craft before craft — DIY RPGs and the meaning of a literary idea


cool engraver guy on a 47 Workshop letterhead 

Let there be the clack of the shuttle flying

        forward and back, forward and


warp, wearp, varp: “cast of a net, a laying of eggs”

    from *warp- “to throw”

            the threads twisted for strength

                       that can be a warp of the will.

      “O weaver, weaver, work no more,”

              Gascoyne is quoted:

      “thy warp hath done me wrong.” 

— from At the Loom, Passages 2, Robert Duncan

With apologies to Lionel Trilling for the title. I was v busy between the end of the year at our middle school + grad school term papers + a brief stint in county jail (free Palestine!) and I'm thoroughly enjoying this do-nothing June. Promise that the next post will be about Africa, since the Mudimbe bit in the last one only kinda counts; A Most Majestic Fly Whisk post-Africanist era...impossible, evil.

craft's empire

In the wake of Mark McGurl's magisterial survey of post-war American literature The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, "craft" has evolved into something very much like a term of abuse. Not everywhere, not in the programs themselves or the LARB or w/e, but certainly among folks interested in politically radical or formally experimental literary fiction. Craft, for good reason, is now almost wholly associated with the 'writing disposition' project at the University of Iowa - generally considered to be the formative moment for the institutionalization and professionalization of creative writing in post-war American literature (and the rest of the litfic world not too long after.) In The Program Era, McGurl suggests that 'craft' is an important part of the creative writing turn (beginning with the trinity of 'experience,' 'creativity,' and 'craft') in the new literary US; in particular, “[c]raft—also called ‘technique'— adds the elements of acquired skill and mental effort of the process, and is strongly associated with professional pride and the lessons or 'lore' of literary tradition,” John B of The Retired Adventurer neatly explained this process in Bordieuian terms, commenting that "writing thus becomes a form of petty capital [writers] can trade off the value of, with the net effect that most professional litfic writers are petty-bourgeois in class being, no matter how radical or conservative they are otherwise." Said another way, "craft" in the Program Era is a catchall term for a particular kind of self-fashioning work, or, as Timothy Yu puts it, “self- conscious work" - a warped relationship to production (the cult of revision around the disciplined author writing and rewriting, the long shadow of Hemingway's enshrinement, is a famous example) intentionally aimed at displacing Marxian or even generally communitarian logics of labor. Eric Bennett argues in Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War that the professional-institutional desires tethered to this vision of craft produced a particular kind of writing subject, one that saw...

" the New Deal, in the Marxist hopes of the 1930s, and in so much of recent progressive American thought an impulse toward 'Common Man-ism': a well-intended but shallow humanitarianism that annihilated the organic complexity of people’s private and communal realities and verged on totalitarian conceptions...[b]y the mid-1950s, this consensus—aligning figures as disparate as [Flannery] O’Connor and [James] Baldwin—permeated campuses across the United States, infusing the classrooms and lecture halls of the colleges and universities that were expanding rapidly under the GI Bill and other Cold War defined the era in which creative writing, as an academic discipline, came into its own."

 Craft was a crucial element of this formula; it's not unrelated that the CIA had a hand in the development of the Iowa program, though the Rockerfeller Foundation's relationship to New Humanism might be an even more direct influence on what would become literary craft. It was Engle himself, founder of the modern program at Iowa and the greatest proponent of the "write every day to sharpen yourself" / "taking a professional's eye" craft ethic of professionalism that defined it, who actively promoted the remade credentialing system of university writing as an anti-Communist endeavor:

"Ever more cunning, year by year, at attracting philanthropic interest in his program, convinced that writers could serve in the soft diplomatic struggle against the Soviet Union, Engle became, by the 1960s, the creative writing cold warrior par excellence. Throughout the 1950s he raised money for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by claiming it fought Communism...[h]is model for the workshop relegated the strident individualism of aspiring writers to the classroom while framing the workshop as a whole as a quiesent entity crucial to a liberal democratic capitalistic America."

