Death of a MacBook Pro

I’ve been hanging on to my old 2015 MacBook Pro for awhile now, though I’ve been contemplating an upgrade for over a year. This is how an OS upgrade may have hastened its demise.

Warning: updating my Mac to Big Sur, necessitated by the recently announced spyware update for Macs, iPhones, and iPads, may have hastened the demise of my beloved MacBook Pro. Apple should warn about or check for adequate disk space before attempting a major upgrade. They don’t, so be cautious when upgrading from one version to the next. If you have an older Mac, you might try upgrading to Catalina first, and running the security patch on it.

I might have saved myself some hassle if there had been better information about the dangers of upgrading older Macs to Big Sur. I’ve been contemplating it for awhile, and the security issues gave me the impetus to do it, but I might have been warned not to install without adequate space left on my drive.

I had quite a bit of free space on a 1 TB drive, so that might not have been the issue, though that’s what I suspect. SSD drives can also fail suddenly, so I feel kind of lucky that mine did in the midst of an upgrade, when I had just done a fresh backup. I shouldn’t lose any data, and I knew this computer was getting pretty long in the tooth, but it was still chugging along okay.

Nonetheless, I had had to replace a swollen battery about a year ago, and it had started to do the same thing, so I knew I had another repair in the near future. After the first battery replacement, I realized they had messed up my power key, so I could only start when the MacBook was plugged in. Recently, I had an experience where the computer would’ve start at all after I had shut it down. No key combination with power on would jolt it to life. Fortunately, the next day it worked. I think this was because I have the computer set to restart every night, so when I plugged in the next morning, it started right away.

All, this is relevant to my current situation. when I installed Big Sur, it froze about halfway through the install. I let it sit for over 16 hours, but it never budged. at some point in those initial hours, I tried to do a hard shut down, but the power key wouldn’t make it turn off as it should. Eventually, I realized that my only hope was to let the battery drain all the way down, and then hope that it would start again.

It did, and at one point it appeared like I was able to install Big Sur in Safe Mode, but it didn’t recognize any of my old data. It wanted me to set up the computer as if it were new and import data using Migration Assistant. I skipped that step, and completed installation so I could,see what was on my drive, but when it restarted, it froze again.

I’ll spare you the full rundown of all the steps I took, but if you’re curious, you can see them in this Apple Support discussion. In a nutshell, after repeated restarts from a crashed state, I could only start into Recovery Mode, where I could not repair the SSD hard drive, could not erase it, and could not install any system because it appears to be full. It also seems to think there are more volumes on this drive than there should be (Disk Utilities sees 4 instead of 2), and it tells me there is a disk error it can’t repair.

Did this happen because there wasn’t enough free space on my drive when I upgraded? Or did it happen because the drive was failing and the OS upgrade made it use parts of the drive that were bad, or was there another reason? I may never know.

I could replace the drive and the battery and keep using this MacBook for another year or so, but that would take time and cost more than I really want to put into an old computer. And it may not fix the power button issue.

I found a good deal on a refurbished 2020 MacBook Pro that has everything I need, so I’m not sad about being pushed to the inevitable upgrade. I might wish I had gotten a few more months out of the old MacBook, maybe even another year, but I,m mostly glad it happened when I had just made a backup, and I’m glad that I can use my iPad and my work computer as a replacement until my new computer arrives in a few days.

I will have been without a home computer for exactly one week when all is said and done. If I had given up sooner on trying to fix the old one, I might have been able to get a new one sooner than that. I’m always one to try to fix things before I give up on them, but there comes a time when replacement is the best option.

Publishing Mergers and Acquisitions

The world of publishing is a constantly shifting ground with mergers and acquisitions a faily common occurrence. I’m not going to try to address the broader picture here, but instead I’ll just give a brief history of my experience with this through my creative writing textbook A Writer’s Craft.

