Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the Vona/Voices Writing Workshop

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Reimagining and Remaking: On Healing from Workshop Trauma with Matthew Salesses’ ‘Craft in the Real World’

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I need to admit something right up front: I am a product of the Creative Writing Industrial Complex.

I use this term because I came of age in the 1990s when creative writing classes, clubs, and summer camps began to flourish, thus creating a pathway towards the MFA program. It speaks, of course, to my upper middle class upbringing because many of the programs that I participated in cost money.

My earliest creative writing memory is when I competed in the Power of the Pen, where students undertook timed writing prompts, in eighth grade. My English teacher Mrs. Rinn drove me and my friend (who I felt incredibly competitive with since we were both Indian American and into writing) from Centerville, Ohio to Columbus. It was an overnight trip, and we had qualified at the regional level; it felt important. In high school, I attended several summer programs dedicated to creative writing including the Kenyon Young Writers program, where I met glamorous girls from the coasts who I stayed pen pals with for years. During my senior year at my private college prep school, I did a special independent study with a retired English professor from a local university. I spent the spring bringing him pages of an angsty play where the characters chain-smoked cigarettes, talked about sex, plotted crimes, and made a lot of Star Wars and Godfather references. (I may have been going through a Quentin Tarantino phase then. Weren’t we all in 1996?)

In October 2008, one year after finishing my MFA, I sat in a cottage on Whidbey Island at the Hedgebrook residency for women, ready to revise my thesis—a collection of short stories entitled Misbehaving—and felt an utter sense of panic. I realized I had no idea how to revise a story. I felt as though the stories had become impenetrable, echoing with endless comments and suggestions from years of workshop. I felt like a failure. I spoke to the Black poet in the cottage next door, and she told me after her own MFA she had stopped writing altogether for close to a year. She was healing herself on the island with odes to slugs and figs. I would go on to hear this over and over from different writers who left their MFA programs and needed time to heal before they returned to their work.

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In Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping (Catapult), he tackles the underlying problems in teaching creative writing— starting not with eight students and a workshop leader sitting around a table—but by unpacking the word “craft” and how much it’s informed by an individual’s cultural values. In the first half of the book, Salesses focuses on craft and the elements of writing before offering ways to rethink the workshop in the latter half.

Late in the book, Salesses admits that he holds an unpopular opinion amongst literary types, which is that he “believe[s] in workshop as a shared act of imagination.” Shortly thereafter, Salesses advocates for “burning the old models down” in order to remake them.

This book is a stunning conflagration, and I wish I had it with me for the past twenty plus years of navigating writing workshops, both as student and teacher. It is a blueprint for a way forward to build better writing programs, and thus a new kind of writer and teacher who can imagine beyond a structure that often hurt them and left them in need of repair.

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It was at Kenyon, when I was 17, where I remember first feeling that dizzying, addictive quality of the writing workshop; that pre-social media feedback loop that workshop provided, especially as a nerdy kid in the 90s who wrote in paper notebooks only for herself. At Oberlin, I became thoroughly familiar with the sweaty, nauseous excitement of workshop and, even then, began to recognize the power dynamics. That’s where I came to know the workshop personality types that have persisted through the decades: the opinionated bro, the over-enthusiastic offerer of fixes, the “this reminds me of an obscure story I read” snob. And, of course, the feeling as a non-white, Asian American student of being out of place, or having my peers say they needed to spend time looking up where my story was set on a map, or that backhanded comment about how lucky I was to have such rich cultural material to pull from. That it didn’t occur to me for almost another decade that there was something deeply troubling about the repetition of these comments and workshop types reveals to me now how mesmerized and enmeshed I was in the system.

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In Craft in the Real World, Salesses writes: “I believe in the vulnerability of process and the process of vulnerability” when talking about why he believes in the workshop model, but he follows this up by writing we must “acknowledge and confront the dangers of workshop.”

And, of course, these dangers have been well-documented and discussed in this past decade. Junot Diaz wrote about it in “MFA vs. POC”, the introduction to Dismantle, an anthology from writers of color who attended the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) Workshops. The piece, outlining the issues Diaz faced in his MFA at Cornell—which he said was “too white”—was also published in the New Yorker in 2014. “Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having,” Diaz wrote.

