Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club

This week, author Eric Bennett dropped a rather enormous bombshell on the literary world. The CIA, as it turns out, helped spread propaganda through creative writing programs all across the United States.

What? How?

Through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the most prestigious and influential creative writing program in a U.S. university. To make a long story short, in 1960 Paul Engle, the head of the program, wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation explaining exactly how his program could help fight communism (by bringing foreign writers to Iowa to indoctrinate them). He got the money, and later money from the CIA and the State Department, and used it to implement his plan. In essence, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop under Engel became the CIA Fan Club. The money, and the director who sought it out, left an enduring mark on creative writing programs all over the country.

You can read more about this from Bennet and a rebuttal from a University of Iowa Professor Loren Glass.

All this money brought prestige and influence to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which in turn influenced the creative writing programs that came after. Bennett writes, “The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since.”

With this influence, the Iowa Writers Workshop exported its long-held values – “middlebrow realism,” as explained by Glass in his rebuttal. And it exported Cold War propaganda.

Having gone through an MFA program and a creative writing undergraduate program, I have to say that this explains a whole lot. I’ve been busy re-evaluating my experiences in view of the larger picture. I wasn’t just learning writing, I was learning what the rich and powerful wanted me to learn.

The most obvious example took place in graduate school. Many writing professors will tell you that political writing is bad writing. (Of course, that’s a complete misunderstanding of politics. Everything is political. If you don’t see it, that’s just because it reflects the politics of the dominant culture.) At the time Paul Engle headed the program, that would have meant commie writing is bad writing, but today it means more than that. So on time my professor asked us to hand in some story ideas. I had an idea about something that happened to the anarchist Emma Goldman. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off – it would involve doing historical research and somehow transforming that moment into fiction. He returned it with a note explaining that stories starting from politics turn out badly. So I chose a different idea, having to do with a husband and a wife and some turtles. The Emma Goldman incident never made it into story form, although I did write an essay about it for the Aqueduct Press blog.

I would have been more skeptical of the concept if I had thought it came from the CIA. But no, it came from a trusted professor. And who taught him? Not any particular person, I imagine. It was just in the air.

That’s the obvious example. But the influence of the CIA Fan Club also spread to the seemingly apolitical – to general questions of content, style, and narrative structure. Good writing met the expectations of the “middlebrow” white male with his wife and children and white picket fence. Bad writing didn’t.

Those seemingly apolitical questions played a huge part in my writing development in my very first university courses. Creative writing programs at the university are deeply influential in a writer’s aesthetic. Writers, and especially beginning writers, have the disadvantage that they really don’t know which stories are good and which aren’t. We write what’s in our heads, and it may or may not please the reader. We don’t know until someone has read it and given us feedback.

I first studied creative writing in the early 1990s at the University of Utah under writers such as Jan Nystrom and François Camoin. They taught both the “traditional” writing that the Iowa Writers Workshop favored and “experimental” writing, a kind of writing that plays with narrative structure and style and today would be called postmodern. I felt the pull of both.

One of the wonderful things that Jan Nystrom and François Camoin did for me as a writer was to expose me to all kinds of interesting “experimental” writers. This was important, because the writing I was already doing coming into the creative writing program differed from the expected norms. I felt very much at home with Leonard Michaels’ lyrical prose, especially a story about a hotel maid who kept cleaning the same room over and over and finding more and more disturbing things. That was a story that went straight to the imagination and the spirit. I also felt at home with Grace Paley’s stories, which didn’t use quotation marks for the dialogue. This gave the dialogue an internal feel.

These stories became part of what I saw as possible in literature. Another couple of things that stood out –

  • Jan Nystrom wrote a story about women who fly around and leave shoes on roofs. There wasn’t any (rather Freudian) climax, but I loved it, and along with the work of Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley it became part of the inspiration for my Pushcart Prize-winning story “The Wings.”
  • Sophia Kartsonis’ first story was very lyrical and poetic. Somebody questioned whether it was too poetic to be a good story. To me, the poetry enhanced the appeal. I raised my hand and said so. As for me, my first story to be workshopped had comma splices for most of the sentences. This was entirely intentional and was part of the rhythm of the story. One of the classmates saw that as a big flaw and said so, but Camoin stuck up for me. In a different workshop, I might have been squashed by both the classmate and the teacher.

Also on the plus side, Camoin told us which literary magazines would accept experimental writing. It was only a small fraction, but it saved me a lot of trouble and got me published.

On the minus side, even though there was a lot of freedom and flexibility in the curriculum, there was also a lot of emphasis on “minimalist” writing, which is basically “show, don’t tell” taken to an extreme. The author’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions are theoretically omitted, as are explicit politics. This is one of the three favored forms of writing by the Iowa Writers Workshop, according to Bennett. (Bennett called it “cold” writing, but the kind of minimalist writing we looked at had dazzling language. Dazzling, but not gorgeous in the way something like Virginia Woolf’s work is gorgeous. More like a stained glass window than a river.) Just from a craft side, I learned a lot of bad habits there, which I had to unlearn in graduate school and beyond. Thing is, you can only skip telling if your reader is coming at you from a common cultural context, which is rarely the case.

Also on the minus side, this freedom of narrative structure came at the expense of the ability to publish some of my stories. I have written a couple of stories that just weren’t suited to go anywhere. They’re not bad stories; they just didn’t meet a particular literary aesthetic.

And so the years went by and a lot of things happened with my writing that I’ll also write about if I have time. I’ve abandoned a fair number of stories that didn’t meet expectations for narrative structure and I’ve edited out various experimental aspects of stories. And I’ve always wondered: Is something wrong with my story, or is there something wrong with the writing aesthetic? I still don’t know. Writers can judge their own work, but only to a point.

But you know what? Every time I did something unusual, whether it succeeded or whether it failed, I was fighting Cold War propaganda.

I’m pleased.

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4 responses to “Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club

  1. Pingback: The creative writing workshop from hell | Kristin King

  2. Pingback: What influenced postwar American Literature? | Kristin King

  3. Pingback: more on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop | Kristin King

  4. Pingback: Creative writing programs are sometimes snobbish | Kristin King

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