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.

Writing Workshops & Conferences

How A Writer’s Craft Can Be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 6

I’ve now finished, Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, and so I want to weigh in with some thoughts on the way workshops are discussed, and some of the advice she gives. She also has a chapter on conferencing with students, that I feel is related to the material on workshops. She has a lot of good ideas about changing the traditional workshop model—some are new, and some are familiar—and I’m glad that what she does works well for her, but I’m also excited to move on and see what some other writers have to say.

Let’s start with the positive things in Chavez’s discussion. What I glean as the most important aspects of the workshop model she proposes are: giving students a voice in the workshop, building a sense of community in the class, and training students how to workshop. These are things I’ve been doing for many years that are linked to the critiques of the traditional workshop structure that I’m familiar with and agree with for the most part. (Yes, I have one reservation; keep reading.)

Chavez describes how she builds community and trains students how to workshop by having small group workshops on early drafts. This is something I’ve been doing for years and that I’ve written about in the companion materials for A Writer’s Craft, though I’m sure my strategies are different from hers. Don’t we all find the strategies that work best for us? Incidentally, I was pleased to see Chavez acknowledge that everyone will need to adapt what they can from her workshop strategies in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop.

Students need early work in small groups when they can work together without a leader (other than the groupwork instructions) and learn to trust the feedback they give each other. They also need to learn that no draft should be finished when it is brought to workshop; that getting suggestions in the thick of the writing is more productive than getting them when a piece seems finished. I combine group writing exercises with small group workshops on early drafts. Students learn that their role in a workshop is not to pass judgement on each other’s writing, but to give suggestions. They also learn that it’s okay if other workshop members are wrong or give unhelpful suggestions — as long as they are honest and have good intentions, it’s okay if they give ideas that won’t work for the writer. Trust and goodwill are the most important aspects of a workshop community. Thinking you have all the answers is not.

In her main workshop meetings, Chavez uses the Liz Lerman method, and this is one place where I somewhat disagree. I respect the Lerman method, but I find it too prescriptive for my taste. I respect that the steps in the Lerman method are there to subvert the traditional workshop power structure, and I agree with that, but to me it feels like those steps institute a different kind of control over the workshop discussion that I don’t think is entirely necessary. Some of my colleagues use the Lerman method and it goes well for them, so I don’t want to sound overly critical. I feel the way I conduct workshop is similar but more loosely organized, and that works for me. I’ve learned from the Lerman method and may consider adopting more ideas from it in the future. I also noticed that Chavez says she starts with that method but doesn’t always follow every step.

What I’ve learned from Lerman is to begin discussion with positive comments about the piece being workshopped. I sometimes break one of Lerman’s rules and ask students what they liked about the piece. Often I frame this question as “What was interesting?” or “What drew you in?” so that their answers are more specific and more descriptive than evaluative. These are the kinds of questions that students usually love to answer, and they get our conversation going. After we’ve had some discussion that might be deemed more ‘critical,’ I often end discussion by returning to the positive.

In the critical phase of discussion, I like to focus on the reader and the text. I discourage comments that are about the writer or that call things out as bad. Instead, I try to ask students what was confusing or where they might like more detail. I often remind them that we often ask for more of something in a workshop and the writer may not want to give it to us. They may withhold that information or it may not be as important to them, and that is their decision. But knowing where the reader wants more helps the author make that decision.

This brings up one aspect of the traditional workshop experience that I haven’t given up on completely, though I have loosened up a lot. This is where I differ from Chavez and many writers on reforming the workshop. I do still ask the writer to be silent during our discussion of their piece, at least initially. I explain that the reason for this is that the text will ultimately stand on its own, and the writer won’t always be there to help the reader. It’s important that the writer hear what readers experience, so they can respond with revision, and it’s important that the workshop learns not to look to the writer for answers first, but to first be careful and constructive readers of the text.

Here are some ways I’ve loosened up my stance about silence, though, after teaching and being involved in these discussions for many years. Sometimes writers just can’t help themselves, and they have to jump in. I don’t berate them or even enforce the rule too much, though I may sometimes remind the group that we want to look at what the story or poem says before we turn to the author. Other times, there have been questions that we can’t answer from the text, and then we’ll turn to the author to ask what they had in mind. The goal is to always have a constructive discussion of the draft that we are looking at, not the one that the writer envisions, but where they are in that process and to both help them attain the draft they envision and also sometimes help them push their vision further.

