As the country erupted in protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery last week, I spent some time on the phone with two of my Black clients.
We talked about our fears and hopes for this country, and we talked about their creative work. I’m sure they were both feeling shell shocked, and I’m sure they were both going through things that they wouldn’t necessarily share with their book coach.
But neither of them seemed to feel helpless in the face of current events, or at a loss for how to contribute to the conversation around Black Lives Matter. Because they’re both writing novels that tackle their experience of racism head on.
I didn’t feel helpless either. Because beyond whatever support I’ve been able to offer the movement through donating and agitating–my main modes of responding to the news these days–I’m contributing in a very real way to these two individuals learning the art of fiction–and, ultimately, to helping them publish their novels.
When I was studying creative writing in undergrad in the nineties, and then later as a grad student in the aughts, there was an unspoken assumption that was nevertheless 100 percent clear to me, as I imagine it was for others as well: the content of a person’s writing, as long as it was not unduly graphic, was not the province of the creative writing workshop. Be it a quiet moment of suburban angst or a trans coming-of-age story, all that mattered was the quality of the execution.
There’s a certain truth in that stance. It’s the truth that people don’t have to be “important” to be important–that all of us have interior lives worthy of attention and compassion–that, to paraphrase Alan Watts, every point of consciousness in the universe not only experiences itself as a the center of the universe, but perhaps, in a metaphysical way, actually is.
But there’s lie in that stance as well. It’s the lie of “color blindness”–that we live in a society where every story has the same opportunity to be told. It’s the lie that style matters more than substance, and that artists have no responsibility whatsoever to engage in the struggle for equity and justice in our culture.
It’s the lie that individuals, and the visions of individuals, are in not intrinsically connected to the groups they’re a part of, and the struggles and concerns of those groups (aka, “identity politics”).
Writers and teachers are sensitive, intelligent people, and in general, they’re aware of this problem. The solution they’ve arrived at in the creative writing classroom, as far as I can tell, has been to diversify the syllabus, to stack the reading list with more Black, Latinx, Indigenous, immigrant, and queer voices.
That’s a great start, but it isn’t enough. Because, as Mariah Stovall, a Black literary assistant at Writers House noted last week, actions speak louder than words.
I speak from personal experience when I say that well-meaning White folks–well-meaning “apolitical” people–well-meaning people who have not examined their own personal, political, and racial biases, and who, moreover, have been taught to view the actual content of stories as the sort of choice more or less on par with the choice of first person vs. third–can and will do harm to any person of color, or anyone else attempting to write socially or politically engaged stories, in a traditional creative writing classroom.
These sorts of people mean no harm. They just have very little understanding of the political and social issues these sorts of writers are trying to tackle in their work, and no ready models for understanding the writer’s intentions for it. And because they lack that understanding, and therefore feel unable to offer constructive feedback, they tend to assume that that problem is with the work–because the author is veering out of her lane by attempting to tell a politically engaged story–rather than with them.
And even when this response is less than overt, it does harm. Many have addressed the sort of homogeneity that MFA programs can produce, but it’s not like workshop leaders are hanging up a list of acceptable story and stylistic choices in their creative writing classrooms; that homogeneity is almost universally the result of people modulating their work to suit what they think others in the workshop want to hear, what they can relate to–or at least, modulating their work in a direction that they sense won’t be shot down, and/or discussed in the most awkward way imaginable for upwards of an hour as they sit there and squirm.
I’m not Black. I’m a mixed race person of color, of Indo-Guyanese and European descent. Generally speaking, I “pass,” especially in White creative writing circles. Which means I have the luxury of not writing politically engaged work, because the world does not respond to the color of my skin in such a way that every interaction I have is politicized.
Many of my editing and coaching clients don’t have that luxury. And they’ve been burned far worse than I have.
I have one Black client, an Ivy League grad, whose work was so political when she was young that no one in her workshop could even find a way to respond to it. And maybe what she wrote at that time in her life really was no more than a screed–but what the hell are we doing in creative writing if we can’t help a passionate young writer turn all that fire into effective and affecting art? (That same client, by the way, is now quite successful with her politically engaged fiction.)
I have another client, Latinx, who came to me after she’d hired an NYC-editor-turned-freelance-editor who had all but admitted she didn’t like any of the characters in this woman’s novel, in part because she didn’t relate to the politics involved (the novel is set during the tumultuous land reforms in Guatemala in the 1950s).
My services are in demand now to the point now that I occasionally have to refer returning clients to other editors–and this client was so incredibly cautious about working with someone else that it touched my heart, and my sense of injustice as well.