Even if you're not a product of BFA/MFA programs, the latter-day inheritors of the Iowa model, some of this might still be familiar to you from the ways in which it has seeped into other creative endeavors as the model par excellence for rigor and 'serious' practice. It's an old joke that BFA/MFA types, creative writing students and budding film scholars and future curators, make up a disproportionate amount of the people in the Scene and a number of folks have had gripes about this. Marcia B's incredible piece on lyric games comes to mind, as does (if I may be allowed this vanity) my response to both that essay + Ava Islam's Errant interviews explicitly considering this dimension of craft. 

You'll forgive my surprise, then, when the excellent blog Roll to Doubt dropped a pair of posts thinking about RPGS as Craft. After reading them, I found that much of the argument presented between the two bore a striking resemblance to recent academic reassessments of literary craft's history, even as other parts clearly draw from Program Era capitalist self-fashioning visions of craft. Taking Weird Writer's project as both jumping-off point and object of analysis, I'll attempt to contextualize writerly craft and provide some thoughts on what that historical angle might tell us about our own hobby. 

why's it called a workshop, anyways?

In his recent(ish) historical-genealogical work Craft Class: The Writing Workshop in American Culture, Christopher Kempf revises our understanding of the creative writing workshop's origins and evolution. Pushing back McGurl's timeline, Kempf locates the workshop's roots in the 19th century American Arts and Crafts movement and its particular "craft ideal" - one that sought to balance the creative worker's personal expression with "fastidious adherence" to rigorous technical standards "like those enforced by preindustrial guilds.It was this Arts and Crafts craft ideal that directly shaped the founding of the first creative writing workshop in 1912: George Pierce Baker's 47 Workshop at Harvard, itself closely connected to the Arts and Crafts movement:

"Like many of Boston's cultural elite at the time-including fellow Harvard professors Charles Eliot Norton and Herbert Langford Warren, then dean of the School of Architecture - Baker had close ties with the American Arts and Crafts movement, in particular its instantiation as the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston (SACB). A who's who of the city's Brahmin class, the SACB was the nation's preeminent craft institution, publisher of the influential national journal Handicraft and sponsor of a range of exhibitions, gallery shows, and handicraft shops in Boston and beyond. As I argue below, Baker's 47 Workshop borrows significantly from American Arts and Crafts ideology...In terms later popularized by Thorstein Veblen, the American Arts and Crafts craft ideal reconciled an instinct for "idle curiosity"—the pursuit of knowledge as a "self-legitimating end of endeavor in itself"—with an "instinct of workmanship" described by Veblen as a "proclivity for taking pains," a discipline which served to temper the worker's expressive impulse."

It should be noted that the Arts and Crafts Movement vision of the workshop actually had v little to do with historical pre-industrial workshop practice, tho I doubt y'all had any illusions about that lmao. The SACB's "Principles of Handicraft" called for the simultaneous development of "individual character in connection with artistic work" and "thorough technical training, and a just appreciation of standards" - a craft ethos that directly shaped the pedagogical approach of Baker's 47 Workshop and one that he imagined to be an "oppositional force" against Harvard's increasingly utilitarian, pre-professional curriculum geared towards churning out a "rising professional-managerial class." The workshop and its grounding in a craft ideal offered "an alternative, nonrationalized discourse and mode of labor" that challenged the university's capitulation to industrial capitalism, hence the term "workshop" - a nod to the manual labor shops of the Gary school system Baker drew upon for his own vision of a pedagogy that cultivates "an anti-expressive ethos" where a playwright's individual impulses were consciously "tempered by the imposition of external constraints, whether formal, material, or spiritual." Rather than a vehicle for pure self-expression, the workshop instituted intensive material critique through audience feedback and the regulation of elements like lighting, set design, and makeup by dedicated work committees explicitly modeled on the Gary school manual labor shops. It is absolutely crucial to note that this took precedence over anything resembling what we'd call workshopping today, revising or critiquing or even the writing process. This is what made Baker's workshop a radical extention of (let's be real, Progressive era liberal [aka eugenics andys] at best) Arts and Crafts program - the point was not to produce a kind of academic pseudowork, but think about the ways that the work itself conditioned and transformed the process of writing.