Salesses doesn’t spend too much time on his own experiences as a student. Instead, in the first half of the book, Salesses carefully deconstructs the idea of the creative writing workshop model as a place of neutrality. He traces the history of the current workshop model to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which rose to prominence under poet Paul Engle in the second half of the 20th Century, and how tied Engle’s ideas of literature were to defending against the threat of communism. “What we call craft is in fact nothing more or less than a set of expectations. Those expectations are shaped by workshop, by reading, by awards and gatekeepers, by biases about whose stories matter and how they should be told,” Salesses writes. “These expectations are never neutral. They represent the values of the culturally dominant population: in America that means (straight, cis, able, upper-middle-class) white males. When craft is taught unreflexively … it reinforces narrow ideas about whose stories are important and what makes a story moving, beautiful, and good.”

In the grounding essays in the first two chapters of the book, Salesses draws from Toni Morrison’s critical texts, Playing in the Dark and The Origin of Others; critiques and investigates other great writers like Aristotle, E.M. Forester, John Gardener, Charles Baxter, and Milan Kundera; and intersperses ideas from Asian American scholars like Lisa Lowe and Trin T. Minh Ha. What a pleasure it is to get a published critique of these classical ideas about writing and how they are connected to privilege and position.

But one of the core ideas of this book—which was both intriguing and surprising—is that this book is not focused on race nor necessarily from an Asian American perspective. Instead it’s a broader take on power structures and how they affect the traditional workshop model. What follows then, is not always a discussion about classes Salesses has taught, but scenarios that explain these ideas. For example, he writes about a class where there are seven literary fiction writers and one fantasy fiction writer. Then he expands this idea to any of these different workshops: “Writers of color in a workshop where the craft values are implicitly white, or LGBT writers in a workshop where the craft values are straight and cis, or women writers in a workshop where the craft values are male, and so on, are regularly told to ‘know the rules before they can break them.’ They are rarely told that these rules are more than “just craft” or “pure craft,” that rules are always cultural. This is how the spread of craft starts to feel and work like colonization.”

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After I graduated from Oberlin, I moved to San Francisco and became a reporter at a weekly Asian American newspaper. Over the next three years, I threw myself into the vibrant Bay Area creative and activist communities: joining the staff of a new Asian American magazine; taking creative writing classes at Asian American arts spaces;  co-editing an anthology of writing dedicated to South Asian voices after 9/11. Every aspect of my creative life was about centering the voices of those who were marginalized.

I decided to get my MFA at San Francisco State University, the birthplace of Ethnic Studies, which had a huge population of working-class and immigrant students. Though I didn’t realize the population of the actual MFA program—most MFA programs—was very different from the school’s larger diversity. In the program, I encountered almost all white professors and mostly white peers in my classes.

Salesses writes: “MFA workshops are infamous for being mostly white, mostly cis, mostly straight, mostly able, mostly middle-class, mostly literary, and mostly realist. The writers who face the biggest gap between the expectations of the workshop and the expectations of their actual audience are marginalized writers ….” This was true for me, and it was jarring and sometimes painful, but mostly I didn’t think about it. Once, during a workshop, a student said that some of my white characters felt flat and that they seemed overly simplistic in the way they were all “the bad guys.” She went on to say that I could check out the movie Crash for its complex portrayal of race relations. It was an innocuous enough comment but I remember my rage in that moment, that my fists were clenched and my heart was palpitating. I may have even growled. I didn’t know the term “racial microaggression” then but this was a perfect example. Something shifted for me that day. Once I accessed that rage, I couldn’t put it back. Suddenly, those types of comments started to pile up and distort my ability to feel at peace in my classes. I took refuge in classes outside of the department like Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Those classes helped me process and name the issues I was interested in writing fiction about, and had the structures to recognize racial and class differences.

At the time, I was also working as an editor for a long-time youth media project run out of the historic Pacific News Service, a non-profit alternative media organization focused on centering voices of those not represented in mainstream media. So, when I wasn’t in my all-white workshops, I was at our large open office South of Market asking young people to center their POV and stories first, and providing them the structure and resources to do so. I was constantly thinking about the ideas that Salesses talks about at length in this book, which is how to restructure the workshop space in order for writers to find their own power and not let it be crushed by a system that doesn’t serve or see them.

I taught my first community creative writing class at Kearny Street Workshop—the oldest multidisciplinary Asian American arts space in the country. In 2005, the org had moved to a third floor space near the 16th Street BART Station on a particularly grimy part of Capp Street alley. I remember how exciting it felt to claim the space as my own for two hours on a Tuesday evening. I still had a year of my MFA to go and wasn’t interested in teaching composition, so this class felt like a way to share the resources and knowledge I was receiving with my community. These models of teaching writing became foundational to me, and I have always recognized the same sensibility in Salesses’ work.