In doing this, I am conscious of the power dynamics of the workshop. I don’t want to impose my vision of the story or poem on the writer, any more than I want the workshop group to do so. I tell students that my goal is to say as little as possible during workshop and to direct their conversation as little as necessary. Often there are pauses, and I’ll ask questions to get the class started. Or I will step in and play the devil’s advocate, sometimes revealing that’s what I’m doing. That may be to defend the author if the discussion has turned too critical or to raise an issue that the discussion has overlooked.

In the end, and often in the middle, I give the writer their time to respond to our discussion. I tell them that they don’t have to defend their work, but that they can explain things we didn’t understand, and they can also ask us questions about things they wanted to have a reading on. What I might experiment with is allowing the writer to make a brief statement at the outset of our discussion. This might be an explanation of their goals or of terms or experiences in the piece, or it might include questions that they would like us to answer. This could come as a written note attached to the draft (as Chavez does) or be done orally at the start of discussion.

Like Chavez, I do begin each workshop session with the writer reading. The difference is that Chavez has them read their whole essay aloud (her class is nonfiction). The other students in the workshop don’t get the text in advance; they read along and mark comments during the reading. In my workshops, I have the writer read a full poem, but for prose, I have them read a paragraph or two so that we get a sense of the voice in the piece. Reading complete longer works would take too much of our workshop time, on the one hand. And on the other, I believe students can give better quality feedback if they read the text carefully before coming to workshop; I know I can. Students always turn their work in before class, and they are expected to come with written comments for each other. Though I know they don’t always write the best comments, at least they have read the story or poem once or twice before class, and they’ve given it some thought before they have to comment. Rather than having them write a letter to the writer, I ask them to make comments in the margins and then end with a note that includes suggestions for revision.

I give instructions for giving and receiving workshop comments, and this is something I will probably work on to emphasize constructive feedback even more than I do now. One important piece of advice I give, which Chavez also seems to emphasize, is to read and respond to the draft the writer has written, not to try to make it like your own writing, but to try to help the writer do what they seem to want to do. Again, the early small group workshops help with this, since they learn to make constructive suggestions, and some students in the class may have read an earlier draft of the story or poem we are workshopping, so they may have more insight into the writer’s intent.

This brings me to individual conferences. Chavez advocates for two conferences, one before and one after the student’s workshop. I agree that individual conferences are important, though I always have students come for conferences throughout the semester, usually having four or more conferences with each student. As with many of the suggestions, this is something every writing instructor has to make their own peace with. What works for one population of students and one instructor will not always work for another. I find that there is no substitute for a one-on-one discussion of early drafts and late drafts with students. Sometimes our conference is all about writer’s block and how the student can commit words to the page; other times it is about a very rough draft, and the student needs suggestions and encouragement for how to develop it; still other times, esp. late in the semester, the conference is about fine-tuning a nearly finished draft.

I always make it clear to students that they don’t have to do what I tell them, but they should respond with revision. Usually I say this in the first introductory conference before they’ve given me a draft. They need to know I want to engage in a conversation, but I don’t want to write their work for them or make it mine. I love it when a student comes up with a creative solution that I wouldn’t have thought of. I want to hear what their intention was for the piece, and I try to help them to realize that. Having these conferences also means that I can say less in the workshop session, since I will have an opportunity to discuss it later. Or I may have insights into the workshopped piece because I’ve already seen it in conference, so I know some of the writer’s answers to questions the class raises. After workshop, we often debrief in conference and go over what was said in class, which can be a good time to deal with any personality conflicts or misunderstandings that the workshop may have caused.

Over the years, I’ve tried different strategies to let the writer have more of a say during workshop, though I’ve also held onto some of the value of focusing on the text and letting the writer listen. I try to find a balance that is respectful of the writer, while also giving the writer the benefit of the group’s reactions. I find this leads to productive discussions, especially when we prepare for these discussions by working in small groups and discussing craft together at the beginning of the semester. Students love the small group workshops, though they often say they like the full class workshops even better. Sometimes they even recognize how these experiences build on one another and how what they learned in small group workshop prepared them for the full experience later.

