Fake Authenticity Is Toxic, and So Are Iowa-Style Writing Workshops


“Authenticity Games” by Laura M. Martin

I discovered Connection Games in 2021, after moving out of the townhome I shared with a man I’d met in my MFA program. I left the relationship and the confines of the small conservative town I worked in (though I kept the job, academic work is hard to come by) and moved to a house in a bigger city an hour north. It was a relief to be alone, to stretch big in the bed and eat dessert every night and sleep whenever I was tired. I was so happy to be single, to be free, to be unruly and strange.

I was content to live alone. I stopped treading quietly, threw out most of my dresses, and bought an electric piano so I could accompany myself as I sang “Miss Ohio.” But I also craved community, people who could accept the unbridled version of me that was beginning to emerge. My ex had shamed me when I challenged people or was competitive, and in our years together I’d learned to play at docility. I wanted a chance to connect from a place of integrity, swapping my attempt at high femininity for a more authentic nonbinary balance of strength and softness. I threw myself into community events: exercise classes, discussion groups, and hikes held by an LGBTQ organization. I’d identified as bisexual for most of my life, but after decades of dating men, I felt disconnected from my queerness. There was a gay women’s Meetup group that I longed to attend, but was dissuaded by the screening question—Are you a lesbian? Yes or No.

At most of the groups I went to, though I was treated kindly, I felt the familiar sting of not quite fitting in. At dance class, I squirmed as the instructor talked about the divine feminine. At my discussion group, I was always bringing up systemic factors that no one else wanted to address. One night, as the conversation came to a close, one of the group members suggested I might enjoy another group he attended: Connection Games—a local chapter of a national movement, Authentic Relating, AR for short. He described it as focused on genuine expression and relationship building. I said I’d check it out.

I’d recently accepted that the loneliness I felt wasn’t fixable with gratitude or yoga. Although it peaked during the pandemic, I’d been lonely in one way or another since childhood. With my ex, it stemmed from the withholding of affection, under the promise that it would be given when I was softer, gentler, more feminine. In childhood, it arose when I learned that my parents’ love hinged on my willingness to conceal the parts of myself that made them uncomfortable. Throughout my life, I tried to fit the ideals of others, but only succeed in making myself miserable. The idea of a group designed for forming deep connections based on our genuine selves was very appealing.

Later that evening, I began my research on the Connection Games’ private Facebook page, which described its members as “open-minded connection junkies.” I was uneasy about the description of a game that “pushes people’s comfort zones to their limits,” but I liked how the structured activities buffered social awkwardness. I decided it was worth a try. I convinced Sarah, a friend I met through hiking group, to go with me. Sarah performed the novel magic of helping me feel more like myself. I was braver in their presence.

Connection Games met every other Sunday on the top floor of a church. Sarah and I arrived on a chilly night in late fall. We were let in through a heavy metal side door and climbed three flights of stairs to a largish room with fake leather couches, red carpet, and an oversized floor lamp. There were about fifteen of us that first night, mostly White, mostly straight, from mid-twenties to mid-forties. The facilitator—I’ll call him John—read a list of rules off a whiteboard where they were written in nearly invisible pink marker. They included things like “practice self-leadership,” which John explained meant taking responsibility for expressing your boundaries, and “be open to not knowing,” which he described as maintaining curiosity even if you think you know the person you’re talking to well. There were no instructions for what to do if you felt uncomfortable—or how to respond to someone else’s discomfort.

Sarah and I were placed in different groups—to urge us toward forming new connections, John said. Every time we attended together, we were separated. This policy was applied to other newcomers I saw in the following weeks, but no one addressed how it created an imbalance with long-time attendees who made up most of the group and always had the comfort of familiar faces around them.

The first game was like a team version of charades. Two strangers and I used our bodies to make a bee, then the Eiffel Tower—fun but a little awkward. It was a relief when the facilitator broke us into two large groups for the next game, T-Group, which was essentially a forty-minute conversation with three unusual restrictions. The first is a ban on context, or what AR calls “telling stories.” You can say “I’m tired” but not “I’m tired because I didn’t sleep well last night.” This is supposed to have something to do with mindfulness. The second (related) rule is to stay in the moment and not to talk about anything “outside the room,” so no talking about the weather or wondering what your crush is up to. The third rule is not to “attach meaning” to observation. If you see someone folding their arms over their chest, instead of assuming discomfort or defensiveness, you are supposed to say something like “I see you folding your arms over your chest and I’m telling myself that it means you’re feeling defensive. Is that true?” This breaking apart of observation and interpretation, essentially trying to undo your own intuition about others’ behavior, is a method taken from the popular self-help book, Nonviolent Communication. The game assumes honesty from others; it requires trusting what they say over your own impressions.

