Everyone Writes. But Is Everyone a Writer?

Workshops hosted by published authors like Elizabeth Gilbert and non authors like Caroline Calloway have commodified creativity.
                                           Elizabeth Gilbert, one of a number of well-known authors who also host
                                           writing and creativity workshops.
New York Times
In a video that began making the rounds last month, Meg Stalter describes herself as a writer in New York City (“can you get any more cliché than that, no you can’t” she said), and gives some writerly advice.

Her impersonation of a writer giving advice to aspiring writers is funny because it’s true. Thanks to tweets, comment threads, Instagram captions, Facebook confessionals, newsletters, self-publishing and the internet’s insatiable thirst for first-person essays, everyone is now a writer (or a “content creator”). With an oversupply of words and increasingly distracted demand, making money in a side hustle or day job is harder than ever.

And so there has been a surge in writer seminars, workshops and salons, to which mostly nonprofessional (or not-yet professional) writers sign up for advice on ideas, structure, tone and pitching from published authors, writers and editors who are looking to augment the income that goes along with the full-time career everyone on the internet wants — until they find out what it pays.

The author Meghan Daum created her writing “master class” about a year and a half ago after noticing Twitter vitriol directed at smart but unpolished essays that she assumed had not been well edited.

Ms. Daum, a former columnist for The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Book Review and author of the forthcoming nonfiction book “The Problem With Everything,” said that she was able to develop a contrarian voice in the 1990s without fear of being assailed immediately by a social media mob.

The writer Meghan Daum at the PEN Center USA’s 25th Annual Literacy Awards in California in 2015.
                                   The writer Meghan Daum at the PEN Center USA’s 25th Annual Literacy Awards in California in                                      2015.

“I realized this was a luxury I had that many new writers today do not,” said Ms. Daum, 49, who has taught writing at University of Iowa and Columbia University. “There is an anticipatory anxiety about what the internet reaction might be and what pushback they will get on Twitter. So public thinking becomes about appealing to your tribe, and that is defeating the purpose.”

In early 2018, she introduced the first of her weekend-long, application-only sessions. For $1,200 per person, groups of about eight spend Saturday and Sunday at her Manhattan apartment, in Washington Heights — or, on one occasion, for $1,800, in a borrowed house in Los Angeles — for a course in first-person essays or memoir, with a focus on idea creation, writing, editing, rewriting and pitching. (The New York program used to cost $1,600 and included a chef-cooked dinner. Also, smaller groups pay slightly less because with fewer students, more time is spent writing during the workshop itself.)

Ms. Daum invites guest speakers and provides a catered lunch.

“I tell my students, ‘We are going to come to this work as if I am your editor, and as if it was 15 years ago when an editor would actually talk to you on the phone or even take you out to lunch,’” she said.

Emily J. Smith, 37, was working as a product manager for tech companies when she signed up. She dreamed of a career in writing but couldn’t quit her tech day jobs to enroll in a pricey master of fine arts program.

When she heard from a friend about Ms. Daum’s workshop, she applied immediately. “I write essays, personal essays, that try to emulate her style,” Ms. Smith said, “so getting her feedback on my work was an incredible opportunity and I also wanted to meet her and get to know her.”

Her work with Ms. Daum, as well as in workshops led by another writer, Chloe Caldwell, helped Ms. Smith learn to write essays about relationships, power and the culture of online dating, like those she has published in the Rumpus and Medium.

Ms. Smith now has a literary agent and is including in a book proposal an essay she worked on with Ms. Daum in the seminar. Ms. Smith also created a dating app meant to combat the loneliness of online dating that her essays describe. Called Chorus, it will allow a dater’s friends to help play matchmaker.

A boom in first-person essays of love, heartbreak and transcendence — including, yes, the popular Times column Modern Love, and amplified by the ease of spilling one’s guts online — has helped support a mini-industry for confessional writing seminars.

access to an intimate Q. and A. lunch with Ms. Gilbert and the opportunity to take your photo with her, cost $2,500.

“I wish I could afford to have her two days,” said Alena Chapman, a writer and speaker who is hosting the event.

Ms. Gilbert is backpacking in France but said, in a statement conveyed by her publicist, “Sometimes I earn money by teaching my creativity workshop at expensive retreats designed for the sort of people who can afford an expensive retreat. Then I take that money, and I use it to offer this same workshop for free, to the kind of women who could never afford it otherwise.”

Ms. Gilbert and Jennifer Pastiloff, a yoga instructor and author, are hosting an invitation-only, free “creativity and personal development” workshop in Philadelphia on Oct. 1. (The event is oversubscribed so spots are no longer available.)

Ms. Chapman said that attendees will learn “how to access their creative spirit” and leave the seminar with a new ability to write and make art.

There has been some blowback on social media in response to the ticket cost of the event, which Ms. Chapman acknowledged. But she said that it costs a lot of money to produce an event of this scale, with speakers of this renown, in New York City. (A representative for Ms. Chapman said in an email that Ms. Chapman will “offer periodic sales for a limited amount of time and tickets.”)

“People think we’re doing it to line our pockets, and I can tell you I don’t even see us making much on this at all,” she said.

Katherine Rosman is a features reporter. She covers media, social media and celebrity — and the way in which they intersect and collide. She joined The Times in 2014. @katierosman

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