This essay [“Why Talk Therapy Is on the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise”], by Steve Almond, from the March 25th edition of The New York Times, comes like a bombshell, dispelling not only my notions about why people take the writing workshops I teach, but why I often find teaching them frustrating.
I thought people came because they want to learn to write!
Armed with that presumption, I sometimes find myself dismayed by the quick dissolution of my workshop into a form of group therapy. I’ve often said I don’t do therapy, and tried, unsuccessfully at times, to redirect attention to the use of words.
Now, Steve Almond reminds me that therapy of the old talk kind is no longer available, both because of price and became insurance has allowed, or forced, psychiatrists to reduce their sessions from the old 55 minutes to 10, handing out pills and sending the sufferer along her way. This happens in the absence of all proof that medication provides a cure.
And so we are still suffering—lonely, isolated by our social networks that deliver neither touch nor human voice. This means, as Almond says, that people are more desperate than ever for “the emotional communion provided by literature”—and especially by workshops that offer more opportunity for communion than for literature.
Few people who take my workshops read. So the old suggestion, “Write the book you want to read” no longer has any potency. And, although there has never been a literary community in this country aside from a few gatherings largely on the coasts, the loss of a reading public means the loss of a vague network that at least potentially offered an alternative to isolation—and is still provided to some limited degree by book clubs. For, discussing a book we have all read is a form of communion, but since we all don’t read, that is gone, as well.
As Almond points out, MFA programs have burgeoned across the country, giving writers at least the hope of earning a small stipend; there are now 200 MFA programs and 600 graduate and undergraduate degrees in creative writing, in addition to thousands of workshops.
Yet I’ve found that ninety percent of my students have no real desire, and certainly no reasonable hope, of finishing a manuscript and submitting it for publication. They just want to be heard, speaking or reading about their troubles in a workshop—the kind of words they are not allowed to speak in their families are among their friends, because they are writing about abuse, trauma, turmoil.
And they’re paying to take my workshops, too, although a lot less than they would pay to visit a psychiatrist and fill a prescription on which they might come to rely for the rest of their lives.
But I’m not therapist. I am only skilled in the delicate and complex use of words to express complex emotional states—and in sharing our woes, the words we use don’t seem to matter much. We all know what we are talking about; a short hand of sorts will suffice.
So—are workshops a fraud? A bum deal?
What has been your experience?