There were no instructions for what to do if you felt uncomfortable—or how to respond to someone else’s discomfort.

In my first T-group, we made observations about each other’s body language and facial expressions. A few of the regulars said they felt drawn to each other. I didn’t feel particularly connected to anyone, but I was sure that was my fault, that the gap between my expectations and my experience was due to my own limitations. A young gay man I knew casually from another group started crying but was forbidden by the rules from explaining why. The crying made me uncomfortable, deeply aware of how far I was from being able to engage in such a public emotional release.

At the following meeting two weeks later, we played a game called Fly on the Wall where we took turns sitting in a corner with our back to the room while the rest of the group talked about us, literally behind our back. When it was my turn, people said I was kind and smart. One person said they liked my sense of humor, but they also said I didn’t seem comfortable with myself, that I seemed to be holding back. I was mortified that my inhibition was so obvious.

As a recovering people pleaser, withdrawing was the only way I knew to separate my own thoughts and feelings from those of other people. Growing up, my family always talked about identity as a collective. We were introverted. We didn’t play sports. We were Christians. When my parents found in my journal an admission of attraction to my female best friend, I knew the only way to save myself was to minimize and deny those feelings. My lack of religious belief was so taboo I only articulated it as a prayer, dear god, help me believe in you. I hid myself away so deeply, I began to lose myself. I’d go shopping with my mom and sister and bring home things that aligned with their tastes, not realizing until days later that I didn’t like them myself.

During my MFA, I had a therapist who recommended rediscovering my identity through a series of experiments, spending a week on extreme femininity, a week on embracing childishness, etc. During the feminine week, everyone praised my lace-edge sweater and pink lip gloss. But when I got to the child week—spending my time coloring and wearing a sparkly plastic ring—people just laughed. The experiment highlighted something I’d been experiencing for years: that what felt best to me had little overlap with what made sense to other people. Unfortunately, that therapist moved away before we got very far into experimentation. I never tried a masculine week or a gay week. Those parts of myself were so deeply buried, I’m not sure she was even aware of them.

This general insecurity was heightened and magnified at Connection Games; holding back felt like cheating. It often took time for me to process my feelings. If I went on a date, I couldn’t tell if I’d enjoyed myself until I was looking back at the evening from the safety of my couch. I needed that space, and I was ashamed of needing it, certain it meant I was emotionally stunted or broken. When Sarah and I discussed our experiences after each event, we often agreed that we’d felt uneasy. We both saw this as a sign that we needed to keep going, to learn to be more open.

AR events have a pseudo-therapeutic aura, the combination of affirmation and discomfort reminiscent of growth work. As my friend Alexandra observed, “it’s people performing therapy on each other without a therapist”—as in, without training or ethics. The leaders of the AR movement say its methods arise from psychological techniques. T-Group, for example, was developed as a training tool for clinical psychologists. Even in that context, studies have shown it’s a potentially harmful format that requires great care.

I hid myself away so deeply, I began to lose myself.

Despite the growing popularity of the AR movement (it’s hard to say how big it is because there are so many sub-groups, but there are local chapters in cities from DC to LA, six manuals for sale on Amazon, and a TED Talk), it has avoided scrutiny, probably because it seems innocuous. The Authentic Relating movement came out of San Francisco in the 1990s. While that phrase that might evoke a collective of young subversives, it’s actually just a euphemism for Silicon Valley Tech bros, a group not typically associated with social savvy. Two of the founders, Brian Bayer and Decker Cunov, also created The Authentic Man Program in 2010. Authentic Man uses games similar to those of AR to seduce women, though in response to a growing public discourse around sexual harassment, they’ve started to frame their methods as ways to “connect” rather than as seduction strategies.