Felicia Rose Chavez has many other good suggestions that sound interesting but probably aren’t quite my thing. Bringing snacks to workshop is one. I have nothing against it, but I probably won’t go there, at least not often. Having students write a final artist statement is one I usually do as part of their final portfolio or final exam, though I’m not likely to make it an art project in the way she describes. A lot depends on the instructor’s personality and the culture of the institution where they work. Some things will fly in one place that would bomb someplace else or for someone else, so we have to find the methods that work best for us, as long as we maintain the writing community, respect for the writer (and readers), and training for the workshop.

Chavez’s book challenges and invites writing instructors to rethink the way we structure our classes and our workshops. She acknowledges that some of what works for her won’t work for others, yet she gives many great suggestions to use or adapt. It is an excellent way to start this discussion, and I look forward to further reading on this topic. Next up will likely be Matthew Salesses, Craft in the Real World.

Inclusivity: Expanding the Canon

How A Writer’s Craft Can be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 5

Chapter 4 of Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop talks about how Chavez moved from being taught with the standard literature anthologies when she was in college, reading the assigned white writers from library copies in old editions or photocopying assignments because she couldn’t buy the book, to creating her own photocopied course packets so she could include writers of color, to a digital anthology, and finally to an anthology of texts by contemporary writers suggested by her students to give them agency in selecting their influences.

The need to do this, to reexamine not only who we present as the models of good writing (to include or even focus primarily on non-white-male writers), is something I’ve acknowledged for some time. I have always attempted to make my world literature surveys truly multicultural classes that pay more than lip-service to non-western writers, and anthologies are also starting to be much more representative, so that’s easier to do. In my senior English Capstone class, the issue of canon formation is often key, and in poetry literature classes, I try to talk about and question the narrative created by my own selection of poets. In creative writing classes, I have always gravitated towards multicultural anthologies: I suggest the Puschart Prize anthology because their selections tend to be pretty diverse, or I suggest working with literary magazines to choose readings for A Writer’s Craft.

As I’ve said in my first post of this series, the book was designed without a reader as a conscious cost-saving choice that also lets each instructor select the readings they want to include. Similarly, in writing about craft, I avoided giving many examples and encourage instructors to bring in their own, acknowledging that a textbook is a starting point, not the final say on the craft of writing. I encourage instructors (and students) to engage in a dialogue with the book, to disagree at times, and to find their own examples.

Yet reading Chavez, esp. in Chapter 4, does make me think about the examples that I do use in the book. Looking over the index for the names of writers I’ve actually mentioned, I see a decent representation of gender, though there are still more male writers, and a decent international representation, though they are still primarily European. Many prominent white American writers are not mentioned by name, but many prominent African American, Latinx, or Asian American writers (and others) are also left out.

If there ever is a second edition of A Writer’s Craft, something that is not even in the pre-planning stage, what would improve it the most would probably be more examples, and if there are more examples, then I would want to conscientiously select examples from writers of color: both American and international writers. Most of the examples I cite are writers writing about their craft, not examples from their written works, so it might take some research to find statements I would want to include, though there are several I can think of that I’m surprised I didn’t include initially, since I often have used them in class. I’m thinking of Salman Rushdie, for instance, whose essay “Imaginary Homelands” problematizes truth in fiction as well as the reliability of the narrator and cultural assumptions about place. Chinua Achebe has written eloquently on colonialism and fiction, and I would certainly want to include some of the thinking of Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and many others.

The De-Canon website is an excellent source of books, essays, online resources, etc. about craft by writers of color. Another excellent resource is the reading list at Creative Writing Studies, which has one list devoted to diversity and inclusion. These will be great resources to draw from as I add to my notes and ultimately plan for an updated edition.

One chapter from A Writer’s Craft that could use this treatement besides the chapters on genre is the chapter on “Perspective,” where I primarily cover camera angle and point of view. What could be added to this chapter is a discussion of cultural bias. This is something that we all implicitly have, but is also something we can be more aware of both in our own writing and in workshopping the writing of others. The idea of different perspectives could even be introduced in the early chapters “The Writer in the World” and “Past Worlds,” where we could examine what we notice about our world and what we find important from our unique cultural perspectives, and we could ask the question when writing about history: whose history and why is it important. Some of these questions are already implied in the current edition of A Writer’s Craft, but in a second edition, they could be more explicit, especially if more examples from a more diverse selection of writers were included.