When I first submitted the book it was to Palgrave, an English publishing house, but I soon learned they were part of Macmillan. As the book coming out and I was getting going with marketing it, I learned that Macmillan International was a separate division from Macmillan USA, and I was with Macmillan International. Soon the Palgrave titles I was with were put under a new imprint Red Globe Press, though all of my sales and marketing were done through Macmillan International Higher Ed with distribution through Springer Nature. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Then this May, I learned that Red Globe Press had been acquired by Bloomsbury, so my title would move to a new publisher. Everything seems to be going along with that move, though the process is a little interesting. My book page at Macmillan IHE (including the companion website for the book) was transferred over to a new website for Red Globe Press. That seems to have happened September 1 or possibly in August, though now I’m told the last step in the process will be to move everything over to Bloomsbury as of October. I’ll keep my links to A Writer’s Craft updated when that happens.

I’m sure there are legal and logistical reasons for why there are so many steps in the process. All of this has happened without any input on my part — my contract was transferred over and I haven’t had to sign again or anything. I’m just a small pawn in a much larger system, which is fine with me. Bloomsbury seems like a good home, though I’ve had no complaints about Palgrave / Macmillan / Red Globe Press, who I’m still officially with. Some of the editors I’ve worked with have come along with Red Globe in the move; others had aleardy been shifted to different responisiblities at Macmillan IHE. I’ll be interested to see what changes occur after the move is completed in October and what developments for the book come as a result of the move.

Persona vs Narrator

This morning I got a message from an instructor using A Writer’s Craft, whose student asked a question about using the term persona to talk about the narrator’s point of view. I got a little carried away with my answer, so I thought I’d also post it here.

There’s nothing terribly wrong about using the term persona for the narrator in fiction, I suppose, though most people don’t. In general terms, the narrator of a story is a persona of the author, but we distinguish it as a distinct kind of persona because it is so common in fiction. So a narrator is a kind of persona, and the two terms are related, but we use the term narrator for fiction because there are many personae of the author in fiction: the implied authorial perspective, the narrator, and each of the characters. To explore this idea further, if you don’t mind delving into some Russian formalism, you explore Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories on the dialogic in fiction (see The Dialogic Imagination). I tend to disagree somewhat with how he portrays poetry, but his thoughts on the many voices in fiction were ground-breaking.

In a poem, we generally distinguish one voice as the speaker and that speaker is either closely related to the poet’s voice (though never entirely) or very clearly the voice of a character (real or fictional). We would call the latter a persona poem because the poet takes on someone else’s voice and the former a persona of the poet because the poet’s voice in a poem is never exactly their voice in other aspects of life, as long as they are actively aware they are writing a poem.

For nonfiction we might use the term narrator or persona, depending on the kind of essay and whether we were comparing it to fiction or poetry, I suppose. Using narrator is probably the most common for nonfiction forms other than the lyric essay, where we’re likely to borrow terminology from poetry. And we generally don’t use those terms at all in drama because we just speak about characters’ dialogue, stage directions, etc. that do the work of a narrator or a persona. So each genre has its preferred terminology, and using it will help you sound authoritative and get your point across, but it’s also good to consider how and where those terms overlap or are getting at nearly the same thing.

Since the question was actually about using persona to discuss the narrator’s point of view, I should say that POV is a little trickier and even more specific. We use those terms primarily for fiction because they describe the narrator’s relationship to the action and to the characters. We don’t have corresponding terminology for poetry, though maybe we should. Maybe we don’t because there often aren’t other characters, so we don’ need to describe the speaker’s relationship to the characters the way we do with the narrator in fiction. But sometimes we do want to know who the speaker of a poem is, and when we do we usually borrow terms for point of view from fiction.

I enjoyed considering the question, and I hope my answer is helpful. It’s the kind of discussion I hope A Writer’s Craft encourages students to have and to look for their own answers about.

How to Avoid Plagiarism in Your Classes

Those of us who teach writing know how to teach students to avoid plagiarism by teaching what it is, how to quote, and when to cite a source. It’s not that hard to teach students who want to avoid plagiarism what to do to make sure they don’t accidentally plagiarize. They need to keep good notes and indicate when they’ve paraphrased or quoted directly in your notes. Keeping track of sources and page numbers in your notes can help you, too.

That’s all well and good when you’re dealing with students who are using research in their writing and need to learn how to do it well. But how do you deal with the kind of plagiarism we often see in a lit survey or other course, where we really don’t expect a student to use a source. How do you keep students from finding information online or borrowing sentences or paragraphs from those sources when they shouldn’t.