This shift toward “connection” has swept through the pickup artist industry at large. As Jane Ward described in her book The Tragedy of Heterosexuality: [pickup artists] stopped offering seduction bootcamps and started offering New Age wellness seminars…aimed at finding ‘true happiness and authenticity.’” A 2015 Authentic Man promotional video shows Bayer recommending the “game” of describing a sexual fantasy in explicit detail on a first date. He calls this a way to show vulnerability. The same video recommends “playing with the moment” which involves calling out a woman’s shyness or awkwardness instead of trying to put her at ease, which he calls “being really present.” AR has the same game, rebranded as “The Noticing Game.” Whether framed as tools for generating physical attraction or building close friendships, the games are presented as cure-alls for awkwardness, disconnection, and incompatibility. However they’re presented, these are manipulations tactics, not strategies for building safety and security.

Unnerving people by oversharing and demanding reciprocal vulnerability, like in Bayer’s videos, was a tactic I experienced repeatedly at Connection Games. People were frequently interrogated about their sex lives and who in the group they found most attractive. These things feel transparently problematic when I’m watching them play out in Authentic Man promotional materials, but in the cozy room at the top of a church, I kept doubting my sense that something was amiss.

It wasn’t until the arrival of a woman I’ll call Alex that I began to pay more attention to my discomfort. She appeared one week, new to me but obviously not to the group from the way she was greeted by John. She had an obvious sort of beauty, even in her oversized t-shirt with no makeup, like an off-duty model trying to look ordinary.  

We were assigned to the same group for hot seat, a game where everyone takes turns being interrogated. Alex asked me what kind of porn I watch. I’d been asked similarly invasive questions at the group before, but her tone—challenging, aggressive—heightened my discomfort considerably. When I said I didn’t watch it, that I preferred listening to or reading erotic stories, she kept pushing. About what? Group sex? Anal? BDSM? Thankfully my time ran out. I was on the edge of panic. I told myself I was too sensitive, probably feeling insecure because she was so pretty. But at the end of the night, as everyone took turns sharing what they’d gotten out of the experience, I started thinking about the writing workshops in my MFA program.

Like Connection Games, workshopping was supposed to help people grow but tended to shut them down instead. Feedback ranged from personal attacks (“I think the character is you”) to weirdly specific style critiques (“the word ‘mom’ feels childish, what about ‘mother’?”). Like the games, it had rules that prevented you from explaining context or intentions. You’d submit a piece of writing, and the rest of the workshop would discuss it while you sat quietly and took notes.

It’s a tantalizing idea that we can somehow be free of our contexts.

This method was developed in the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first formal creative writing program in America. Paul Engle, who directed the program from 1941–1965 (the years it achieved national acclaim), taught classes in old army barracks and encouraged his students to criticize each other harshly. He kept a whip beside his typewriter. Other Iowa professors got into fist fights with their students, sexually assaulted them, screamed profanity at them, and asked female students to describe explicit details of their sex lives. Despite all of this, the program and its methods are lauded and reproduced to this day, held up as the standard to aspire to.

The “Iowa Method” was followed in every graduate workshop I attended. Defending your writing, responding to criticism, or speaking about your choices were all forbidden. The work, we were told, should stand alone. Sitting in workshop taking notes, I was overwhelmed with the volume of criticism. A story I’d felt proud of an hour before suddenly revealed its hopelessly pocked face. As the workshop progressed, suggestions veered further from the original intent of the piece. In response to my story about an estranged father and daughter trying to reconnect after she gets out of rehab, my professor said that in order to save it, I’d need to add a traveling circus. In workshop, I was misunderstood and invalidated, left feeling like either people were uninterested in what I had to say or that I was hopelessly bad at expressing myself.

In both writing workshops and Authentic Relating, participants are expected to share deeply personal information with people they don’t know and may not even like or be comfortable with. Both spaces require vulnerability without providing the room to acknowledge discomfort or push back against assumptions. At the games, even the rules that appeared to request sensitivity were presented in a way that contradicted their surface message. While facilitating the games, John always clarified that “consider group health” could mean thinking about what would be good for others, then deciding to do something upsetting anyway.

The next time Alex came to Connection Games, she arrived late. At the start of each meeting, we were asked to close our eyes and raise our hands if we were comfortable with everyone taking their masks off. The invitation clarified that vaccination was expected, and everyone always voted yes. But between this meeting and the previous one, I’d learned that Alex posted anti-vax content on social media. By the time she arrived, everyone had already removed their masks. I hoped John would ask her to put one on or repeat the voting procedure, but he didn’t. Unwilling to risk confrontation, I decided to stay as far away as possible. We were sorted into different T-Groups, and I breathed a little easier. I didn’t see her again until the final activity, where we selected partners and took turns “asking them for things.” I picked Amy, a young, easygoing minister, and we walked around chatting, then rejoined the group for the night’s final “check in.” The guy Alex was paired with raised his hand to share. He said Alex told him what she wanted to do, what she would have found hilarious, was to tell him to go up to another group member and slap them in the face.

