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.