My last post was about how plagiarism shouldn’t be punished (too harshly), especially if that punishment might more likely affect writers of color or others who hold less power. But what about the blatant, obvious plagiarism? Many people would argue that ought to be punished, and I might even agree. They would argue that consistent plagiarism in a paper goes beyond patchwriting or other understandable confusion about academic writing. Again, I might agree, but I’d also argue that punishment isn’t the best solution. It may be necessary once the plagiarism has occurred, but there may also be ways to avoid it.

Students plagiarize for a number of reasons, but the top reasons for the kind of plagiarism I’m talking about are: they don’t care about the class or assignment, they don’t think they can write or read well enough, they run out of time (poor time management or not enough time given for the assignment), or the assignment is too general or too easily plagiarized. To avoid plagiarism in your class, you need to think about when and where students tend to do it and figure out what you can do to make it seem less inviting.

When students don’t care, which is often true in a required course, it’s important to be enthusiastic to get them to care about their assignmets, but it’s also important to show them why the assignment will be beneficial to them. In a lit survey where most of the class are not English majors, it’s no surprise that many don’t care much about literature or writing essays. I try to explain how writing about something as messy as literature where there’s not one right answer but many and you have to defend your interpretation based on what you find in the text, is like writing about real-world problems. You develop skills of interpretation and analysis that you will use in many contexts, even if you never write about literature again.

This is also a way to set up another part of my argument against plagiarism. I tell them that I don’t want them to give canned answers. That the so-called ‘study guides’ make it sound like they have the right answer (or an impressive one), but in fact they don’t. They’re often wrong or at least they don’t approach the texts the way we have in our class, so if someone repeats that old-fashioned, worn-out interpretation, it shows me that they haven’t learned anything in our class. I want students to respond to the ideas we’ve discussed, not repeat ones they found somewhere else. And I’d much rather see them give a less-than-perfect interpretation and back it up with evidence from the text, than repeat tired ideas.

This is part of giving students confidence that they can read and interperet complex texts and that their ideas are just as valid as some that seem to have more authority. Another way to build that confidence is to include low-stakes assignments that ask for small chunks of interpretation. I often give writing assignments where I ask a very specific question about part of a text, and I ask students to give me their response in a page or two. This helps them look closely at a text and gain confidence writing about it. It also gives me a chance to catch plagiarizers when the penalty will be fairly negligible. If it’s blatant plagiarism, I can still report them, but if it’s patchwriting, we can have a talk about how to do it well (when to put some language in quotes and how to cite it). A 0 on a small assignment, especially one the can be replaced with another assignment later, won’t have the effect that a 0 on an essay assignment would.

Structuring your course so students have time to practice the skills they’ll need in their major papers is another strategy for avoiding plagiarism in a class that is often suggested. If I had an assignment where students often plagiarized, I would want to consider whether they did it because they didn’t feel confident about their ability to complete the assignment. In that case, how can I help them build confidence?

Time management is another issue that often leads to plagiarism, so I would want to look at that assignment and decide whether I’d really given students adequate time to complete it. I’ve seen quite a few plagiarism cases (as chair) on essay exam questions, where the assignment may have been more appropriate for an out-of-class essay than for an essay question on an exam. Students who can’t write a paper in that kind of time crunch might resort to copying and pasting from an online source. We think we can control students access to online sources during an exam, but there are always ways around our controls. Allowing more time might give students the opportunity to turn in better work and therefore lead to more learning in your course. Isn’t that what we’re after? Asking focused exam questions that can be answered in the amount of time given can also make it easier for students to decide not to cheat. There needs to be a balance between finding challenging questions that really test our students and not assigning questions that are so difficult they stress out and resort to academic dishonesty.

Scheduling can also be an issue to consider. I often get more plagiarism reports at the end of the semester. That should come as no surprise, since students are under a lot more stress then. If you have an essay due during exam week, you may want to reconsider the deadline. Setting the assignment due date before the end of the semester, while giving students less time, might actually help them to manage their time better and lead to better work.

Consider, too, whether you have given students the assignment far enough in advance. Or if you made the assignment early in the semester, did you give enough reminders far enough in advance, but not so far that students ignore them or forget? Setting up due dates in Canvas (our LMS) has been one of the best ways to get students to notice assignments, but they probably only see them one week out from the due date, so setting up an earlier assignment like an topic statement or bibiliography can help keep students’ minds on the final due date. We’ve all heard of scaffolding. It can be a way to build skills, but it can also be a way to build in a timeline for completing an assignment and help students with time management.