“You think violence is funny?” I asked her. Alex told me I didn’t understand. She talked about BDSM and power exchange, said she’d been naked with people in that room, done drugs in that room, used the N-word in that room.

I was shocked and upset by what Alex was saying, and told her so. I expected others to join in, sharing my horror at her desire for violence and the revelation that she and the other regulars, none of whom who were Black, were tossing around racial slurs. But no one else spoke. Instead, Alex told me I didn’t understand BDSM dynamics—trying to justify her abuse as some form of consensual power exchange. She said the group used to be “edgier,” that they’d all been comfortable with each other, so comfortable they’d gotten bored, which struck me as contradictory to the group’s “Rule 0: be open to not knowing.”  If there’s always more to learn about people, you shouldn’t need drugs or nudity to keep things interesting.

I pushed back with more questions, but John abruptly ended the meeting. He and some of the others gathered around Alex to comfort her. Later, the guy who’d been her partner called to tell me I’d upset her. He said John wanted to talk to me. Fine, I told him, but John never called.

I’d been uncomfortable with Alex from the moment I’d met her, but instead of listening to my discomfort, I’d dismissed it. Intuition doesn’t always work, but it’s most effective in exactly the type of situation in which AR forbids its use: first impressions, determining the threat others present to you. It’s a tantalizing idea that we can somehow be free of our contexts. But trying to separate ourselves from our history is the same impulse that allows us to claim blindness to race or immunity to sexism. To connect with authenticity, and to grow as people, we must reveal the good with the bad, the past with the present, and give others the compassion and support they need to do the same.

Sarah left the group after that night. She was bothered by the incongruence between the group’s message of connection and safety and her experiences there. Maybe if I didn’t see myself as difficult, if I had been taught to trust myself instead of deny my instincts, I would have done the same. But I still didn’t see the system as a problem. I blamed Alex alone. Instead of quitting altogether, I sought out the alternate meetings held on off-weeks at one of the member’s houses, which I was assured Alex didn’t attend. I’d heard these meetings described as “less formal.” I imagined snacks and casual conversation mixed with a few games.

When I arrived, the host greeted me coolly and didn’t offer any refreshments. Her house was strangely disassembled: patches of wall were missing, wires dripped from a hole in the ceiling. A small dog greeted me, but I was warned not to touch him or the cat that watched me from the hall.

The games took place in the living room and progressed as usual with one exception: no one bothered to recite the rules. The introductory game went normally enough, but when T-group began, I noticed a few of the other attendees staring at me. First was a guy I’d shared a moment of chemistry with at a previous meeting. We’d talked about it, and I’d admitted an attraction but made it clear I wasn’t interested in dating cis men. He said we could just be friends, but now he gazed at me with a smile that made me uncomfortable. I smiled back, holding his gaze long enough that I hoped I wouldn’t seem rude or scared. When I looked away, I found the eyes of a man in a tight N95 mask trained on me. In an accusatory tone, Mask Guy said, “I feel like we’re not close.”

I wish I’d agreed, said something like, “That’s true. Why do you sound angry about it?” Instead, panicked, I tried to reason with him: “That’s probably because we’ve never hung out one-on-one.” He asked if I’d like to have coffee sometime, and though the idea sounded unappealing, I told him sure to end the conversation.

The final game of the night was Fly on the Wall, the one where we sat facing a corner while people talked about us, a game I found both disingenuous and at odds with connection. It was the game most like a writing workshop in which the author was told to be silent. At its best, people shared deeply felt compliments that might typically be deflected or advice the listener might find hard to take in. But much like workshop, it typically devolved into petty criticism, attacking someone who is restrained from fighting back.

