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what’s in it for me?

This is a question I have increasingly asked various leagues, guilds, associations, societies, state associations etc…

The silence has been deafening.

In  every case, membership requires my money and in every case these guilds, societies, leagues and associations already know what’s in it for themmy money. I’ll name names. Among others I have asked, at different times: The League of Vermont Writers, The Poetry Society of Vermont, The Authors Guild, The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, The Poetry Society of America, and The National Writer’s Union.

I’ve gotten no response.

It does not stand to reason that there is nothing to be gained by joining these organizations, but their lack of response is telling.  In some cases I requested specific information. For instance, many of these organizations (each in their individual states) offer classes, conferences and workshops if you’re willing to give them more of your money. But I’m not interested in taking classes, going to seminars, conferences or taking workshops. I am, however, interested in offering the same. I asked them: If I join your organization, how could I participate in offering classes, seminars or workshops? (I think I’ve got a lot to say about poetry.)

But again, in every instance, the silence was deafening.

Bare in mind, it’s not as if I was asking them to guarantee me a workshop.  I was asking for information. What could I expect in return for my money? And the answer, in every case, was definitely not money.

It’s very hard not to draw some conclusions.

One hard to avoid conjecture is that these associations are a revenue stream for their respective in-groups. (I suspect that if I had asked them where I should send my check, they would have told me within the hour.) All these organizations, to a greater or lesser degree, already have their favorites lined up. They’re not looking to share. However, if you’re looking for workshops and seminars, then these groups might be just the thing. I admit that not every member joins for the sake of their  bottom line (nor should they). I respect that. And I’m not surprised if some readers find my attitude crassly mercenary.

But I’m done with poetry costing me money.

of talent & encouragement

Art for art’s sake? Some of us want to know the return on our investment. And knowing the answer isn’t limited to clubs, associations or guilds. Every high school student who is considering a college writing program and every post graduate who is considering an MFA ought to start asking the same question. In the case of MFAs, no college or university, to my knowledge, offers an explanation for how their programs are going to translate into future income or employment (how are you going to earn back all that money you gave to some school and some other poet)?

Here is the Iowa Writer’s Workshop:

The Program in Creative Writing is known informally as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and these two titles suggest the duality of our purpose and function. As a “program” we offer the Master of Fine Arts in English, a terminal degree qualifying the holder to teach creative writing at the college level.

Did you know that an MFA “qualifies” one to “teach creative writing at the college level“? (That explains everything doesn’t it.) However,  they’re not making any promises because:

…we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught…

The “popular” insistence?  Popular? Are we talking about the unwashed masses? Why the qualification? And why the word “insistence“?  What? Is it like nagging? So… you may not learn how to write, but you’ll be qualified to teach writing at colleges. And that begs the question, just what will you be “qualified” to teach if you can’t write? But the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, sensing a dangerous cul-de-sac, goes on:

…we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed…

Phew. Are you relieved? But wait. Does that mean they can make you a good writer? Well… no.

…no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.

I see. No, in fact, they guarantee nothing. In fact, they only guarantee success if you’re already talented enough to be successful. Which begs the question: Then why go there if you’re talented? Am I being snarky? Here is the program’s answer:

….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.

OK. Here’s the same sentence shorn of its excess:

Accordingly, [success], we believe, [is] more the result of what they brought… than… what they gained from us.

Right. You can’t make this stuff up. And now for the piece of resistance:

We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught…(!)

And all this happens in the space of a single paragraph! This is how the Iowa Writer’s Workshop sells itself? You would think that the nation’s finest writing program (reputedly) could write a better paragraph. And here’s how the whole train wreck ends:

…but [we believe] that writers can be encouraged.

And how much(!) are you going to pay for that “encouragement”?  And encouraged to do what? Write when you’re not working 50 hour weeks to pay back your student loans? – just after your 2 year old has gone to bed? – until your Iowa Poet-in-Residence releases his death grip on that plumb job (just it time for you to take his place and croak of a heart attack)? Here is another MFA program offered by New England College:

More than a graduate course of study, the New England College MFA program strives to teach its students how to become better poets by providing a transformative experience in the study of creative writing and poetry that will enhance their professional goals.