Finally, to avoid plagiarism it may be necessary to consider your assignments themselves. Do you ask questions in the assignment that are too general, too open to interpretation, and therefore too tempting to plagiarize? I’m all about allowing students freedom to choose their topic, but could you give a few more specific options? I’ve often resorted to having students compare plot points or characters between works (though character descriptions are one of the first things students plagiarize from those ubiquitous Notes). I try to select texts that aren’t as easy to find study guide notes for, and I try to ask questions that won’t be answered in those notes. At the very least, it makes it fairly easy to spot the papers that do include plagiarism, since they just don’t make sense or match the assignment — something I warn students about.

Ultimately, it’s easier to write your own paper than it is to get away with plagiarism in my class, and you will learn something of value by doing that. It shouldn’t be just about skating by and not doing the work; education should be about gaining skills that will help you out in life. If I can convince students of this and structure my course in ways that help students succeed, then I can vasly cut down on the number and the severity of plagiarism I find. If I catch it early and help students break the bad habits they bring to college, and if I can give them the time and the thoughtful assignments that help them build the skills they need, we will all be better off and the class will be a much more enjoyable experience.

Looking at when and why your students have plagiarized in the past, especially if you think it’s become more of a problem, and then reconsidering how you can structure your class to provide students the skills and time they need will not eliminate plagiarism, but it should go a long way to reducing it and making your life easier and your students happier.

Can Plagiarism Charges be Racist?

Towards the end of her chapter on plagiarism in Bad Ideas About Writing, Jennifer A. Mott-Smith makes the claim that plagiarism charges could be racist. I paraphrase and perhaps exaggerate her claim. What she says in the chapter “Plagiarism Deserves to be Punished” (where all chapter titles need to be read as “bad” ideas, so she disputes the claim that it should be punished), is that studies have shown some instructors “let inadequate attribution go” if they feel the paper is generally well-written: “They tend to more readily recognize authority in papers written by students who are members of a powerful group… Thus, in some instances, plagiarism may be more about social inequity than individual deceit.” (251)

This is an issue I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. As a department chair, I see a lot of plagiarism cases, and I’ve noticed patterns that might be seen as racist. It’s not that only students of color run afoul of plagiarism, by any means, but that there seem to be more who do. If you also factor in other socio-economic factors, then the trend, though anecdotal, starts to seem troubling.

I don’t think that any instructor is consciously being racist, of course, but unconscious bias can often play a role. Students who come from poorer school districts often have had poorer training in how to write. Their papers are likely to sound less authorative and therefore, it’s more likely that plagiarized passages will stand out. It also stands to reason that these students are more likely to have been trained to write by copying and they may face the kinds of insecurities about writing that often lead to plagiarism.

Mott-Smith’s title suggests that her point is that plagiarism doesn’t need to be punished, not that it should be ignored. Harsh punishments for plagiarism, a 0 on a major assignment or an F in the course, can have a significant impact on a students’ progress in college. If other students are let go for inadequately documenting their sources, then harsh punishment for some is problematic. On the other hand, Mott-Smith seems to suggest that there are better ways to handle plagiarism, though she doesn’t go into those in this article. She does point to resources for further reading that can provide some of those strategies.

Racisim is not the main reason Mott-Smith gives for viewing plagiarism as something other than a crime, but it is a possibility that is quite concerning to me. Other reasons are the ways that students have been trained to write and the way we use and borrow from other writers in online discourse or in non-academic writing. The argument could be made that plagiarism is an issue in academic writing, and therefore students’ confusion over how non-academic writers borrow language isn’t a valid excuse. We do need to teach students to use sources appropriately in an academic setting, but Mott-Smith’s point is that punishment is not the best way to do this.

Understanding why students plagiarize and treating it as something they need to learn about, but not as an issue of academic dishonesty, can help instructors find ways to avoid plagiarism, a topic I am planning to take up next time.