That a woman with such a fine, compelling, and moreover important story to tell would have to be so cautious about who she went to for feedback on it. That anyone would pay good money to a publishing professional for their opinion on this work, the product of blood, sweat, and tears, and receive nothing more than the unexamined opinions of a lazy, “apolitical” reader.
I don’t have a single BIPOC or gay writer friend who does not have a story like this, either about an experience in an academic creative writing setting or with a publishing pro they hired. And quite honestly, it infuriates me.
I can only work with so many clients one-on-one, which means I can only support so many people directly in telling the stories that need most urgently to be told right now. But here are a few tips I’d offer for any instructors of creative writing–and for freelance editors and book coaches–committed to equity in the study of creative writing, and to mentoring those from historically marginalized backgrounds in general:
- Don’t treat content as neutral: No one should be shamed for choosing to write about White suburban angst. But those attempting to grapple with the stories that need most urgently to be told right now–those centered in the experiences of BIPOC, immigrants, queer folks, and those fighting for a just and equitable world–should receive recognition and support for going there. These things are not easy to write about, nor are there a ton of ready models for doing so. These writers need extra support.
- Find the resources to support your engaged writers: Maybe your own creative writing education hasn’t given you a lot to go on, in terms of models for politically engaged fiction. There’s no shame in this; we’re all products of this system. But now we are that system–which means it’s our responsibility to change it, by seeking out and educating ourselves on narratives that can act as models for our writers either drawn to writing politically engaged work or those forced to do so by dint of having been born in a body for which every experience is politicized.
- Interrogate power dynamics: We’re often taught that fiction is about conflict (though Ursula Le Guin might contest that, by saying fiction is about change, and conflict simply tends to accompany change). But conflict too is not value neutral, and there’s a big difference between an argument between a male boss and female employee and the same conflict between a male boss and a male employee, just like there’s a big difference in the conflict between a white lady and the brown one who cleans her house and a white lady and the white college student who’s serving as her au pair for the summer. All too often, I see stories where folks who have markedly less power in a situation stand up to those with more as if doing so cost them nothing, as if there were no risk involved; not only is this unrealistic, it supports the lie that these types of confrontations are equally safe, and possess the same stakes, for everyone. If we can’t have meaningful conversations about power dynamics and privilege, we cannot help writers improve their craft.
- Encourage your writers to “punch up”: Humor is a core element of written storytelling, just as it is with verbal storytelling. Our culture is full of humor based on the toxic narratives of all types, including sexism, racism, and ableism: the funny fat guy who’s always eating; the girl geek who just needs a makeover in order to live her best life; the “magic Negro” who’s always there to supply pithy bits of spiritual wisdom to the White protagonist. Don’t shame your students and clients for using these sorts of stereotypes–we all grow up steeped in these tropes–but don’t let them get away with it either. There’s a saying in comedy: “Punch up, not down.” Humor that takes aim at the powerful is better for society than humor that punches down, at those already ridiculed as the “other.” (Bonus: This type of humor tends to actually be funnier as well.)
- Interrogate class: Many times in a workshop setting, I’ve come across a story in which it’s nearly impossible to tell what any of the characters do for a living, where they’re from, or what class they grew up in. This work is almost always that of White middle class writers who don’t see themselves as having a class, just as White folks tend to see themselves as not having a race. Those who grew up poor or lower middle class don’t have that luxury–they’ve been made to understand the differences between how they see the world and how their academic peers do since they were kids, and this understanding strengthens their command of character. Helping White middle class writers understand the biases of their class, both their current class and the one they grew up in, is not only good for society, it tends to help them strengthen their characterization.
- Call it out, and shut it down: Finally, if a moment arises in your classroom when one student is criticizing another student’s work due to their own ignorance or bias, it’s your job as the facilitator to name what’s happening and shut it down before it can snowball. Here I’m talking about instances in which a White student might say, about a BIPOC writer’s work, “I just don’t believe a [insert racial identity] character would act that way.” Instances where an ostensibly apolitical student might say, about a politically engaged story, that it’s not possible to write about such issues without being didactic. Instances where a male student might say, about a female writer’s rape scene, that it seems pretty stereotypical. Contrary to what many creative writing instructors seem to believe, these sorts of critiques cannot serve as openings into meaningful discussions; these are the spark of toxic narratives, and you’re the one with power here, so it’s your job to put them out.
I feel so strongly about all of these things that I’ve begun work on a project aimed at going big with this kind of work, in terms of decolonizing the study of creative writing–so if you’ve had experience with any of this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.