I don’t know if I’m quite convinced to have my students select their own readings, though. I think that depends a lot on the students in your classes. I could do it in a graduate class, and maybe in an advanced undergraduate class, but most of my intro students have a very limited reading experience, especially when it comes to contemporary writers. They need to be exposed to writers and kinds of writing they’ve never heard of, which is why I try to use literary magazines or recent and representative anthologies in my classes. To keep costs down, online literary magazines are great, and they also give students ideas about places where they can submit their own work.

I also often include an assignment to review a magazine or to select a poet or writer and find more of their work through our library or online, and then to write a response or a book review. This kind of assignment gives students agency, while also allowing me to expose them to things they normally wouldn’t choose. Using contemporary writers allows me to treat them not as “masters” that have to be emulated, but rather as liberating examples of modes of writing that challenge some norms and follow others, as license to experiment, as examples that the content of creative writing can be current, relevant, political or apolitical (yet still political), etc. Students need to be shown there are many ways to write successfully. They need models, but they don’t need “masters.”

In a second edition of A Writer’s Craft (if that ever happens, and now I’ve raised the possibility, so maybe it will), I would keep the format that there is no anthology of readings and keep the suggestion to work with recent literary magazines.

In the meantime, I would urge myself and other instructors who want to teach in a more anti-racist way to bring in our own examples of different perspectives, to raise the question of “whose world?” or “whose history?” when we talk about the early chapters, and to encourage students to answer “my world” and “my past” as well as to consider the answer, biases, loves, hates, anxieties of others. These questions can be embedded in some of the writing exercises, and I can add more in A Writer’s Craft Community, as can other members by commenting in that topic. A Writer’s Craft is meant as a starting point for discussion, and I encourage you to add your perspective and respond to the perspectives of the writers in your classes.

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.

Responding to Atlanta

Today, I had planned to write another post in my series “How A Writer’s Craft Can Be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook,” but after this week’s mass killing of mostly Asian-American women in Atlanta, I feel the need to respond first. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but it’s important when trying to teach in an anti-racist manner (and thus, when trying to write about that) to acknowledge current events and respond to racism whether it is in the national news or on campus.

Even though the news and public officials are still saying the shooter’s motives are unclear, it’s impossible not to see that there are racist motives involved. It may be true that other motives are also involved, but it can’t be ignored that the shooter targeted three Asian businesses and that one of the three was across town from the other two businesses. You only have to look at the map to know that this was a targeted attack. Statements from local police that seek to downplay the fact that this was a hate crime only serve to highlight the racism that allows a heinous crime like this to be conceivable.

Violence and threats against Asian-Americans have risen dramatically in the past year. It is important for everyone to stand up against this culture of hate and violence and stand for communities of color, as we have after the mass shooting in El Paso or with Black Lives Matter protests last summer. I don’t have answers, but to remain silent is to be part of the problem. Listen to our Asian-American leaders and members of your community and stand with them.

Where I’m Coming From: The Origins of My Workshop Practice

How A Writer’s Craft Can Be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 3

Let me just put it out there: I’m a straight white guy, so you’d be justified in asking what right I have to write about anti-racist anything. My goal in writing this series of posts is not to co-opt the discussion or to tell anyone how they ought to teach, but instead is to reflect on the thoughts of others whose ideas ought to shape the way I teach. As a textbook author, I also want reflect on the book I’ve written and how it might be used in an anti-racist setting. With A Writer’s Craft, I didn’t set out to write an anti-racist book, which is why I say it “can be” and “can be more” anti-racist. As part of that reflection, I feel it is only fair to reflect on and reveal the origins of my own workshop practice.

In discussions of anti-racist creative writing pedagogy, often the Iowa workshop model is held up for criticism. I didn’t go to the Iowa Workshop, though was born and raised in Iowa, went to Knox College not far away, and made many pilgrimages to Iowa City to attend readings and visit Prairie Lights. One of my good friends did go through the Iowa Writers Workshop as a poet, and from her stories, I can certainly believe that the portrayals of the workshops there are fairly acurate. It sounded like a stressful, highly competitive atmosphere, though I’m sure it also has its bright points.