Work Cited

Mott-Smith, Jennifer A. “Plagiarism Deserves to be Punished,” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe, West Virginia U Libraries, 2017. pp. 247-252. https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf

Summer in the Low-Residency

Frequent readers of my blog have probably noticed that I haven’t posted much in a while. That’s because summer (May and June) have been very busy months. In addition to all the year-end duties of department chair (faculty evaluations, budgets, assessments, requesting summer pay, etc.), this year we have had two full residency classes and two short residency classes.

Fortunately, my colleague, Kris Lee, handled most everything for the two short residencies, which were focused on Acting for Writers. One was face-to-face, and the other was virtual, held on two different weeks. Students wrote short play scripts adapted from work in another genre, and then acted in each others’ plays. This year, all the scripts were interrelated, using an element from each other’s original pieces. The short residency students performed for their full residency counterparts, though some were in both classes.

Our first full residency was held May 28 – June 5 and was both on-campus face-to-face and virtual. Students met in workshop groups in the morning, we had seminars on professional topics in the afternoon, followed by mentoring and thesis defenses, and then readings each evening (except on Memorial Day). It’s a full schedule, and though i wasn’t leading a morning workshop, I had plenty to keep me busy as well as keeping up with some department chair duties.

Our second full resdiency followed the same schedule, but was only virtual and was held June 11-19. For this residency, I led one of the workshop groups and did most of the afternoon seminars. I was the Zoom host for all of our readings, and was on 8 thesis committees, so May and June were exceptionally busy months. July is time for a little relaxing and catching up on the things that didn’t get done in June. One of the things I’ve been catching up on is the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. More news on that will be posted soon on our website.

If you’d like to see our MFA Residency readings, they were live-streamed on Facebook and are now archived with our group’s media.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and have a great summer!

Work / Life Integration

The other day, someone asked me how I manage to do it all. I considered it a rhetorical question and so didn’t have an answer, but it got me thinking. We often hear about maintaining a Work / Life Balance, yet that often makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Balance implies an even split (though things can be balanced with more weight on one side than on the other, if you place the fulcrum in the right spot). More than the evenness of work and life, though, I’m disturbed by the implication of a split, which is why I began to think of it more in terms of integration.

The question was raised as I was coming out of the quite intense Full Writing Residency of our low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women. I am also heading into another equally intense all-virtual Full Writing Residency later this week. There are times like these when work appears all-consuming, and nonetheless, I’ve managed to be involved (with my family) in getting work done on our house and planning for our much needed vacation. There are other times when work is less intense, and yet, as an academic, I am almost always on call. There will be emails to respond to, reading to do, papers to grade, and in the summer when we’re supposedly ‘off,’ there are summer classes and prep to do for the following year. Yes, we get vacation, but the job is never completely off your mind. Striving for a balance, equal time for work and life, seems impossible, stressful, and unrealistic.

Life is not separate from work. Work is a part of life, and I want my life to be part of my work as much as possible. That’s why I’m starting to think that Work / Life Integration is a better way to think of it. Now, before you just call me a workaholic (and you wouldn’t be the first!), I should say that integrating life into your work is as important as integrating work in to my life. As an academic, I’m fortunate enough to be able to flex my schedule any time I need to (other than scheduled class times). So I may run to the store in the morning or go to a doctor’s appointment without taking time off. That also means I’m often reading or grading at 11pm or answering email at 8am. It also means I might be able to take a morning during the week to write poetry (part of my work, after all) or submit to literary magazines, knowing full well I may have work to do on the weekend after mowing the lawn.

To me, Work / Life Integration means making everything I do an important part of who I am. It means taking care of the responsibilities of my private life as well as the demands of my work life. It means not pitting one against the other, but instead trying to find the ways that allow all aspects of my life to work together, even as priorities shift due to the immediate demands on my time.

Ultimately, it’s just semantics. We all muddle through the best we can no matter what we call it. But for now, thinking in terms of how I integrate the many aspects of my life seems more productive and less stressful than thinking about what I need to do to balance them or make them even.

Alternate Structures for Fiction (etc.)

How A Writer’s Craft can be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 8

Matthew Salesses’ chapter from Craft in the Real World, “An Example from East Asian and Asian American Literature,” begins to really get into some of the detail I’ve been looking for in terms of alternate structures and ways to rethink creative writing. I am particularly struck by the long list of alternatives that the Chinese literary tradition can provide.

