Category Archives: teaching writing

I’ve taught writing to K-12 students (unpaid) and college students (paid) and have both Opinions and Concrete Tools to share.

The creative writing workshop from hell

A writing workshop is a must for aspiring writers. At least, I’ve always thought so. Once upon a time, they didn’t exist, and people still wrote books.

Anyway, writing workshops have been helpful to me. They go like this, generally speaking: you write a story, you make a number of copies, you take them into a workshop with a bunch of other aspiring writers and one published author. The writers all talk about what worked and didn’t, in a friendly and respectful way, and then the published author sums up their thoughts and opinions. You are advised to take all advice with a grain of salt. You go home, look at the comments, and do your best to incorporate them without throwing up from anxiety.

Over time, you learn not only from other people’s comments but also from your own comments what works and what doesn’t.

And over time, you graduate into a writing group, where all participants have an more equal voice. If you’re lucky, it’s a respectful group of writers who appreciate your writing aesthetic.

By and large, that’s what writing workshops have been for me. However, they’re not always like that. My friend Ian had a horrific experience, in which the writing workshop devolved into race-based personal attacks.

As it turns out, there’s a historical context for that kind of writing workshop. It begins with Paul Engle, the highly influential director of Iowa Writers Workshop from 1941 to 1966. You could call him the Founding Father of writing workshops, because although he didn’t start the writing workshop as we know it now, he brought it to national prominence in the U.S.  through his amazing ability to solicit fellowships from corporations, the wealthy, and the government. I found out about him through an article about CIA funding for creative writing, which I discuss here and here and here.

Wanting to know more, I checked out the book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and The Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl.

Engle was the boss. He had ultimate authority over which workshop students got funded, and by how much. McGurl writes:

“. . . Iowa Workshop students were required to report to . . . Engel every fall, lining up outside his office door. Entering one by one to make their plea for fellowship money, they would talk about their needs, their goals, and Engel, unhampered by codifications or committees, would announce the figure that seemed to him just.” (p 174)

Engle also set the tone for the general teaching practice in the writing workshop. As he explained in 1961, the goal was to discourage the author’s outpouring of spontaneous feeling and to use the social pressure of the workshop to intimidate or even terrify students into controlling their own work. (pp 130-131)

McGurl explains that Engel had a recurring nightmare that was immediately familiar to his students as a metaphor for his writing workshops. In his nightmare, Engle was in a concentration camp surrounded by a stone wall, among guards and prisoners. The guards forced him to walk along the wall in an extremely humiliating fashion. He complied, and found he was so good at it that all the guards and prisoners looked up at him in amazement and admiration. (172-173)

McGurl goes on to point out that in this model, the wall is still there. There are still guards and prisoners. The lucky writer is still a prisoner, and doesn’t escape the prison, but only rises above it.

So that’s the creative writing workshop from hell. You, as writer, are a prisoner in a concentration camp, terrorized into banishing spontaneous feeling from your work, and your only hope is to do such a good job that you rise above it all. But you can never escape.

Perversely, because of the influence of Engle and his money and prestige, this became the Platonic Ideal of writing workshops, the model that teachers of creative writing would emulate for years to come. The workshop leader (with all their biases surrounding race, class, gender, politics, etc) is dictator. And their influence, like Engle’s, extended beyond the workshop to affect which authors could be published.

Later, there was a shakeup, and a more progressive form of the workshop emerged, with more respect for writers and their works, and more understanding of the ways that race, gender, class, and other biases affect workshop participants.

But the ghost of Engle remains. Authoritarianism is part of the heritage of the writing workshop.

Is there something useful to be done with this new information about the history of the writing workshop, I wonder? Should we question the entire format of the writing workshop as based in authoritarianism and war? Or should we shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well, the progressive shakeup took care of all that” and move on with our lives? I don’t know.

But I do know one thing. Writers who have been traumatized by a Ghost-of-Engle Writing Workshop should take heart and be validated. And pick up your pens.

pencil and notebook2

Aside

Walk into a bookstore and pick up a highly acclaimed book. Look at the cover. Some of them have accolades like “National Book Award Winner” or “Pulitzer Prize winner.” That’s a mark of favor by the literary establishment, which includes … Continue reading

more on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop

In my post “Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club,” I talk about Eric Bennet’s essay on how Iowa Writer’s Workshop director Engle (1941-1966) procured lots and lots of money from govermental and private organizations for the explicit purpose of anti-communist propaganda. Fifty years ago, so that’s ancient history, right? Nope.

Here’s just one example of how its influence passed through various people to me. John Gardner, 1958 Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, wrote The Art of Fiction, championed by one of my professors as the authoritative volume on how to write. It’s really good in many ways. I love his concept of fiction being a “vivid and continuous dream.” But there are certain Rulez in the book that limit the types of stories that can be told.

