Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ponzi Workshops

Just read a cute article in the NY Times about "The Ponzi Workshop" as of late, which was essentially an argument that writing programs are churning out educated and intelligent writers and graduates, but no TRUE writers. And so in that sense, we should label these workshops and programs as schemes because they do not produce what many assume all entrants want, i.e. unbridled, financially free success as a respected and revered author. Instead they offer a degree, a lot of (semi-)challenging courses and mentorships, and more prompts and assignments than you can shake an anthology at.

But my retort is that most students know this going into it. Don't they? I did, and I still do. I know I won't become the next Robert Frost and I know I won't suddenly wake up with the gifts of Emily Dickinson just because I sat through ten days of conferences in Cambridge. I know that it takes a lot of work, revision and inherent skill just to get published, and that constant thought, rumination and revision is the only way to achieve success. This is why Bob Hicok is such a remarkable story. He allotted himself fewer than two hours per day to writing, reading and Yet he managed to earn himself nominations for the most prestigious writing awards, published voraciously and prolifically, and was a 'poetry success,' despite never having earned an MFA, not even a Bachelor's. He even admitted English was not his strong suit or his interest in school either.

Strange how the world works, isn't it?

So if a student does believe a workshop will miraciously gift them with the ability to free write in iambic pentameter and to produce a book per year (in an industry struggling to survive), should they then be allowed to sue a school for false advertisement or for unfair practices and lost promises? That's what happens during the aftermath of a Ponzi Scheme: lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits. And more bickering, slander, etc. than imaginable. Right?

Perhaps programs need to better advertise or even come right out and say, "this program will not make you a writer. You have to be born with at least some ability and/or passion for writing. You must show skills to be admitted and you must hone these skills and learn the craft of writing in order to better your own inherent talents and dreams. We cannot provide you with the skill. You must have it already blossoming and must be prepared to work like mad to expand it."

Or would that mean we would have to dumb everything down so much as to defeat the purpose of the writing program in the first place--to anoint and declare the pure successes and intelligences of the entering and current students.

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