The last two weeks have been quite a revelation for me. My post on perfection led to last week’s post about writing workshops/writing culture, and even then, it wasn’t until the comment sections of both blogs that I realized just how prevalent the whole writing problem thing is.
What I consider to be “the whole writing problem thing” is this: writers have never learned how to become professionals. They have learned how to become critics and academics.
Farther into this post, I will talk about the problems caused by what we learn and how we learn it. Before I do, however, I want to remind you of something:
I write these blog posts for professional writers and those who want to become professional writers. By professional, I mean someone who makes a living at their writing. Not at teaching writing, not at lecturing, not at criticism. But at their actual writing, their published works.
So when I’m talking about problems in what writers learn, I’m talking about what writers who want to become professionals learn. I have nothing against English teachers; there are several in my family and more among my friends.
I am talking about the problems in the teaching of creative writing only. Other degree programs help their students become professionals in their fields—in other words, those professionals know that when they graduate, their field offers work, paying work. It might take a while to get there, but the students know they can if they follow a particular path.
(Please note that some creative writing degree programs are trying to change this attitude. Folks have mentioned such programs in last week’s comments section. I have not vetted these programs and, in some cases, was unaware of them. So check them out on your own. The tide might be turning—slowly.)
Writers do not get a training in their profession (an existing profession, in which thousands of writers work and thrive), and not just because of the reasons I had assumed. These blog posts and your comments have sent me on a journey of discovery into just how old, deep, and pervasive this misunderstanding of our profession truly is.
I spent some time this week, looking for the very first writer’s workshop. I vaguely remembered an article I read about famous prose writers and poets on the East Coast setting up their own degree program (Robert Lowell’s name comes to mind), but before I searched for that, I decided to go the easy, Google route. I wanted to find the first degree program in the United States on Creative Writing.
It was, as you probably guessed, The University of Iowa, which still has a famous writing workshop, a prestigious one. According to its website, the university offered its first creative writing class in 1897 (which was the first creative writing class in Iowa. Dunno about the rest of the country).
I dug deeper. I have a (badly produced) book from Hyperion on the Iowa Writers Workshop called, unsurprisingly, The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers Workshop. (Yes, that really is the cover to our left. Ugly, isn’t it? Someone didn’t want it to sell.) The book is a wealth of rather shocking information. Instead of quoting from it, though, since it’s 13 years old, I’ll refer back to the website (which reinforces what I found in the book). Some of the information below, however, comes from the book.
The core of the degree program began in 1922, with the workshop itself coalescing in 1936, headed by someone named Wilbur Schramm. I’d never heard of Professor Schramm, so I looked him up as well. Seems he’s considered “the father of communications studies” and has quite a real-world pedigree, including writing for the Associated Press and winning the O. Henry Prize for fiction in 1942. He went on to other things, such as working in the War Information Office during World War Two, and then founding more influential degree programs at other universities.
I do not know Schramm’s intentions when he started the Iowa program. I’m sure it’s somewhere in his papers (housed at the University of Iowa). No matter what his intention, however, I suspect it was the same as the founders of Clarion Writers Workshop and other workshops that eventually become institutionalized. The intent was to educate and help the students.
Nowadays, Iowa is the gold standard in the United States, and the model for several degree programs around the world. According to the website, the program has two parts. It has a Master of Fine Arts in English, “a terminal degree qualifying the holder to teach creative writing at the college level.” It also offers the actual workshop.
In the website’s description of the workshop are these jaw-dropping sentences. Please note that the words in quotations inside this quote I’ve pulled are from the university itself, not from me:
“As a ‘workshop’ we provide an opportunity for the talented writer to work and learn with established poets and prose writers. Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light. If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.”
Well, that made me hurry over to the University of Iowa’s music department to see if it mentions the word “learn” in quotes or claims that no one “learns” to play music but just absorbs it.
Nope. The music school talks about skill and moving on to other levels once the skills “are acquired” through practice, study, and performance.
I found no mention of “skill” at the prestigious literary program. No mention of practice, either. Instead, more jaw-dropping stuff:
“Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.”
Considering that tuition at the University of Iowa on the undergraduate level runs anywhere from $4,000 (resident) to $12,000 (nonresident) per year (and is probably much more for degree programs), writing students are paying for what, exactly? Encouragement? Meeting famous writers they could also meet at faculty mixers and at book signings? Asking a few questions…and really? Encouragement??? Really?
[Breathing now. Setting aside some quite real shock. Moving back to my point.]
Okay. For twenty years now, my husband Dean Wesley Smith and I have made it our mission to teach new writers business. Over time, we realized that professional writers needed to learn business as well. We were told by the folks running Clarion East in the 1990s that we weren’t wanted back because of our business focus. Gently, over a rather uncomfortable dinner, our two old mentors who founded Clarion reminded us that Clarion was a craft workshop, not a business workshop, and it wasn’t about to change. We accepted that. We thought it Clarion only. Universities only. MFAs only.
