Last evening, May 6, I participated in a panel discussion at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, on the subject of academic workshops in the United States. The other two panelists were Leo Rowland and Angelica Gorodischer. The moderator, Holly Murten, from the US Embassy is on the far right.
Leo Rowland received his MFA degree from the writing program at California State University, Fresno. He was born in Buenos Aires, but spent much of his youth in the United States; he has now returned to Buenos Aires to live. He has worked as a journalist and is now an educator.
Angelica Gorodischer, an award winning Argentine writer, was also born in Buenos Aires and has published more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, and essays. In 1998, she attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program on a Fulbright Scholarship.
My MFA from Iowa, as regular readers know, is from 1981.
Basically, each panelist offered some personal perspective on the “workshop experience,” which varied widely among the three of us, and then took questions from the audience, most of which were directed to Angelica, easily the most famous of us in the Argentine literary world. The presentations, the discussion, and the questioning were not in-depth; there was only a one-hour time slot, even though we went a little long. Essentially Leo and I talked briefly about how workshops works; Angelica’s program lasted only three months and did not involve the sort of workshop sessions typical of degree programs.
One difference I noted between Leo’s and my experience is that at Iowa for the MFA one needed to produce an “academic” thesis, similar, though much less extensive and demanding, to a PhD dissertation. Leo program accepted “creative” work.
There was no depth at all. We just tossed out a few random tidbits. But the time and structure of the event did not allow for anything more.
I have written here before (or maybe that was the old blog?) about my opinion of writers workshops, writers clubs, writers groups, writers conferences, and all that. The best things that come from all these academic writing programs are practical: one may meet an amiable agent, one can pick up a union card to make possible getting a decent teaching gig, the parties can be really good, and best of all, it is the only time you are ever going to be given two or more years during which you are given the time and space to actually write. And that, my friends, is how writing is taught — it is self-taught: you learn to write by writing. Definitely not from the critical remarks of your unpublished peers sitting around a table in a workshop room.