At Knox, two of our main creative writing professors, Robin Metz in fiction and Robin Behn in poetry were Iowa grads. Samuel Moon, the poetry professor when I first arrived, had gone through the University of Michigan. I know we were trained in a workshop model that was at least influenced by Iowa. Neither Robin Metz nor Robin Behn followed it closely, though I do remember they used the rule that the writer had to be silent while their work was discussed, which many writers have criticized as colonialist. I don’t remember that rule being quite so oppressive, though I don’t think we stuck to it religiously, especially with Sam Moon or Robin Behn, and as a white guy, I might not have noticed if we did. With Robin Metz, I remember long and heated discussions, and I think the writers were allowed to engage after a time, maybe because we also were allowed to drink and smoke during our evening workshops.

I won’t say we were never egotistical or overbearing — I’m sure we were. We were also young and foolish, and it was the 1980s. We had several very good writers of color in our group: Tawanna Brown, Audrey Petty, Vita Cross, Jonathan Joe, Dennis See, and Khusro Mumtaz spring to mind. I can’t speak to their experience of our workshops, but I do think that our professors treated everyone equally and we had (and have) great respect for those writers. I hope they experienced it that way. For all its flaws, Knox provided a sound pedagogical foundation, and many of us have gone on to successful writing careers.

My second education in writing, though, was at the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago, where I was fortunate to work with Marc Kelly Smith, a founder of the poetry slams, and David Hernandez and Street Sounds, who often performed there. I consider this my almost/anti-MFA period. Academic poetry was not privileged in a poetry slam environment to say the least, and there were many writers of color we were in awe of. One fall, I had the good fortune to work with Robin Metz and David Hernandez in a writing workshop for Robin’s Urban Studies students — I made coffee and got to sit in on their discussions, and I got to learn from David’s kind, encouraging mentorship. Marc Smith, Sheila Donohue, Cin Salach, and I formed a poetry performance group we called The Bob Shakespeare Band. For a while we had a Tuesday night poetry show at a another Chicago club, performed at the Green Mill, and took our show on the road to a college on Chicago’s West Side and to Ann Arbor for a slam competition. We had a lot of fun, and I relearned or unlearned much of what I’d learned in college about poetry and writing in general. Collaboration, multi-vocal poetry, and audience participation were all parts of what we explored.

Later, I did my graduate work in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. I studied Dutch, German, French, and English, plus lots of literary theory and non-English texts in translation. It was there that I was first exposed to postcolonial literature, for instance, and there that I became a graduate instructor in English and learned to teach composition. I’m grateful that Texas was on the cutting edge of teaching comp as rhetoric and using peer critiques in writing instruction. My Knox workshop experience stood me in good stead, but I also learned a lot from the rhet/comp program, from my fellow grad students, and my own students.

I remember one student — I’ll call him David Alvarez, though my memory of his real name is a little foggy. I know his last name started with A because he was first on my roll. He was a bright student, but he struggled with writing. He was the first person to tell me about racial profiling, long before it became a thing. He described how he and his friends were often stopped by the police as suspected immigrants, even though he was a seventh-generation Texan. His first language was Spanish and he spoke with an accent, so in school he had always been told he couldn’t write, yet he was very intelligent and really only lacked confidence. I remember sitting with him in my basement office (a closet, really) and having him tell me about his ideas for a paper. I took notes and when he finished talking, I read them back to him. He was amazed and wondered how I had come up with those ideas. I said he told them to me. I had just summarized and rearranged a little. I handed him his outline, and suggested that he record his ideas for papers and then write down notes from his recordings. Writing in English presented challenges for David thanks to all the negative feedback he’d gotten, but he had great ideas and could write much better than he believed he could.