the spirit of 47

While it would be tempting to read DIY RPGs as a direct reclamation of the "craft ideal" that shaped the origins of the creative writing workshop, such a connection is def more implicit than intentional. There's still something profoundly resonant between the DIY RPG ethos and the foundational craft ideal at the Bakerian workshop's heart, a shared fascination with folk art tradition and the originary sources of play - a fascination that, in the case of the American Arts and Crafts movement, was explicitly mobilized as a challenge to the alienating forces of industrial capitalism. Just as the 47 Workshop at Harvard sought to cultivate an "alternative, nonrationalized discourse and mode of labor" against the university's increasingly utilitarian curriculum, so too do many DIY RPG designers position their work as a resistance against the formulaic products and corporate control of the mainstream game industry.

In both cases - and I separated this for importance - the impulse is eventually absorbed by capital (or starts there lmao.) Somewhere inside a response to a Leigh Claire La Berge article up on her blog, Marcia says "it's telling that craft-artisans and boutique markets are often the basis of this ideal world, of specialized individuals fully actualizing themselves in their self-employed labor, and exchanging their fruits with other individuals" and she's right. We're gonna have to handle these types like Glissant said we would all those years ago

Even so! This interest in a craft ethos, folk art, and collective, community-driven creative expression reflects a broader trend within the larger history of hobbydom and amateur cultural production; the Arts and Crafts movement itself, after all, is a common touchstone between emergent amateur press and the burgeoning culture of hobbyist clubs and societies. It is likely that this shared genealogy - one that links the DIY RPG scene to earlier traditions of craft-based, grassroots cultural production - accounts for much of the resonance between contemporary microgame designers and the "craft ideal" that Kempf so compellingly excavates. While the connections may not be direct or intentional, they nevertheless point to a deeper well of anti-capitalist, anti-institutional sentiment that has long animated the world of amateur, artisanal cultural labor. Even in the relationship to play - friend of the blog and microblog king Sandro made an insightful point about expression and craft (noting that "rules writing still feels playful, but there's just so much 'how do I make this explanation fool proof' and 'do I need to reiterate this information and where' vs actually getting to the fun stuff of 'Here's a cool ability' or 'here's this fun procedure'") in response to Weird Writer's post that has this almost Derridian edge to it when you read it backwards. The line between play and freeplay is thin even when it's real, lmao. Ultimately, what DIY RPGs share with the origins of the creative writing workshop is not so much a direct lineage, but rather a kindred spirit - a desire to wrest creative agency from the forces of bureaucratic control and corporate rationalization. And in doing so, it taps into a rich vein of historical precedent, one that stretches back to the craft-based challenges to industrial capitalism mounted by legions of amateur makers, tinkerers, and small-scale producers.

Which brings us to the co-opting and redeployment of craft itself....

worker-writer (based) vs writer-worker (cringe)

Far from a passive reflection of economic forces, the Bakerian workshop actively "refracted, reproduced, and sometimes resisted" the rise of new industrial-corporate and informational-corporate capitalist regimes. It is this ability of the workshop to act as "a transitional space between craft and industry, past and future" that most interests Kempf, since the postwar period witnessed a crucial transformation where the craft rhetoric initially deployed to conceptualize the writing workshop as an alternative discourse was increasingly coopted and depoliticized. The explosion of graduate creative writing programs in the latter 20th century, a process explained as the "almost total capture of literature by capital through the university" by McGurl, helped to consolidate the authority of elite educational institutions over literary culture. The craft rhetoric forged by figures like Baker came to be strategically redeployed to "transcode professional-managerial soft skills—linguistic facility, social and emotional discernment, symbolic fluency—in the language of manual labor." What had begun as a way to imagine the literary arts as akin to skilled material labor instead became "a deliberately cultivated strategy in the university's promotion of its own knowledge work." 