But it’s not.
Dean and I haven’t been fighting an isolated attitude. We’ve been fighting seventy-six years of indoctrination. Seventy-six years of worrying about words, when writers needed to worry about stories. Seventy-six years of worrying about the wrong things so that someone else can take care of the “right” things.
If you count a generation by the customary definition of twenty years, then nearly four generations of writers have come to believe this stuff. That’s a lot of cultural baggage, and a lot of misperceptions that the professional writer (or the wannabe) has to fight.
We’re all familiar with that fight. But what most writers haven’t considered is the harm that this attitude embodied by the University of Iowa and copied by every writing program (and most workshops) causes.
There are two levels of harm. The personal harm, and the professional harm.
The personal harm is easy to define.
Talent versus skill
A God-given right versus a craft that can be learned
A talent is, by its very definition, something you’re born with. Either you have it or you don’t. As the précises for the University of Iowa states, it can’t be learned. It can only be “encouraged.”
Of course, if that were the case, then writers couldn’t improve. They would have the same ability at the beginning of their careers as at the end of their careers. Study, classrooms, research, practice, none of it has any meaning whatsoever in the face of Great Talent.
Talent is, as the cliché says, its own reward.
And its own curse.
I have watched hundreds—and I do mean hundreds—of talented writers fall by the wayside as their less-talented (by the judgment of a teacher, editor, critic) fellows succeed. Why are the less-talented succeeding where the talented fail?
The convention wisdom is that the less-talented appeal to the masses, as if the masses are a bad thing. But what’s really happening here is this: The so-called less talented feel that they must work harder to get where their talented peers are naturally. So the so-called less-talented end up with a work ethic where the talented have none.
But what about the people who are clearly better at writing than others in the class? Aren’t those people talented?
No. Sometimes what’s considered talent by a professor is simply that a writer writes to that professor’s taste. More often, however, the “talented” writer has had more practice than others and is more skilled by the time they get to the class.
For example, I come from a literary family. My sister taught me to read when I was three. (One of the benefits of having an English major in the house; she practiced her teaching skills on little old me.) My family put an emphasis on language, learning, and books that most families didn’t have. Is it any wonder that I was pulled aside as a “talented” writer from grade school on?
What about other kids, the kids whose families didn’t worship at the alter of the book? They might not have been any less talented, in fact they might have had better stories to tell. But they had less practice with writing and storytelling, had read less, and weren’t yet as skilled.
Kids from athletic families tend to play ball early. Dean, the son of a professional golfer had a golf club in his hand at the age of three. Guess who was considered a “talented” golfer by junior high school? Guess who had had more practice than his teammates?
So the idea of talent, the idea that writing cannot be taught but can only be encouraged (what a wimpy-ass word), teaches laziness. If a writer works hard, by definition he is not talented. He is striving for something he cannot achieve.
In other words, a work ethic is the sign of a mediocre writer.
Writers have a lot of trouble with this. It creates a built-in conflict. If they work hard, practicing, writing a lot, writing fast, they’re “squandering their talent.” They’re taught to wait for the muse to strike, fickle creature that she is, rather than learning what other craftspeople learn—hard work trumps talent every single day.
Bestsellers aren’t lazy writers. Bestsellers work hard. James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and Stephen King work every day on their writing, on their storytelling, on their books—not because they want more money, but because they are craftspeople, doing their job, a job they get paid well to do.
By bringing up work ethic, I’m moving into the other place the workshop attitude harms writers—in business itself.
If a writer’s job is to wait for the muse, the writer doesn’t turn out enough work to have a career. Very few writers ever become famous or “great” on one work alone. Yes, a writer might be famous for a single work, but that work might’ve been five novels or ten novels in, two million to ten million words written and published before the famous work ever came out of that writer’s pen.
Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, and even good old James Joyce were not one-shot wonders. They worked very hard on their craft, and the works that people remember, the works that people love, usually were not the first thing they’d ever written.
Writers who believe their works are golden are doomed to be forgotten or never discovered at all.
Writers with this attitude never try to have a career because they believe a career is impossible. Therefore, the writer will do stupid things they would never do in their real life.
Let me give you just one example.
If a stranger walked up to you on the street, told you he could make you famous, and asked you then to let him handle all of your decisions and all of your finances, would you do so?
Of course not.
But writers do that all the time. They hire an agent based on nothing more than a listing in Writer’s Digest. They don’t vet the agent, they don’t see if the agent has a criminal record, they just hand their work over to the agent along with any money that they might earn on that work, and trust the agent to handle everything fairly.
If you believe you will never make money at writing, such an act carries very little risk.
If you think of your writing as your career, your livelihood, then that same act becomes foolish. Because you could lose everything to a scam artist. Everything.