For instance, when talking about the use of well-rounded, rather than flat characters in Western writing, Salesses notes that flat characters are usually discussed in terms of postmodernism’s challenges to psychological realism, which is the main way I write about them in A Writer’s Craft, acknowledging that there are ways of writing that make use of flat characters instead of “realist” portrayals. Like Salesses, I acknowledge that postmodernism is probably inaccessible to the typical Intro to Creative Writing student, but what I would like to do more after reading Craft in the Real World, is to explore other literary traditions that use them. Actually, much of pre-20th Century European and American fiction used flat characters as well, so it’s not exactly a foreign concept. But Modernist ideas of fiction have become dominant, at lease in the teaching of creative writing.

Similarly, Salesses mentions the four-part plot stucture of kishotenketsu that involved introduction, development, twist, and reconciliation. In A Writer’s Craft, I acknowledge four-part structures as a possibility, and this could be a great example of one to include.

Salesses challenges the (modernist) idea of showing versus telling, arguing that telling emotion in Chinese fiction is common. Rather than relying on psychological realism and character motivation, the narrator is used to explain the action or arbitrary events are imposed to create the narrative drama. The story is not about character growth, but about an exploration of a theme. It is less about the individual character’s growth and more about the oneness of character, narrator, and reader’s experience. The lines between fiction and reality are blurred from both directions.

Salesses also hints at the different structures of episodic narrative, as opposed to the plot-driven story (or drama) privileged by Aristotle in his Poetics. This leads to “a ‘kaleidoscopic’ quality” and “pattern-based” structure.

Salesses’ list of things to learn from East Asian and Asian American literature is provocative, and raises challenges to the view that literary modernism is somehow the ‘right’ way to write. This is a challenge that I’ve tried to remain open to in A Writer’s Craft, and Salesses and to a lesser extent Chavez (whose focus is more on the workshop than on craft issues), provide compelling ways to frame that discussion more in anti-racist terms. While reading this chapter, my constant thought was that I’d like to read a whole book on the subject and dig into more detail on each of these issues. Fortunately, Salesses does not disappoint — he credits Ming Dong Gu, Chinese Theories of Fiction.

Obviously, there are other literary traditions, such as African, Middle Eastern, Native American, Latinx, etc. to draw on. European literature, as I mentioned above, is also far from monolithic. European Romanticism uses different structures than modernism, and Medieval lais, ballads, or romances are also quite far from Modernism, obviously. Bringing in other cultures’ literary traditions is both a way to challenge modernist preconceptions and a way to validate other cultural experiences. Salesses is clear that he draws from American modernism and Asian American story-telling techniques in his fiction — that modernism (or traditional American workshop ideas on craft) isn’t inherently wrong any more than it is inherently right. We expand our understanding of craft when we expand our horizons for how to look at craft.

Empathy in Creative Writing

How A Writer’s Craft can be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 7

I’ve been reading Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World and thinking about how my textbook, A Writer’s Craft, can be used in a more anti-racist way. This series has been written against the backdrop of current events, including this week’s news of a guilty verdict on all three charges in the Derek Chauvin trial for the death of George Floyd, and the recent police killing of Daunte Wright. As Salesses’ title suggests, questions of craft and creative writing pedagogy never happen in a vacuum. We must respond to events in the real world in order to keep our craft relevant to our readers and our students.

The first section of Craft in the Real World is full of excellent advice for the fiction writing, yet the central idea I keep coming back to, especially in light of recent events, has to do with empathy. Creative writers like to argue that writing naturally creates empathy because writers inhabit the minds of their characters. And I agree that it can do this, though I also wonder if sometimes we don’t project onto our characters as much as we learn from them.

Salesses doesn’t write about empathy, instead, his focus is more on audience and how many of the craft terms that we take for granted and often do not define — terms like tone or pacing or relatability or believability — which Salesses describes as dependent on the shared experience of an audience. The tone of a piece of fiction might come across one way to an audience that shares the writer’s cultural context, and may be incomprehensible to those who don’t. We may miss the humor or the irony, or way may find a piece unbelievable or hard to relate to because we do not share this context.

To me, this is related to empathy: the ability to transcend our cultural limitations and identify with someone who is different that we are, not just to have tolerance, but to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and try to understand how they see the world and how they react, rather than understanding their actions or their views through the lens of our own biases.