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I first came across Salesses’ writing in 2012, after I had moved to Los Angeles and became an editor at Kaya Press, an independent press dedicated to Asian American and Asian diasporic writing. Salesses is a prolific writer who has published two novels, a chapbook, and many, many essays over the 15 years. Most significant to me was his month-long takeover of the website Necessary Fiction in 2012, which focused entirely on the subject of revision—his ideas and those of other writers as well. He wrote there: “I have decided to launch a war on first drafts and erect the memorial to edits.”

This intersected with a time in my life when I had begun thinking critically about the problems in the workshop model, and why I had not had a lot of success with my thesis manuscript after graduating. Along with never taking any classes that focused on the idea of revision, I realized that the traditional workshop model rewards polished first drafts. And, as a product of that system for so long, I learned how to pander my writing to what seemed successful in first drafts, but felt stuck afterwards in terms of how to make the draft better. I also could have used more support around my actual writing process when I was in my MFA, as well as my emotional state and how it felt to be writing in a mostly white space during a violent decade of war. Now that support seems important to any healthy space for students, but back then I could not imagine it being provided.

Now I am an adjunct professor at several universities, and a parent, and an editor, and trying to write a novel. I know that everyone is trying to get through their day and life and teach, and I understand that each student can’t be treated as though they are the center of the world, but maybe the structure needs to be shifted to allow for more holistic support.

A writing professor I worked with for my entire four years at my MFA pulled me aside during class break in my penultimate semester to say that he’d be gone for my thesis semester and a different person—who I had not worked with the entire time in my MFA—would be directing my thesis meetings. When I expressed concern, he scoffed and said he only met with his own thesis advisor for thirty minutes during his own thesis semester and it didn’t really matter. I remember feeling utterly confused and upset, but also embarrassed at my emotions. Of course, I wanted to come off as cool as a cucumber to this white man who just told me that my work and MFA process was not important to him and, in effect, should not be important to me. That happened fourteen years ago and my cheeks still burn with embarrassment; embarrassment that it still matters to me, and anger that I walked out of my program with such a clear message about the importance of my work.

All to say that Salesses’ work, whether about revision, or the essays that were the predecessor to Craft in the Real World—one of my favorites is published here at The Millions called “Seeing Myself: In Search of the Inciting Incident,” or a longer essay about his Asian American identity and basketball player Jeremy Lin, which I teach often to my undergraduate students—always felt like a chance to rethink my own MFA program. Salesses’ writing has always provided practical and well-thought tools for getting over those painful blocks that prevented me from flourishing at the writing desk.

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And, thankfully, Salesses continues that work here in this book. Beyond the essays that dismantle and engage in ideas of craft and the history of the workshop in America, the second half of the book is full of resources like alternative workshop models and even super practical ideas like rethinking what to grade in creative writing workshops.

For the past four years, I have had the distinct privilege to teach mixed-genre creative writing workshops in the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA, a department which believes that Ethnic Studies should offer classes in scholarship, community-based learning, and the arts. I admit that I cried my first day of teaching when I walked into a creative writing classroom of majority Asian American students and other students of color. And, though in the years that I have taught this class, it feels incredible to be able to center culture and context when talking about writing—it is not a utopia. I have encountered workshop bullies and struggled to unpack the power dynamics of workshop here as well. I have adopted alternative models, like dancer Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, but even that doesn’t always work. Sometimes I just know that the workshop has not been useful for a student.

Salesses makes an argument that each student in your class could have a different workshop model, that it might be very particular to the student and what they are trying to do, and the workshop and who is in it. He gives models as varied as a reverse of the gag rule, where the student getting workshopped gets to ask questions to the class, or where another student in the class acts as a translator and defender of the person getting workshopped. These tools and ideas— and his own notes on how these models worked and didn’t worked—are incredible and feel like opportunities for further exploration. I am excited about models that really encourage the writer to take control of the workshop; this idea of giving power back to the workshop participant feels intrinsic to the change that needs to happen.

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One of the damaging side effects of a bad workshop is a fear to be vulnerable again. In order to make good art, vulnerability is crucial, and the writing workshop should be the space where writers first lay themselves and their work bare. Salesses writes about how this is often expected disproportionately from writers or color: “Like everything else, vulnerability is a matter of privilege and power and must be considered within a system of privilege and power.”

Craft in the Real World outlines ways to start having conversations and making small changes towards reclaiming this vulnerability. It feels like an opening where things have felt closed, or stuck, or violent, or unsafe for those of us who have been students or teachers in painful or damaging creative writing workshops. Salesses has offered both a torch to light the fire, and a safe path to the new world that we can now start to build.

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