The fact that more writers aren’t scammed by their agents is a damned miracle. There are a lot of ethical old time agents out there who are appalled that anyone would think of scamming a writer.
But there are many more—especially now that the writing business is changing, and agenting is no longer profitable—who are scamming every single writer they can find. They’re offering agency agreements that give the agent ownership in the writer’s work, they’re starting e-publishing businesses that are illegal under all laws governing anyone with “agent” in their job title, and some agents (even so-called reputable ones) are embezzling from their wealthiest clients.
What else are writers doing wrong because of this workshop attitude?
Let me make a list in no particular order:
1. Failing to understand why publishing contracts exist. If writing isn’t a business, then a contract wouldn’t be important. But the writer is the only one in the publishing industry who believes that no one can make a profit on writing. And that automatically puts the writer at a disadvantage. She’ll sign contracts that hurts her because some stranger (the agent) tells her to. She’ll sign clauses that are against her own best interest because she doesn’t understand them, because no one explained them to her.
For example, one clause she’ll sign is a non-compete clause. If the writer writes only one book every five years, that might not be an issue. But if the writer writes five books a year, no traditional publisher can handle the output. Therefore such a clause restricts everything the writer does and tanks any possibility of a career.
There are a million other such clauses and I’ll revisit them in the next few weeks. But that’s the worst one, and the one most writers willingly sign.
2. Believing that business is bad. How many times have you heard that writing is an art, and artists let others worry about business? I have people for that, says the writer/artist, waving her hand. If she’s making any money, she doesn’t understand that those people might be digging their hands into her profits long before she sees a penny.
3. Successful books are junk. This one actually makes me sad. It also makes a writer’s brain explode if that writer does become successful. Jonathan Franzen had a public meltdown on this very issue when Oprah Winfrey chose his book, The Corrections, for inclusion in her then-highly popular book club. He worked out his confusion in public. He said such things as “I’m embarrassed by [the book]’s success, but I’m happy it’s selling” to Powell’s Books Blog. In a comment made to The Oregonian that got him uninvited to the Oprah book dinner, “I feel like I’m solidly in the high art literary tradition, but I like to read entertaining books and this maybe helps bridge that gap, but it also heightens these feelings of being misunderstood.”
By 2010 Franzen got over his feelings of being misunderstood and he gratefully accepted Oprah’s recommendation of his novel, Freedom.
Franzen’s attitude, expressed in those early post-Oprah interviews, isn’t unusual. It’s the attitude of a writer trained in criticism, dealing with success in a real-world business.
Other writers go through the same thing in different ways. The romance writer Eloisa James kept her true identity secret for a long time. She’s the daughter of poet Robert Bly and writer Carol Bly, and she’s a professor at Fordham university.
In an interview with Time Magazine, James said her secret life started when she was an untenured professor.
“I wrote my first book, Potent Pleasures, in order to pay off my student loan, and found such pleasure in writing it. The contract was for three books. People magazine named the second book a page-turner of the week. And I went to my chair—I had then moved to Fordham—and I said, ‘People magazine would like to run a picture of me.’ And he said, ‘You can’t do that. You won’t get tenure.’ Once that happened, I really did keep the lives separate.”
She “came out” later when she realized “if I keep this secret, it’s as if I’m ashamed of it, and that’s implicitly shaming my readers, right? I decided this is not good…”
The reaction at her job was good, but her mother never thought James’s writing amounted to much, even though she’s sold more than 6 million books and has been on The New York Times bestseller list 17 times.
James is clearly not one of the writers who believes that successful books are junk, but her mother did. James said, “My mother couldn’t get around the fact that I wouldn’t try and be Chaucer or Dostoyevsky. She thought if you have talent, then you know you have to use it to better mankind. But my talent is a kind that doesn’t involve changing America’s view of war. So that was hard for her to accept.”
And there’s that talent thing again.
But more than that, what these two examples show is how insidious the workshop attitude is even for writers who have successful careers. I know dozens of writers who have done what they can to torpedo their success (like Franzen did ten years ago) to prove that they’re “good” writers. I know even more writers who circumvent the entire discussion by introducing themselves as a writer of “junk.”
4. Writers who believe you can’t make money at writing often don’t. Funny, that. Those writers will sign bad contracts, fail to market their work, fail to write, get “real” jobs without trying to succeed in their chosen profession, and give up at the first sign of trouble. If you believe you can’t succeed—if you believe there is no point in even trying, because no one succeeds—then you’ll avoid doing all those things that make a career. You’ll make mistake after mistake after mistake because you have no idea that you’re in the business world.
As I wrote above, Dean and I have taught writers about business for two decades now. When we started teaching professional writers, we focused on writers whose careers had stalled.
