA is in the present job market, especially when it comes attached to huge debt.
Such workshops are “open,” that is anyone can sign up, and they provide a dynamic community of writers and readers that, unlike the two- or three-year MFA program, has no fixed time limit. They offer a variety of one-time classes or multi-week courses, so working folk can more easily fit them into their schedules, and you pay as you go, and only for what you need or want. These workshops offer all the usual sorts of courses you’ll find in any workshop, such as novel writing, poetry writing, the memoir, young-adult fiction, and so on, and they have for years. But some of them, like The Loft and Grub Street, are now also offering workshops and classes in what I’ve been calling professional practices. The Loft, for example, is presently offering Publicity for Authors and The Writers’ Guide to Copyright, among other such courses. On Grub Street’s calendar right now are Guerrilla Book Promotion; Media Training for Authors; How to Talk to Agents; Essentials of Social Media; and more.
At the AWP meeting in March, I attended a panel discussion offered by Grub Street titled “How is it best to educate writers in the 21st century? What do writers need today that they didn’t need ten years ago?” I learned a lot, including the word “disaggregation,” with which I fell immediately in love. Later, I spoke with Grub Street’s founder, Eve Bridburg.
Eve started Grub Street in 1997. She’d just graduated with an MA from the creative writing program at Boston University. “There were only 12 of us in the program,” she says, “and it was pretty selective. But the teaching philosophy was: if you’re not crying, it’s not criticism. It shut down a lot of good writers.”
Eve decided there had to be another way. “I thought, why can’t we be honest with one another, but not in a brutal way?” So she started Grub Street, named after the Grub Street in London, a narrow alley, now long-gone, that became synonymous with hack writers (the term is pejorative, and I’m proud to count myself as a member of the club). At the time, Eve was reading The New Grub Street by George Gissing, first published in England in 1891.
“We had no plan when we started Grub Street,” Eve says. “We just started putting flyers on telephone poles. Our first two classes had a total of eight students.”
While many of these community-based programs like Grub Street and The Loft (founded in the 1970s) started up long before anyone foresaw the impact the digitization of everything would have on publishing and how writers went about writing and getting published, what’s worthy of note is how quickly and how well they are adapting to this new environment.
In 2010, Grub Street transformed itself to an extent and at a pace that would probably be impossible for a college-based workshop, even one with the desire to change. “I’d been in publishing for five years by then,” Eve says. “I saw that publishing was changing rapidly and that writers had great new opportunities as well as challenges ahead. I wanted to create workshops and seminars to help them navigate the change and make friends and connections along the way to help sustain them.”
Thus Grub Street began offering the courses mentioned above, and more. Now and then, they also bring in professional photographers to take author photos at a reasonable price, and attorneys to give advice about contracts, with a “genius bar” in development that will help writers get started with social media, all the stuff a writer today needs to know how to manage.
“The idea,” Eve says, “is to empower authors to assume more control over the entire writing and publishing process. There’s great opportunity here as we shift from the larger corporate structure. I think authors know their work best and therefore know best how to put their books out into the world.”
The centralized pub biz of yore, and the college-based workshop that served it, were closed systems that mediated the relationship between the writer and reader, and for that matter between the writers themselves. The nice thing about this was that all the writer had to do was sit at home and write, with the occasional post-release foray into the messy public sphere for a reading or book-signing. All in all, a pretty sweet deal. But the disintegration of the pub biz, and thus the necessity that writers take on more of the tasks once reserved for publishers, including marketing and publicity, puts writers into a closer relationship with their readers. This can mean less time to write, true, but as Eve puts it, “Just because you have to own it all doesn’t mean you have to do it all. So writers need honest self-assessments: what are your goals? Someone who wants to be commercially successful will need to devote more time to marketing than someone who’s more literary and satisfied with a smaller market. At Grub Street we’re starting to see writers get together to share marketing resources and ideas, co-ops that provide ongoing support.”
And closer engagement by a writer with a community could well help enrich and enliven what does get written. For millennia before there was written language or the printing press or the Internet, all literature was oral. Nothing stood between the storyteller and the audience. In a way, the collapse of the centralized pub-biz is forcing us back to these roots, and maybe that’s a good thing.
What would your ideal workshop feature?