I hope my class boosted David’s confidence, but I’m not writing about it now to brag. Instead, I want to emphasize what I learned from him: how not to pre-judge someone for how they look, how they dress, or how they talk. I had a similar experience at Mississippi Univerisity for Women, where I’ve taught for over a quarter century. A few years ago, two black men showed up in my World Literature class and sat in front at the edge of the room, both with their hoodies up. I will confess that my first reaction was to assume that because I could hardly see their faces they would be disengaged. I’m grateful to colleagues and African American writers I know who’ve been outspoken about wearing hoodies — this was not too long after Trayvon Martin was killed, as I recall, so it could even be seen as a political statement. I gave these students positive written feedback on their writing assignments (something I haven’t always taken the time to do for students when I’ve had a lot of grading). Pretty soon the guy in front started speaking up in class and his friend who sat behind followed a few days later. My attitude changed because I took the time to notice. They might have checked out if I hadn’t, and that would have been my fault. They also might have stayed quiet, but still done well in the class. They were both good students, in other words, and they only needed to be invited into the discussion.

I’ve been that student. After high school, I spent a year as an exchange student in Belgium, going to a high school and living in a family where everyone spoke Dutch, or Flemish to be more precise. When I arrived, I had utterly no knowledge of the language, though we did receive a week-long language and culture school in the summer. After that, we had to learn everything on our own and from our families by immersion. So I’ve been the student who was confused and on the outside of every group. I was also the exotic American exchange student, so most students and teachers wanted to help me out, but it was still an incredible challenge, and I think it helps me put myself in my students’ shoes when they are facing those challenges.

Flemish is really just a name for the dialects of Dutch that are spoken in the northern half of Belgium, and the Flemish are incredibly proud of their dialects. I learned the standardized Flemish taught in school well enough to translate Flemish poetry later. I also learned enough of the dialect spoken in Ghent that I could understand my host-grandfather and my host-mother when they spoke it. And I learned that speaking a non-standard dialect doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent, but instead is a sign of your close ties to your community. This is a lesson I’ve taken into my composition and creative writing classes.

My creative writing pedagogy has also been informed by the pedagogy panels I have participated in over the years at AWP, and I’m grateful to them for introducing many of the ideas that have been transforming workshops for decades. My good friends from Knox, Anna Leahy and Mary Cantrell introduced me to this group, where I also have become friends with Stephanie Vanderslice. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am without the conversations we’ve had.

My creative writing students have also been instrumental. When I first started teaching and got comments on my course evaluations that students thought I wanted them to write a certain way or write like me, I probably was defensive. But I’ve also learned to listen to those comments, to try to find ways to ask questions, provide options and choices, and let students do more of the talking. This was one reason I started using small group workshops in which I ask students directed questions about excercises they’ve written. The directed questions and instructions for commenting on and adding to each other’s writing helps keep those workshops focused, but what I’ve discovered is that their conversations about each other’s writing around the edges of the planned discussion are often what is the most productive. These small group workshops also serve as training for the larger group workshops later, and they have led to revising the workshop model to loosen up the rule that the writer must be silent (a topic I plan to revisit later in this series of posts).

I teach at a state school that is 80% women and nearly 40% African American. I have had students of all colors and all genders and gender identities. I remember the first student who asked to be called by a different name — she wanted to use a male-sounding name, and this was some years before trans rights became part of the national conversation. Because writers often use a psuedonym, I said it was fine. After that, I’ve always asked whether someone has a preferred name that isn’t what’s on my roll. Some years later, another student asked the same question, revealing that he was trans and I was the first professor he had approached about it. We had a discussion about what it would mean to take a name other than Savannah in class, since we were several weeks into the semester at that point. We agreed on what name would be best, and that was the name he used for the rest of his time in our program. I even got used to his rather graphic poems about serial killers.

I don’t mean to suggest that I am perfect. I know that I have biases and that I still have a lot to learn. What I do mean to suggest is that I have been fortunate enough to have good mentors, friends, and role models. I’ve learned to listen to my students and to realize that a colonialist workshop model would never work at a school like mine — I would have the authority to use it, don’t get me wrong, but it would be terrible for my students. An anti-racist workshop also needs to be an anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist workshop. It challenges instructors and empowers students. It is in a fairly long tradition of rethinking creative writing pedagogy of which I’ve been fortunate to play a small role and to learn from those who have been leaders. That is what I’m attempting to do now by engaging with these books through this series of posts.