Their careers had stalled for a hundred different reasons, most of which had nothing to do with craft. (The craft issues could be—and still can be—resolved with a few week-long workshops.) Most of the reasons have the same thing in common, though.
The writer needed to know or understand business to revive her career. Most of the writers we’ve taught believed they weren’t in a business, believed their problems were that their writing “had gotten worse” or that they had “lost their talent,” when, in reality, they needed to do what most business owners do in a downturn. They needed to examine the business and make changes in personnel, approach, attitude, and money management.
If I said any of those phrases on the first day of our classes, the writers would run screaming. In fact, Dean and I learned at the beginning of the Master Class for professionals to give those professionals a financial quiz composed of what we believed to be simple concepts. Ten questions, covering everything from definitions of net worth to gross income, questions that we believed any functioning adult already should have learned in daily life.
American financial education is so bad that most of our writers who came to our classes, people in their thirties, forties, and fifties, flunked that quiz. Flunked. It was rare to get one student to answer all ten questions correctly. A few would get 8 out of 10.
We had to dumb down our financial talk to get our students to understand us. I blamed the educational system for that—and still do. I think Americans get a crap-ass financial education. However, until this month, I also blamed the writers for it, thinking that they hadn’t bothered to learn it.
Honestly, it never crossed my mind that no one had ever offered to teach it. And not just finances, but the idea that writing is a career, a profession, something that writers must learn alongside their craft.
No professional school in the university system teaches everything a professional needs to know to practice a trade. Law schools don’t spend much time on how to run a law practice, but they do at least mention it now and then. Medical schools have only started dealing with money management in the last decade or so, but wannabe doctors always knew that they had the option of opening their own office to make a living.
Writers never get that. Not once in seventy-six years have writers thought of their work as work, let alone as a profession, let alone as something they could make a good living at.
When you don’t even know that something exists, you can’t learn about it. You can’t admit you don’t know enough about it, because it’s not even a part of your worldview.
That’s why writers whose careers have taken a downturn blame their craft. That’s what they learned, that’s what they believe the writing profession to be—only craft. Yet, if these writers knew business, they would understand that all businesses have cycles. Every business has downturns, and sharp business owners learn how to survive them. Sometimes tweaking the product (fixing your writing) is the exact wrong thing to do. Sometimes it’s necessary.
But if you can’t even see where the problem is, then you can’t solve the problem.
It also works on the flipside. If you’re successful, you can’t continue that success without understanding what you’re successful at. If you’re a good storyteller, but you believe you’ve become successful because you write pretty sentences, then you might jettison story to write even prettier sentences when, in fact, it might be your raw storytelling power and idiosyncratic grammar that makes your work sell.
In other words, in trying to “improve” upon your success, you might destroy it.
The myopic view of writing as offered by seventy-six years of university writers’ workshops and their non-university satellites has harmed entire generations of professional writers. Now it’s clear to me why so many writers have at best a ten-year career. At some point, a business sense must kick in. If the writer has farmed out the business part of her career to someone “who knows better,” then she has no idea if the person that she hired is doing something wrong. She has no idea if the reason her career is having a downturn is because she has trusted the wrong people, or because she’s writing in a genre that is glutted, or if she has signed a contract limiting her chances for success.
She is ignorant of all that will help her in her profession. She might be the best writer on the planet, but if she doesn’t know how to get her writing to readers—repeatedly—she won’t have a career.
Honestly, that saddens me. It’s the reason Dean and I have taught business for twenty years. We’re trying to rectify what we believed to be a small problem. This July, I’ve realized just how big the problem is and why we’ve had so much trouble making inroads.
If you want to be a successful professional writer, you need to learn business. You will not have a long-term career if you fail to learn how the profession works. You also need to keep working on your craft.
Contrary to what writers learn in MFA programs, writing is not an easy profession, one in which a writer should be “encouraged.” Writing is hard work. Writers who want to put in the hours, who have a good work ethic, will survive in this profession while the “talented” will get eaten alive.
The university programs and that workshop attitude have it exactly backwards. To succeed in this profession, you need skills. Writing skills, business skills, survival skills.
Those skills are not taught in university writing programs. Right now, the only reliable way to get those skills is through the school of hard knocks.
I’ve been through that school repeatedly. It’s painful. I hope someday someone comes up with a system that helps writers through the early years with a formal education in business as well as craft.
Until then, cobble together your own curriculum. It’s directed study here in the school of hard knocks. You won’t get university credit, but you will end up with a lifelong career.
Thanks to everyone for the active comments section in the past two weeks. I can’t answer everything (much as I’d like to), but know how much I appreciate all you’re saying and pointing me to. I’m learning as well.
Thanks too for the donations. As I’ve said before, I make my living writing fiction, so this nonfiction blog has to remain self-supporting. If you’ve learned anything, if you like what you’re reading, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “Writers and Business,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.