Confronting My Discomfort About Anti-Racism

How A Writer’s Craft Can be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 4

As I’ve tried to lay out in my first three posts of this series, I am very interested in and supportive of the move to create an anti-racist creative writing workshop. That doesn’t mean that the conversation is always comfortable, nor should it be. I think there are many aspects of A Writer’s Craft that are conducive to an anti-racist approach, but I don’t think it or any approach is perfect. Discomfort can be productive, maybe even necessary to dislodge us from our comfort zones in order to move forward. So in this post, I want to examine some of my discomfort.

This is a strategy Felicia Rose Chavez employs in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. If you haven’t read Chapter 1, you may want to skip this post until you have, since it contains a spoiler or two.

I’ll admit that while reading Chapter 1, I kept hearing alarm bells going off. As a critical reader, I’m trained to question broad assertions, so when Chavez describes the typical creative writing syllabus statement like “Engage in the art of literary writing” or “Write through an imitation of the masters” my first thought was: “well, not my syllabus and not many people’s that I know about, but certainly some syllabi are like this.”

I was already formulating an argument in my head that a more moderate approach that acknowledged the changes that have already happened to the workshop model might be more effective. Yet I gave Chavez credit for admitting some of her own less-than-productive reactions to being stereotyped, such as leaving the Bridge program at Colorado College where she had a good scholarship, and I was willing to admit that some of the worst abuses of the workshop that she describes not only did happen to her, but also are probably more prevalent than I’d like to believe.

And then in Chapter 2, Chavez describes a conversation with a colleague about what happens to talented students of color when they come to predominantly white colleges. Her colleague says they suddenly are “mediocre,” and she recounts her reaction: “It was difficult for me not to jump in here, to vocalize my discomfort… But I stopped myself from reacting, and chose to listen instead.” From listening, she comes to a deeper understanding of where her colleague is coming from and that he doesn’t mean that students of color are demonstrably less qualified than their white peers, but that they feel mediocre or are treated as such because they don’t have the same privilege. They may work twice as hard and yet never quite measure up because they don’t have the confidence that comes with privilege.

What I got from this passage, besides the surface message which makes a lot of sense, was a clue into Chavez’s rhetorical strategy. Here she tells me not to jump in and vocalize my own discomfort; instead, I should listen. Looking back at Chapter 1, I realized that many of the statements I objected to about a writing syllabus or about the power dynamics in a workshop class are negative stereotypes about creative writing pedagogy. To say, “I don’t do that” or “Many have been working on these reforms for awhile now” is to miss the point. I shouldn’t dismiss the criticism too easily and I shouldn’t too readily pride myself in being the exception. I also need to pay attention to how it feels to be stereotyped and misunderstood, an experience some of my students feel every time they walk into a classroom. My discomfort can be a learning experience, in other words, and I suspect that Chavez has been willing to provoke discomfort, to not let me off the hook, to gently challenge and make me question to what extent my classroom is still traditional.

As I described in my last post on the history of my workshop practice, I’ve been fortunate to be challenged by my students and the places where I’ve taught. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still have a long way to go. Similarly, when publishing A Writer’s Craft, I was fortunate to get a contract with Palgrave (which is now Macmillan International Higher Ed). They wanted a book that could be marketed internationally, and so they encouraged me to take out language that was specific to the US educational system and to add in more international writers as examples. I was also fortunate to teach Survey of World Literature, Postcolonial Lit, and to have a Comp Lit background, so I had a number of non-Western writers of color I could draw on for examples. If I’m ever to do a second edition, this is an area of A Writer’s Craft I’d like to do even more with.

Speaking of Chavez’s Chapter 2, though, in it she includes a number of teaching strategies that are outside my comfort zone. I don’t know that I’ll start baking for my writing classes, for instance, or play music or use silly putty. On the other hand, Chavez’s emphasis on building community in the workshop is something I wholeheartedly embrace, and once I get over my initial discomfort, I might try some of her tactics or something similar. I do believe that hands-on work with initial, tentative drafts is essential to teaching students how to workshop and how to think seriously about revision. Many of the exercises in A Writer’s Craft are written with this kind of work in mind, and the group exercises I propose in A Writer’s Craft Community are designed to get students to collaborate.

Every instructor will need to find their own way to implement the kinds of strategies Chavez outlines, but the general principles of accountability, community, writing and working by hand, generosity, facing fear, and removing competition are important. It’s one reason I like teaching four genres in A Writer’s Craft. Everyone is outside their comfort zone some of the time, and everyone can find a way to write that they’re good at. We look at how conventions differ and remain the same across genre, and we blend genres in creative ways.

Many of the techniques and strategies Chavez describes would work well in addition to the exercises in A Writer’s Craft, and many of those exercises are similar to what she describes. I think I could push myself to be even more hands-on with my students, to participate in their group work more than I usually do. And yet, I also like disrupting the power dynamic of the classroom by allowing students time to work in groups without the instructor’s controlling presence. I enjoy listening in on those group discussions without making comments or judgments about the work they do, even when they get off subject, which can often be their most productive discussions.

As I continue to read in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, I will try to remember that the times I feel the most uncomfortable are probably the times I have the most to learn. The small objections I raise in my mind as I read are not all wrong, but they also should not get in the way of listening to what Chavez has to say.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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