As the game began, I slouched into an overstuffed chair facing a beige wall. One of the men behind me said he liked my haircut. I’d recently chopped it into an androgynous chin-length crop, a tentative step into more authentic gender expression. I appreciated the validation, even if it came from someone who didn’t necessarily understand what that change meant to me. Then the voice of Mask Guy asked the man if he was attracted to me. Silence. Then Mask Guy asked, “Is anyone here not attracted to Laura?” The question and silence that followed crushed me, the momentary validation reduced to objectification, my queerness erased as I was held up as an object for men to approve or disapprove of—an aim underscored by Mask Guy’s triumphant response: “See!?” Like a catcall on a dark street, this was no compliment. It was intimidation disguised as admiration with a dash of mockery. In that moment, all the years that had passed since I lived in my parent’s house fell away. This man told me, as my parents and religion had, that men only wanted one thing from me, that I had no right to define myself as anything other than a woman, and that I would always be defined by my perceived desirability.

But even as I cowered under that familiar shame, I saw its flimsiness. This attack was a response to the ways I didn’t fit that narrative. Even in my best female drag, hints of my genderqueer-self poked through, enticing and arousing the things queerness often does: desire, anger, dismissal, violence. Mask Guy’s words were an attempt to put me back in the gender box he thought I belonged in. As soon as the game ended, I walked out, ignoring John’s request that I stay for the debrief.

As I drove home from my final Connection Games, I felt a weird exhilaration not unlike the feeling of leaving my ex, a thrill of escape tinged with the sorrow of rejection. But even as I trembled with anger, I struggled to understand why no one else had seemed bothered by what happened. I called Sarah to get a second opinion. They responded decisively: “Laura, that’s fucked up.”

AR encourages people to act without curiosity about their own motivations. “Authenticity” has become code for ignoring the impact of our behavior on the people around us, being unattuned to their responses. Others will be freer, the guidelines state, if they don’t have to worry about your “unspoken needs.”  But a lack of concern about the feelings of other people isn’t authenticity, it’s immaturity. What the group promises is enticing: participants will learn to be more assertive, and doing so will allow them to connect deeply. What it delivers is an unsatisfying shadow of these promises. Instead of assertiveness, AR teaches participants to hide their discomfort. Instead of connection, it offers the ability to unsettle people with impunity. When a group’s structure allows for abuses of power, silencing its members and ignoring their boundaries, it normalizes that behavior. It makes it seem desirable.

Since leaving AR, I’ve been breaking up with more and more. I stopped attending the other meetup groups, let go of friendships where I felt like pieces of myself were unwelcome. I’m a messy, complicated, nonbinary human, and these days I do my best to surround myself with people who affirm and support me, even if that means keeping my community small. Whatever potential insights I might gain from harsh criticism, they’re not worth the harm done by letting my identity be defined by anyone else.

As someone who’s had plenty of experience with other people’s resistance to what they find uncomfortable, I am terrified of being unwilling to change. I hated writing workshops, but I also believed they were necessary. How could a method used by dozens of universities for over seventy years be wrong? Once, I voiced concern to other members of my cohort. They said they found the criticism valuable, but after graduation, most of them stopped writing entirely.

If we make people feel unsafe, we aren’t seeing their true selves; we are seeing their responses to threat. Forcing personal disclosures and giving unsolicited “feedback” puts us in a state where self-reflection is impossible. Who can work on self-improvement when they’re under attack? Safety is a necessary prerequisite for connection and growth. It must come first.

Authenticity can only exist when we make space for each other to reveal ourselves when and how we are comfortable. This is how I’d gotten close to Sarah. We take turns asking each other to go for walks or meals, sharing our stories bit by bit. I’ve told them only the outlines of my childhood and none of my sexual fantasies, but that isn’t an indication of a lack of intimacy, it’s an indication of safety: they’ve never pushed me to share what didn’t feel comfortable. Allowing room for privacy increases our trust in each other and gives me room for self-discovery.

I’ve let go of AR’s tough-love approach to authenticity and replaced it with my own definition of authentic: to align my actions with my values. I’m leaving behind the rules of workshop too. In the classes I teach, I build on the work of bell hooks and Matthew Salesses by encouraging students to lead their own workshops, to support each other, and to speak up if they’re receiving feedback that’s unwanted or unhelpful. A few always say they wish they’d gotten more criticism, and that’s fair. But I am teaching for those who, like me, were raised to believe we must choose between love and authenticity, those for whom pleasing others becomes a pattern that results in a deep sense of loneliness. I want to help them grow, but more than anything, I want them to keep going, to take risks, to believe in the value of their voices and the power of their stories. Whatever space I’m in, I work toward fostering the kind of authenticity that matters. One in which everyone—my students, my friends, myself—feels safe.

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