John Gardner inspired Raymond Carver, another student of the Iowa Writers Workshop (1963-1964), and Raymond Carver was a leader in “minimalist” writing, which was in favor during my undergraduate years. He’s a great writer. My favorite: his story “A Small, Good Thing.” But minimalism leaves out a lot of things — language, intrusions by the narrator, and commie politics. How much of that was influenced by the Iowa Writers Workshop of the 1960s?

It would be an overstatement to say that Gardner and Carver took anti-communist propaganda whole cloth and passed it on. (We’ll leave that to John Irving, graduate of the late 1960s, who according to Wikipedia wrote, “This is Marxism. It’s leveling everything by decimating what works … It’s that vindictive ‘We’ve suffered, and now we’re going to take money from your kid and watch you squirm’… There’s a minority which is an open target in this country which no one protects, and that’s rich people”)

No, this is only influence, and one influence among many. But it passes on from writer to writer, from institution to institution, and its ripples will be felt for years to come.

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.

The series “Persuasive Writing for Activists”

Okay folks, I promised new weekly updates on my series “Persuasive Writing for Activists” and I haven’t delivered. Life got in the way and then I got distracted and then I wasn’t sure anybody was wanting it. So if you want to see more, please leave a comment. That’ll guilt me into adding more. 🙂

Persuasive Writing for Activists: Knowing Your Audience

This blog post is part of a series on persuasive writing for activists. Check back weekly for new content.

Last week we talked about the purpose:  what you’re trying to accomplish with your piece of persuasive writing. This week we’ll talk about who you’re writing it for. 

Getting to Know Your Audience

Many activists are so dedicated to the issue they care about that they forget that their audience might not be. Here are five important facts about your audience. 

  1. They are probably too busy to read your piece from start to finish. 
  2. They might not know little or nothing about the issue. 
  3. They might not know the jargon. 
  4. They might be skeptical of activists. 
  5. Despite all that, they might care deeply about the issue and want to act! 

Consider the Demographics 

I’m a white woman who is relatively well off and has a bit of free time, which is why I can write and do activism. If I’m not careful, I imagine my audience is too. They’re not. Think about people’s racial heritage, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability/disability, age, occupation, and financial situations.They’re all different! Different people will have different perspectives and care about different aspects of the issue. 

You Have Multiple Audiences 

Bear in mind that you have multiple audiences. Some know a lot about the issue and some know next to nothing. Some like activists and some don’t. Some share your racial heritage and some don’t. 

Go Meet Them 

Get to know your audience. Get out and talk to people about your issue. But don’t lecture. Listen more than you talk. I am surprised every single time I talk to people, and I learn a lot. I learn what people care about and what people don’t. I learn the language they use. I learn how not to act like an activist geek. I learn what they know and don’t know. 

Stay tuned: Next week we’ll talk about targeting your piece to your audience.

Persuasive Writing for Activists: The Purpose

This blog post is part of a series on persuasive writing for activists. Check back weekly for new content.

Last week I talked about how to do a prewrite. This planning will give you a better sense of what you are trying to accomplish, who you are trying to reach, and what you want them to do.

This week we’ll focus on purpose. What is the issue you’re concerned about? Why are you writing about it? What do you hope to accomplish? What are your short term and long term goals?

Here is an example of a bad purpose for persuasive writing: “I want people to know about how big a problem my issue is!” What’s missing here? There’s nothing for them to do.

Here’s an even worse one: “I can’t believe how awful this is! I just have to get it off my chest!” Then it’s not even persuasive writing at all. It’s a vent session. There’s nothing wrong with a vent session — just don’t try to make it into something it’s not.

So let’s turn this around. Let’s say that instead of wanting to express how horrifically bad everything is, we want to convince people that it can be made better. If so, how? Do you have a big picture vision? If so, what is a small step that someone can do that will get them involved?

Once you figure all this out, you’ll be ready to persuade your audience of three things: first, that your issue is a big problem; second, that you have at least part of the solution; and third, that they can take an action to contribute to the solution.

Here’s an example from the United Opt Out website. This article has several purposes:

1. To inform people that there is a problem with the release of confidential student records.

2. To persuade people that it’s important to act on this problem.

3. To ask people to take a specific action.

It begins,

Did you know that Jefferson County Public Schools will share confidential and personal student records with a corporation and store them on a data “cloud” without parental consent?

This is already persuasive, because it will immediately concern parents. The entry also goes on to add more details about what kind of information will be released.