The truly interesting thing is that this began with a split in American leftist writing - the descendant of Arts and Crafts thinking. The literary debates of the 1930s were marked by a profound schism within the American Left, one that played out in the competing conceptions of the writer's craft championed by leading figures John Dos Passos and Mike Gold. At the heart of this divide lay divergent understandings of the relationship between technical proficiency, political commitment, and the expression of working-class experience. On one side stood Dos Passos, who "articulated a vision of the writer as a dispassionate 'technician' devoted to the rigorous cultivation of aesthetic standards." Invoking the craft rhetoric of the early 20th century American Arts and Crafts movement, Dos Passos argued that "the aims of the technician, insofar as he is a technician and not a timeserver, [are] the development of his material and of the technical possibilities of his work." This emphasis on technical virtuosity over political engagement represented a significant departure from the prevailing ethos of the literary Left. Where Dos Passos's 'technician' embodied a state of "selfless relaxation" devoted to the realization of formal ideals (familiar?), the opposing faction, organized around Mike Gold's New Masses, championed a more explicitly insurgent, class-conscious vision of the writer as a proletarian expressing himself in "jets of exasperated feeling.For Gold and his cohort, as Kempf explains, "the ideal writer was a 'wild youth of about twenty-two, the son of working-class parents, who himself works in the lumber camps, coal mines, steel mills, harvest fields and mountain camps of America' - a figure whose authenticity was defined not by refined craftsmanship, but by the...intensity of his class-based expression."

This division between Dos Passos's technician and Gold's proletarian "reflected a broader tension that had long been simmering within the American Left." Similar debates had played out within the American Arts and Crafts movement itself, "pitting those who prioritized aesthetic standards and the 'prestige which the technological expert enjoys' against those who insisted on the primacy of 'native or vernacular expression' grounded in the lived realities of the working class." - the professionalizing trend and the vernacularizing trend. Where Dos Passos sought to "disentangle the writer from overt political commitments," Gold and his cohort viewed such an aspiration as a betrayal of the worker's cause. For them, the writer's craft was inextricably bound up with the material project of fomenting revolutionary class consciousness. Underlying this debate, as Kempf suggests, were "competing understandings of the writer's social role and the very purpose of literary production." Dos Passos's "technician" embodied a vision of the writer as a "dispassionate arbiter of aesthetic standards, aloof from the messy realities of political struggle." Gold's proletarian," by contrast, saw the writer's craft as a vital tool in the service of a broader emancipatory project, one that sought to uplift the voices and experiences of the working class. Where the earlier craft ethos inherited and radicalized by Baker had sought to balance individual expression with technical rigor, the literary Left of the 1930s found itself irreconcilably split, with one side championing a depoliticized vision of the writer as a master craftsman, and the other demanding a more explicitly revolutionary, class-inflected conception of literary labor. 

Far from a merely aesthetic concern, the question of how best to conceive of the writer's craft was bound up with profoundly divergent visions of social transformation, the role of the intellectual, and the relationship between art and politics. Meridel Le Sueur is a sterling example of the proleterian camp in the wars over craft. Alongside her activism in the labor movement, Le Sueur taught creative writing at the WPA-backed Minnesota Labor School, where she framed the written word as a "tool" to be wielded by workers themselves. This necessitated a clear rejection of the emerging scholastic Marxist notion of a writer's work:

"Le Sueur’s workshops extended Gold’s critique of what Le Sueur herself, at the American Writers’ Congress, called Dos Passos’s 'intellectual, inhuman, non-human' brand of Marxism; what mattered for Le Sueur was less virtuosic craftsmanship than writing which came 'straight from the [worker’s] experience . . . for other workers to understand'"

