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We struggling literary writers have a fantasy about the best writing workshops: groups of eccentric geniuses gathering as equals under clouds of cigarette smoke for sessions of sharp, witty repartee. The best workshops enfold you in a glow. You leave knowing where to take a piece of writing, often with a few new friends earned in the quickly forged intimacy of the discussion.
Even if the class doesn’t live up to that ideal, writing workshops are intense: as a recent instructor of mine said, they’re where writers sacrifice our drafts at a communal altar so the group can improve.
But workshops, which consist of a rotating writer listening silently to peers critique her work can also go sour. For students of color, the assumed safety and trust cuts the other ways, as Junot Diaz writes in his viral piece “MFA vs. POC.” Diaz takes his MFA workshop to task for being, frankly, “too white.”
“In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing -- at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area -- at all,” he writes. “Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.”
In an ideal workshop, there’s supposed to be a purity of focus on “craft.” But of course when you’re in a racial, sexual or cultural minority, “purity” can very quickly equal a straight white male perspective. And the hallowed candor and bluntness in the room can feel totally erasing to a student in the minority, particularly when the workshop’s gag rule means he or she isn’t allowed to respond.
Diaz writes of the questions he faced: “Why is there even Spanish in this story?” Or his classmates complained: “ I don’t want to write about race, I want to write about real literature.”
I have been noticing this behavior pattern in MFA and local workshops for years; as Diaz notes, it’s insidious. I came out of one MFA workshop frustrated that readers were confused by a reference to “shiva” in my story. They didn’t know whether it was the Jewish mourning custom or the Hindu deity, and this threw them for a loop (soon I started putting more Yiddish words in my stories just to mess with this too-lazy-for-Google contingent).
Worse, I’ve been in workshops where male professors rhapsodized about male-penned work and were totally perplexed by stories with feminist undertones (“No one talks about feminism,” the leader said, when two teenage girls in a story debated the term). Similarly, a professor once scoffed at my choice to make a character gay, saying it was a mere shortcut -- which may have been true on a “ craft” level -- but shouldn’t I have been encouraged to explore, with sensitivity, characters unlike me?
Then I started talking to other students who weren’t white, straight, American and Christian, and found this “workshop problem” to be almost universal, regardless of school. Subtle and unsubtle discouragement underlies the building block unit of American writing life. I’ve come to believe that along with recruiting diverse faculty (duh), seeking out diverse students (duh,) and adding more global, feminist and multicultural literature to syllabi, we have to change the workshop.
And this applies whether it’s your local writer teaching at the library or the most hallowed writing program in the country. A writing workshop should always begin with this addition to the rules: “If you approach a word, a phrase, an idea or a cultural reference that is unfamiliar to you, it’s your job as a reader to figure it out from context or look it up.”
Setting the stage this way shifts the dynamic immediately. The reader’s unschooled ignorance becomes the burden, not the writer's “exotic” references. We’re supposed to leave a workshop as better readers, in addition to being better writers, after all. Surely that includes reading about topics that stretch beyond our lived experience. Besides, making people tackle privilege-challenging phrases and ideas before class eliminates the waste of time that comes, for instance, when members of a workshop debate the placement of a Spanish phrase ad nauseam while the writer is sitting there effectively gagged.
I’d go even further and say that workshop leaders should caution participants to stop trying to privilege one kind of narrative over another (check your literary privilege, if you will). Imagine beginning class this way: “Each of us is here to tell the story we need to tell -- and we are here to help each other tell it better, not to question any story’s legitimacy.” The white male writers who want to be able to question everything will be peeved, of course, but the rest of us will be safer.
Of course, this change may mean that workshop leaders and participants have to let go of self-justifying preconceptions about what constitutes “real literature” and a “pure” focus on craft. But letting go, in this instance, is a good thing. The literary world needs change badly.
At a panel I once attended on this topic, the poet Kwame Dawes urged workshop leaders to emphasize creativity in getting past biases. When students disengage from a story or poem with references that are new to them, he noted, that’s a failure of imagination. And aren’t writers supposed to be good at imagining? Shouldn’t we all be?