I am once again in Seattle where, a week from now, Clarion West will begin its famous six-week SF-writing workshop. I am not teaching this year (Clarion likes to rotate instructors) but will be attending readings and parties (stay tuned). So it seems especially timely that the The "June 8 and 15" issue of The New Yorker has a terrific article about creative writing workshops.
"Show or Tell," by Louis Menand, is an ostensibly a review of Mark McGurl's new book The Program Era, about writing programs in America. In actuality the long article reviews not just McGurl but the whole concept of creative writing programs. How did they get started? What are their advantages and disadvantages? Do they, as some critics claim, produce homogenized writing? What do their graduates and long-time instructors think of them? And most important, can writing actually be taught at all?
Neither Menand nor McGurl answer that last, all-important question, but the article provides all sorts of interesting information along the way. Some examples:
-- Sixteen Pulitzer Prize winners and three Poet Laureates are graduates of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
-- Some instructors end up hating the whole idea of writing classes (Kay Boyle, after sixteen years teaching writing at San Francisco State: "All creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law.") Others fervently believe in them: John Barth (twenty-two years at Johns Hopkins), John Gardner (State University of New York at Binghamton).
-- One writing class at Stanford included -- all at the same time -- Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, and Tillie Olsen. What those discussins must have been like!
-- The emphasis of most writing classes has shifted over time, Menand claims, from "Show don't tell" in the 1950's to "Find your own voice" in the sixties and seventies. (I need to think about this one.)
There is more, much more, enough more that I immediately ordered the book. McGurl apparently relates writers' styles (Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates) to their socioeconomic origins, and I'm dying to read that exegesis. However, my favorite line in the article was this opening description of a writing workshop: "a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-to-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of other aspiring writers." True enough, but those "aspiring writers" are also readers, which makes their reactions -- if honest and constructive -- immensely valuable to the author. Despite the ritual scarring.