More than a graduate course? Meaning what? In fact, this entire sentence is a beautiful example of saying nothing – otherwise known as resumé-speak. Just what is a “graduate course of study”? What do they mean by the vacuous catch-phrase “transformative experience”? And how much more imprecise can you get than “enhance professional goals”? What goals? Doesn’t the school know?

…the program is designed to help students develop strong poetic and critical skills, as well as to take bold risks in their writing.

Seems to me, the boldest risk is in not paying tens of thousands of dollars – but in striking out on ones own.

Debt free.

For what do these organizations exist but their own self-perpetuation?

what’s in it for you?

If you’re going to fork over money to an association, organization, guild, or academic institution, etc., then you have a right to ask some questions. What are you going to get besides a bi-annual glossy peddling another poet? – not you. What besides three new letters behind your name – M.F.A? What besides an annual request to buy a new membership – and a membership to what, for what and how does it benefit you? What besides more ways to support other poets – besides you?

I don’t belong to any associations, guilds or societies.

It doesn’t mean I never will, but none have offered a compelling reason to buy a membership.

And if you’re going to “study” poetry in college or get an MFA, ask what’s in it for you? Otherwise, as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop unwittingly admits, you will be bringing them more ($) than what you “gain from [them]”. Some might say it’s not their job to answer that question (or that it’s crass) but, it seems to me, if they’re going to charge thousands and thousands of dollars they damned well ought to have an answer. You’re not getting a medical degree. You’re getting an MFA and what good is it going to do you?

And if no else has an answer, answer the question yourself.

If you can’t, then stop writing checks and get back to writing poetry.

Stop sending checks to this or that Association of Self-Perpetuation, and get back to sending poetry to readers – that is the best kind of mutually beneficial relationship.

8 responses

  1. Fantastic post. I too have been looking for outlets to try and share my writing as well as find a group of poets to learn from… however, being on disability I have no money to spend in said quest. About 5 years ago I started my current blog in an attempt to both have a place for my writing as well as a platform from which to interact with other writers and poets. While it is a partial solution, it doesn’t address the main problem that you so eloquently diagrammed in your post. There is literally no end to organizations that will charge you a fee to join their group while offering little or nothing in return. (I have a philosophical problem with joining groups of any kind, and have long wondered why it is that when people do anything, they are inclined to start some sort of group clearly demarcating their interest as well as instantly redefining the issue as some sort of in-group/out-group BS duality…grrr that’s another issue entirely!)

    I am not sure what the “right” answer is to this problem other than to keep writing and keep looking for others who are interested in the craft of writing rather than in monthly meetings and electing officers to validate some strange need for organization. At any rate, I enjoyed your post and found it very thought provoking. If you’re ever looking for something to read, please drop by at http://caribbeanfool.wordpress.com and check it out. In the meantime, cool site, there is obviously much to learn here and even though I am looking, I don’t see a donation box….lol. Thanks for your thoughts,


    • Hey Caribbean, I posted at your blog. WordPress has designated my WP address as SPAM – so check your SPAM folder. And, if you need an address to send your check (large donations preferred) just E-Mail me. I exist to exist.

  2. I had never thought of things like this before. Although, I have decided not to renew my ‘membership’ in the Academy of American Poets because I didn’t enjoy the publications overmuch, nor did I feel I was getting much out of it…these aren’t my sorts of poets….

    • Hi Mark,

      I’ve had the same experience. I would get glossies full of poets (that somebody liked); and I would ask myself (why is my money being used to promote other poets – poets I don’t even like)? The answer is probably that we’re all in this together. And the answer to that is to say: OK, why doesn’t the we include me? I think these organizations are great if you’re an in-group member (or one of the chosen whose aesthetics the in-group promotes), but if you’re not it’s just too irritating. Another way to look at it: chefs (meaning poets) really shouldn’t be joining dining clubs. Cooking pastries is what they’re good at, not eating the next guy’s cakes.

  3. I disagree with the Iowa first claim that writing cannot be taught. It can be taught. I teach it — when I’m allowed to teach it. But the colleges where I teach comp won’t let me do the exercises that will actually teach writing. Give me a creative writing class — or, better, a series of them — and I can teach the hell out of some writing.

    • …colleges where I teach comp won’t let me do the exercises that will actually teach writing…

      Really? What kind of exercises? Always interested to hear new ideas….

    • Yes, and (self) included too. I think, in my life, I’ve probably spent around $1200 dollars (total) in a “fool & in his money are soon parted” state of mind.

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