One thing that is missing is that this particular article doesn’t work to convince people that they have a solution. There is a broad solution elsewhere on the web site – the group is “dedicated to the elimination of high stakes testing in public education.” So that’s good. But there isn’t a solution presented for this particular issue. Can this release of data be stopped? How? Maybe nobody knows. Activism would be a lot easier if we had all the solutions.

Finally, this article has an ask. The purpose isn’t just to alarm people, it’s to work toward a solution. Here’s the ask:

Please join concerned parents and education activists on May 16th starting at 8:00 a.m., for a rally right outside the front doors of the Colorado Department of Education, and then attend the 9:00-11:00 A.M. public study session, hosted by the CO State Dept. of Ed., to learn more about inBloom.

Check back next week for an entry on knowing your audience.

Persuasive Writing for Activists: The Prewrite

This blog post is part of a series on persuasive writing for activists. Check back weekly for new content.

Too often, when an activist decides to write persuasive material, they sit right down and write it. That’s a mistake. They write something that seems convincing and logical to them. In fact, they write something that would convince them or people in their immediate social circles.

But is that all you want to do? Persuade somebody like you?

Another common mistake is to convince somebody that there is a problem, and stop there. That’s just a downer. It might persuade someone that there’s a problem but give them no tools to solve it and no hope.

So it’s important to do some prewrite planning. Get out a sheet of paper and divide it into thirds. Give it three headings:

  1. Purpose
  2. Audience
  3. Action Item

Then brainstorm as much as possible for each item.

Purpose:

What is the issue you’re concerned about? Why are you writing about it? What do you hope to accomplish? What are your short term and long term goals?

Audience:

Are you writing for one audience or multiple audiences? What gender are you targeting? Age? Religion? Culture? Ethnicity? Gender identity? Are they likely to be easily convinced or is there a sticking point?

How much do you think your audience knows about your topic? You often can’t count on them knowing anything and you might have to start at ground zero.

You’ll be much more successful at reaching your audience if you have already talked to similar people about the same topic and heard what they have to say, both positive and negative, about your issue.

Action Item:

Go back to your purpose and think about your long-term and short-term goals. Then find some simple, quick action that people can take and suggest it. Otherwise, they are going to leave discouraged and, most importantly, do nothing. Then give them a timeframe to do it in.

Go on, get out that paper. Now.

Persuasive Writing for Activists: Intro

If you know me, you know that to say I have progressive politics is an understatement. If I see a progressive make an argument I agree with, half of me says, “Right ON!” And the other half is saying, “Seriously? You expect that to persuade anybody? You’re preaching to the converted.”

Here’s what I mean: somebody has a vision for societal change. And it’s a good vision. And they think, “I should share this vision!” So they make the best arguments they can, from their point of view. It is well received — but only by people who already mostly agree with them.

That’s a problem I know how to fix. Want to know where I learned it? Listen to my background and see if you can guess. I got a degree in creative writing, then went on to become a technical writer, then taught technical and business writing, and then left the job market to pursue the job of Full-Time Mom, Part-Time Writer, Part-Time Activist.

Which of these jobs do you suppose taught me the most about persuasive writing?

If you guessed “being a mom,” that’s a fair guess. It’s hard work persuading my kids to eat their dinner. But no. I learned it when I taught business writing.

Corporations know how to persuade. They know how to market to people, and that is persuasion.

So over the next few weeks, I’m going to be sharing what I know. Check back every week and see what’s new. The topics I’ll cover are:

The Prewrite

Purpose

Audience

  • Targeting your piece to your audience

Content

  • Using ethos, logos, and pathos to persuade
  • Being credible and using specifics
  • Overcoming your audience’s objections
  • Asking for action

Tone and Style

  • Having positive emphasis
  • Using the appropriate level of formality
  • Having a goodwill close

Layout and Illustration

  • Drawing the reader in
  • Looking good on the page

Examples

  • A bad example
  • Who will it reach?
  • A good example

Best writing teacher ever

Now that I’ve spent the week complaining about writing curriculum in schools, it’s time to give a shout-out to my best writing teacher ever. It could well be my ability to write with confidence came from him.

Now what’s funny is that he wasn’t a writing teacher. He was my seventh grade social studies teacher. But here’s what he did: he started off every class period with a ten-minute freewrite. It was graded — by quantity, not by content. He came around and looked at our journal entries and gave us a check, check-minus, or a check-plus. But he made a special point that he didn’t read what we had written, which meant we could write whatever we wanted.

I loved it. I wrote snippets of stories, complaints about being tired or hungry, and who knows what all.

Now, that didn’t turn me into a writer. I’ve always loved to write stories, from early elementary school to now, and I would have done it even without that teacher’s help. But would I have written as freely?

I don’t even remember that teacher’s name, but he sure did me a favor. Thank you, teacher.