In a creative writing workshop, this means reading the work the writer intended, rather than reading for how we would have written it. It means questioning whether terms like “relatability” and “believability” are valuable or to what extent they can be useful, as Salesses does in his discussion of them. It means considering other terms like “tone” or even “plot” not as certainties, but as relative to who is the intended audience. And therefore, it means trying to understand where a writer is coming from before giving feedback. This is why I always recommend reading a piece at least twice when making comments: once for enjoyment and to get a view of the whole, and a second time to make comments informed by that view of the whole.

With this in mind, how can A Writer’s Craft be taught in a more anti-racist way? I might add some discussion of tone in Chapter 7 on Character and Voice, where I do already discuss terms like irony and distance. When discussing character, I might bring in some of Salesses thoughts on characterization, and challenge the prevailing notion that psychological realism is the primary mode of literary fiction. Salesses’ discussion of the use of types in non-Western traditions can be helpful here, though the Western tradiation of folktale also relies more on types than on well-rounded characters.

Salesses point is that there is always more than one way to think of the craft elements we tend to take for granted. As writers, we need to be aware of the many options we have, and we need to view craft not as prescriptive, but as descriptive. To do so, requires us to think outside our own experience and to imagine other values and other ways to conceive of the real world. Isn’t this the same kind of empathy we need to see someone who doesn’t look or dress or act like we do, not as a threat, but as someone who may be in need of our assistance, to react not with violence but with compassion? Understanding other cultures does not threaten our own, but rather enriches us.

Mourning Daunte Wright

This is a terribly horrific and sad week in America. Once again, a young black man has been killed on our streets — this time in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, as the trial of the police officer who killed George Floyd goes on just 11 miles away. This time, Daunte Wright’s death is portrayed as a tragic accident, since the police officer involved apparently believed she was discharging her taser not her gun. Though that may be true, at the very least it is a case of wrongful death and negligent manslaughter or even homicide. At the very least, it begs the question, why taser a young man over an expired tag, even if you believe he had an outstanding warrant — or was it just a summons? Why pull him over for an expired tag? Why not let him go if he tries to drive away? Why taser him? How can you not feel the difference between a taser and a pistol? Why kill a man over something so inconsequential?

We all know the answers — or we should — that it all has to do with the race of the person driving the car. We’re told it all has to do with fear, but isn’t it true that fear is the result of racism, is the result of hatred? The hatred may not even be conscious, but what else can explain the impulse to use a weapon (taser, pistol, pepper spray, baton, police dog — does it really matter?) on an unarmed young man who poses no threat? What else can explain the belief that you’re justified to keep your knee on a man’s neck for over 9 minutes, long after he has stopped breathing and has lost a pulse? What else than deep-seated hatred that is so ingrained in our society that it’s possible to live with it every day and be unaware that you even feel it, and yet feel empowered to tase or to kill an unarmed black man. It is tragic. That much we ought to agree on. But is it really just an accident? Or was it an accident waiting to happen? Was it an accident made possible because the officer didn’t care enough to think twice before pulling the trigger, didn’t care enough to be sure what weapon she held in her hand?

I am not the judge or the jury. I am a small part of the hand that pulled that trigger unless and until I am ready to think twice, to think more than twice, to rethink the assumptions I make every day about power, about fear, about hatred, about race, about gender, about whose voice matters, about whose life matters. My life only matters when Daunte Wright’s life matters, when George Floyd’s or Breonna Taylor’s and so many other lives matter: Black lives, Asian lives, Native American lives, trans lives…

I’ve interrupted my series, “How A Writer’s Craft can be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook,” not only because the events of this week make it impossible to write about anything else, but because they remind me just how necessary it is to see and to value someone else’s story, someone else’s way of telling their story, someone else’s life embodied in their way of telling their story. None of it is disconnected. As a teacher, I don’t think that creative writing has all of the answers or is more important than any other way of looking at the issues. I simply believe that it is my responsibility to teach what I know in a way that can make the world somewhat better. It is my responsibility to teach what I know and to reevaluate what I teach and what I know while facing the tragic loss of Daunte Wright, a loss that never should have happened, yet that happens or could happen every single day.