For Le Sueur, the purpose of literary production was not the wedding of aesthetic standards to an emerging vision of creative labor, but the cultivation of a proletarian public sphere - a "vast university of the common people" where the experiences and aspirations of the working class could find dynamic, unapologetic expression. This vision stood in direct opposition to the winds blowing through the American literary establishment as the Program Era took shape. As universities cemented their control over the production and dissemination of literature, writers like Le Sueur - whose work actively challenged the exclusionary nature of these elite institutions (something something The Undercommons) and their fake-work craft of writerly discipline - were effectively sidelined. While Le Sueur was def a vital figure in working-class education for the brief beautiful moment when it actually existed in this country, the goals espoused by Dos Passos and writers in his shadow would come to dovetail with the anti-proletarian and professionalizing trends within university creative writing programs - a phenomenon that was astutely noted (though ultimately misread... common Partisan Review Krew behavior) by Mr. Trilling in a review of the U.S.A. trilogy. The long-term effect is that writers like Le Sueur, despite their importance to millions of working-class readers, and their schools of practice have been functionally forgotten - overshadowed by the depoliticized vision of the writer as a master craftsman that ultimately took hold in the academy. And this, ofc, is the ultimate end of the Revised Craft:

"While it is the discipline's encouragement of self-expression that separates creative writing from its departmental neighbors, composition and literature, it is the invocation of manual labor that frames poetry as equal in rigor to the classification of rhetorical topoi or the materialist exegesis of contributes to a discourse of professionalism which continuously reinforces the authority of the university-craft workshops do not so much produce poets as they produce professionals...In an era of escalated credentialing and contracting arts economies, craft constitutes one line of force in what Pierre Bourdieu has called a struggle 'to impose the dominant definition of the writer'...a professional system in which a worker's value consists less in what he 'can make, move, or dig' than in 'what the worker knows and the sorts of information over which he or she has command'...Whereas craft pedagogies begin, for someone like George Pierce Baker, as a way of disrupting the cultural and material reproduction of an industrial-corporate elite, they function in the postwar period to reinscribe the same utilitarian values that Baker opposed the creative writing workshop transforms at midnight into a licensing agency."

Now we come back to the start of our journey. The very term 'workshop,' once radical and meaningfully concerned with work, becomes a means by which the university and all the discourses captured in its circuit could "quarantine questions of labor and value in literary production, distracting us from how terribly intertwined our literary endeavor remains with regimes of capital accumulation and social administration." 

a brief cautionary note

Let me begin by saying that I am in no way trying to impugn Weird Writer's credentials as a diagnostician and known enemy of the Failed Novelist Syndrome (a slick name for an effect we discussed up in the second section - one that he coined!) It's precisely because these articles are such insightful readings/presentations of the broader trend in DIY RPGs that they serve as helpful guides to understanding the weirdness we're left with when we take the Program account of the writer's work (and, implicitly, its own etiological myths) to be fact.

This comes out most clearly in WW's Adventure Writing as Craft Practice. There is a tension here between the way we might understand craft as an inheritance of the tabletop "folk tradition" and his opening example of the writerly craft. The emphasis on daily discipline and word quotas is a direct inheritance of the self-cultivation practice of the Program Era, a practice that shifted an attentiveness to the way time under capitalism produced a general discipling of labor (perhaps best understood by Robert Duncan, who taught his students to keep an eye fixed on work at the Black Mountain College) towards an Iowa-style discipline of writing itself  that ultimately produces a specific 'writing habitus.' Here is the key turn - nothing is wrong in and of itself with telling someone to write every day, that you get better at writing the more you try. I believe that! Le Seuer said as much in her own little pamphlet intended for proletarian writing instruction; even the concept of revision has alternate lineages freed from the Hemingway grindstone - Coleridge-to-Barth. Craft in this BFA/MFA form, however, demands not just regular practice but discipline: the notion of the writer as professional ("the professional mindset of writing and writing and writing" to borrow a term from WW's elaborations on the topic, which he has kindly allowed me to use) constantly optimizing their productivity and technical proficiency aligns with the Dos Passos school of technicality in writing, one that found its ultimate home in Cold War-era efforts to shape a particular class of writer-subject aimed against the open relationality between the process of writing and capitalism's impositions on the body that Le Sueur (and proletarian literature more broadly) investigated. When discussing what did and didn't work about workshops he'd participated in prior, WW says that:

This is more an issue with the workshop's success (or lack thereof) at implementing the professionalizing strictures of the post-Iowa program than an issue with the nature of these practices of instruction. Which, ofc, is why they appear as a positive example in the post itself. The workshop casts a similar shadow over the blog's prescriptions around games; while WW says that "constant adventure writing forces the referee, much like constant fictional writing, to destroy any muse-like model of creative inspiration in favor of inspiration as duty, returning to childlike imagination where everything can be a starting point," Duncan or Le Sueur might respond that inspiration as duty - as radical injunction perhaps - works at cross-purposes to writing as a practice of disciplining, with writing as something almost like a (controlled) epiphenomenon instead of the Thing Itself. I don't even think WW would disagree - considering what I know of his politics - but it's obscured and undermined by the institutionalizing desire of best practices, one that games seems to have inherited trickle-down fashion through a crisis of cultural capital that makes itself known in the proliferation of guidebooks about how to Run Games Like an Expert or Write Compelling Dungeons or w/e. A process, one might note, that seems rather similar to the movement of craft in Kempf's (and McGurl's, and Bennett's) account as it was "quite literally incorporated into higher education...not simply commodified, but tactically redeployed in the service of and as rhetorical cover for hegemonic cultural and economic practices.

None of this is to say that we shouldn't read widely and deeply, or care about writing, or love the well-wrought (again the language of work!) sentence. CosmicOrrey, another friend of the blog who runs a deeply underrated one herself, said in the screened convo that "[she doesn't] care that what [she] wrote is good," just "how it can be better" - the trick is that this sentiment need not be tied to the sub-institutionalization contained within the claim that "knowledge and practices that must be learned through tools," a relationship to writing identity that the workshop's history tells us was primarily defined by opposition toward proletarian lit. We wrote before the Program Era and will continue to write (we hope) after it. Ava Islam conjured up that horizon so so beautifully when I asked her for her thoughts on craft and the workshop:

"I'm interested in turning from the notion of practice (or praxis) to one of performance. One thing I realised in my workshop experience is that, as much or even moreso than being a practice of writerly craft, it was designed as a practice (in the sense of rehearsal) for the performance of *being* a writer, in a particular sense: of developing a specific habitus, a vernacular, of learning who to email and which readings to attend and which journals, contests, and grants to submit to. Maybe in reorienting ourselves from practice (something carried out upon ourselves) into performance (something carried out in the world or upon others), we can conceive of a different "writerly" ethos; for me, that is being in community and sharing in the sensation of the world, a bonded acknowledgement of constant co-creation."

We have exits. The poet Margaret Walker - self-described workers' mystic, minister's daughter, fierce Black defender of the South's revolutionary potential - was one of the first major writers produced by the Iowa program. Though she rejected the disciplined craft of 'writerly work' following her famous break with her alma mater, presenting "masterful reassessment of the New Humanist craft ideal, in particular its tendency to idealize discipline as a mode of spiritual and social uplift" in her collection For My People that "[gestured] to the elitist assumptions undergirding New Humanist thought, the uneasy relation between creative writing craft and the literary expression of racial experience... craft discourses [that] rely in part on the mediation of individual expression - always shaped by, channeled through, and articulated via disciplinary techniques," she still wrote and read with an eye towards personal development outside the confines of craft's empire. Virginia Woolf, writing well before the shift in the nature of craft contained in Dos Passos or the Iowa workshop, presciently diagnosed and struggled with many of the issues that would later come to define the writing of the Program Era. The exit I'll end with comes from Canadian culture hero Anne Carson, who dispenses with the whole business of the workshop / writing discipline in a recent Paris Review interview that also includes discussions of suspended thought and the time she picked up a hitchhiking psychopomp:


  1. This was a great review on a topic I know very little about, super interesting, thanks!


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