Some Thoughts on Craft

How A Writer’s Craft Can Be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 2

The word “craft” can sometimes take on a negative connotation in discussions of anti-racist workshops, and I get it. Strict ideas about craft have often been used as justification for certain kinds of writing over others, and yet craft does not have to be monolithic and judgmental. Craft should be a set of tools and ideas about how things can and maybe do work, but not a yardstick to measure how ‘great’ or ‘inferior’ something is.

In her introduction to The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, Felicia Rose Chavez states, “The anti-racist model confirms craft as an abstract concept; participants collectively define the workshop vocabulary” and later argues that “all workshop participants have equal access to the language of craft.” She has a whole chapter on craft later in the book, so I hope to return to this in more detail, but for now what I get from these statements is that craft isn’t inherently wrong, but access to craft and student empowerment to define craft are the main issues.

Similarly, Matthew Salesses, in “25 Essential Notes on Craft” on LitHub calls craft “a set of expections” of an audience that are not universal but are standardized. They can be challenged, in other words, and different groups of readers will see craft differently. It is valuable to know these expectations, but not to be defined by them.

Both of these ways to think about craft are similar to the way it is handled in A Writer’s Craft. I talk about craft, not in terms of rules, but in terms of conventions. Conventions change over time, they are different from one culture to another. Conventions are what work, but also what has become accepted, sometimes arbitrarily. Yet it is good to know what they are, so you know what readers expect. Students develop their knowledge of the vocabulary of craft, yet these terms are presented a choices rather than rules.

Take point of view, for instance. In the chapter on “Perspective,” we look deeper than the surface level of first-, second-, or third-person point of view by examining depth of first person POV for both witness and central characters and also from the perspective of time, whether the narration is immediate, reflective, or removed. Similarly, with third person, the narrator can be omniscient or limited, internal, external, or anywhere in between. Tense also makes a difference, as it does with first person. Second-person point of view can refer to the reader, a specific person, or anyone. Point of view is presented as series of choices that affect the expectations of the reader, but no point of view is seen as better or more sophisticated than another. Which perspective you choose affects the expectations of a reader and the kind of information you can or must reveal, so there are better choices for different effects, but there’s no universally right choice.

Poetry is treated similarly. Though I try to present the basics of traditional English prosody, I also present students with alternatives like syllabic verse, Anglo Saxon verse, free verse, and non-western forms. We look at how rhyme is viewed differently in different cultures, with some sounds accepted or rejected as rhyme sounds at different times and in different places. Throughout the book, the emphasis on craft is on understanding the choices that writers can work with and the understanding that literary craft is constantly evolving.

Though shifting points of view can be a problem in a final draft, in an early draft it’s common. Noting where a writer shifts from a limited to an omniscient perspective or from first person to third or from past to present tense is not about correcting an error. The point is to make writers aware of where those shifts have happened, so they can make a conscious choice about which convention they want to follow. And if shifting perspectives is the desired effect or matches the narrator’s voice — we’ve all heard people tell stories orally and change tenses, for instance — then the decision is whether it can be done consistently enough to work or whether it will seem too confusing or sloppy to the reader. I always say that a rule is only a rule until it’s broken well enough to establish a new convention.

My stance on craft is that students need a knowledge of it so they are empowered to make their own choices. Some aspects of craft are based in how language works, others are based on conventions that have changed over time and from culture to culture. By acknowledging this and by including a discussion of other traditions, I hope that A Writer’s Craft can be useful in opening up students to their own exploration of craft, while also teaching some essential vocabulary of craft that helps writers talk to each other about what we do. Many of my students are going into education and will need this vocabulary, both for the standardized tests they need to pass and for teaching in the classroom, yet I hope my book helps them understand craft as a complex set of choices, not as a set of hard-and-fast rules.

One way A Writer’s Craft can be improved in this regard, it is by exploring more elements of craft from other cultures and communities. That is one aspect of The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop and Craft in the Real World that I am eager to learn from. It’s also something I’m always looking to learn from my students, and as I emphasized in the previous post, it’s something I encourage instructors to bring to the table. I don’t claim to have all the answers, though I hope to provide plenty of valuable insights. In any workshop, instructors and students should engage in lively conversations about craft. A Writer’s Craft provides a starting point for those discussions.