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Antiracist Praxis

Bias in Creative Writing by Susan Mockler

Creative Writing (CW) programs continue to thrive, and, ideally, operate as safe places of artistic expression, development, and community. The mainstay of these programs is the CW workshop, where participants read and comment on each other’s work-in-progress. However, the long-standing CW workshop model has traditionally been a white, male, Euro-centric normative one, which, as universities and classrooms become more diverse, often serves to silence, diminish the authority of, and further marginalize diverse voices. The traditional model has its benefits in that it replicates the way a publisher might approach the work. At the same time, the model prioritizes critical feedback from peers, assuming the work is flawed rather than recognizing it is a draft. The model also prevents the author from commenting on their own work until all comments have been made. This aspect of the CW workshop is known as the “gag rule,” as it precludes the author from fronting the discussion with explanation of what they were trying to accomplish in the work or asking for specific feedback. The model also discourages those who are not gender-, race-, or class-privileged from speaking out in defense of their peer’s critiques (Kearns 794).

The normative assumptions of the CW workshop must be challenged, beginning with elimination of the “gag rule,” giving the author freedom to participate in the discussion, explaining certain cultural or language traditions or structural choices, which would allow the entire class to learn from one another. A non-normative CW workshop also would approach writing in progress in positive terms, rather than work that is inherently flawed (Kearns 801).

One example of a non-normative CW workshop is the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, offered across the Black Diaspora at several universities. African American author and Callaloo instructor, Helen Elaine Lee, describes the workshops as building a community where there was “excitement, a feeling of safety, a relief from the scrutiny…burden to justify and explain ourselves and our experiences and our histories” (Avant et al. 43).

References

Adsit, Janelle, editor. Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 

Avant, A.H. Jerriod, et. al. “Callaloo and the Creative Writing Workshop.” Callaloo, vol. 40, no. 1, 2017, pp. 38-53, 2017. 

Bishop, Wendy, and Hans Ostrom. Colors of a Different Horse: Rethinking Creative Writing Theory and Pedagogy. National Council of Teachers of English. 1994. 

Kearns, Rosalie Morales. “Voice of Authority: Theorizing Creative Writing Pedagogy.College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 4, June 2009, pp. 790-807. 

Annotated Bibliography

Naga, Noor, and Robert McGill. “Negotiating Cultural Difference in Creative Writing Workshops." Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, vol. 18, no. 1, 2018, pp. 69-86. 

Diversity in any classroom should never be ignored, but the creative writing (CW) workshop is particularly dependent on feedback for student work and inevitably influenced by the cultural identities of the students in the workshop (70).  

Students often share personal experience and open up to their own vulnerability in the CW workshop. These experiences are frequently tied to specifics of their culture, making it imperative that instructors and students find a way to address this cultural diversity in the workshop. Noor and McGill further add that as CW students may be called upon to stand publicly as cultural authorities in the practice of their art, the workshops provide them the space to begin to learn to articulate their artistic choices (70). 

The long-standing norms of the CW workshop have been white, straight, and male, which, as a result, affects what stories (this article discusses primarily fiction) are being written, for whom, and how they are discussed in workshop. Attending only to these norms can alienate members of marginalized communities—leading to experiences of “invisibility and inconsequence, exclusion, and silencing” (73). 

In North American college workshops, especially, there is danger in privileging and universalizing particular cultural norms of literary touchstones or values. Noor and McGill further call for a need for participants and instructors in the CW workshop to be self-reflexive about norms that may be at work in the workshop, to recognize alternative values, and to institute practices addressing those alternatives. 

It is also important to realize that some authors who use, for example, culturally specific terminology are doing so deliberately to exclude some readers as resistance to oppressive norms. The point is that not all cultural particulars need be accessible to all readers. CW workshop instructors must take care not to expect that writers “testify” about their cultural identities,Students should be able to prioritize their own learning rather than educating their peers. 

Kearns, Rosalie Morales. “Voice of Authority: Theorizing Creative Writing Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 4, June 2009, pp. 790-807. 

Rosalie Morales Kearns critiques the conventions of many creative writing (CW) workshops: the “gag rule,” which prevents the author from speaking during discussion of their work; that discussion focuses primarily on “flaws” in the work; and that identifying these flaws implies the work deviates from some norm, but that norm is not articulated (792). In cases where the work is praised, judgment and norms are still imposed upon the work. Morales explores these assumptions and dynamics in the workshop setting, particularly who has the authority to say work is flawed, that it should be changed a certain way, who is privileged to speak in the workshop, whose work gets validated, who is to say what “good” writing is, and what are the implications of “gatekeeping” in the literary realm. She then offers an alternative to the normative workshop. 

Morales proposes that the CW workshop borrow insights from writing studies programs, who have identified that error correction (edits on a draft) is not an effective teaching tool, that power dynamics affect learning, and that focusing on error correction undermines a student’s confidence. 

Morales proposes an alternative model to the normative CW workshop, which resists the conventional strategies. First, the non-normative model would not position the author’s work as inherently flawed, with the author adhering to the “gag rule.” Instead, the non-normative model would be conceptualized in positive terms, thinking of the work as “in-process,” rather than flawed. The author would take part in the discussion, perhaps leading it, allowing for everyone to learn. Discussion on techniques would focus on their effect on the work. Discussion would focus on what is on the page, not what participants think should be there. “Rather than ‘critique’ or ‘give feedback,’ we could aim to listen, learn, converse, encourage ... each other to create art” (801). 

Morales conceptualizes an alternative CW curriculum as a balance among (1) close study of published works (by a wide variety of global authors, especially women, people of color, and postcolonial writers), (2), writing exercises (feedback would provide ideas for revision and trying something new), and (3) some type of forum for discussing more polished student work (peer discussion including ongoing discussion of aesthetic assumptions. 

Avant, A.H. Jerriod, er. al. Callaloo and the Creative Writing Workshop.” Callaloo, vol. 40, no. 1, 2017, pp. 38-53. 

In a panel discussion led by A.H. Jerriod Avant, workshop leaders at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop discussed pedagogy and leadership roles, including how the workshops differ from conventional creative writing (CW) workshops. 

Greg Pardlo asserted that rather than workshop participants commenting on what isn’t working in the piece, Callaloo workshops push to ask the harder questions, offering observations and comments such as “there is something unique going on here where you clearly let your guard down...What happened here?...How did this thing intrude upon the poem?” (39). Questions such as these, he claims, can’t be asked at the university because they are personal, probing, and revealing and allowing for trust to be developed among the participants. Pardlo describes what they do at Callaloo as “radical individualism.” 

Vievee Francis added that asking the difficult questions is important because collectivity can be the place where poets of color hide (being told that the “I” is less than the “we”). Instructors at Callaloo insist on students finding their “individuated” voices, to take agency, to consider where they are in relation to the larger landscape and how they can “ripple” that landscape rather than fit in. Power, she claims, comes from students writing from their individual cultures, not the collective. 

Desiree Bailey noted that in MFA programs, participants can be fearful of dealing with the difficult content that black writers can bring to the workshop, or, that because of what is happening in the world, they have to tiptoe around the work, resulting in superficial examination and discussion of the work.Political correctness can often take precedence that can impede productive discussion of the work. 

Jeremy Clark added that Callaloo supports an environment of “radical vulnerability,” where the student is courageous and trusting enough to live in the space of being uncomfortable and exposed. He adds that he wants his students to answer the question of why they want to write the poem. 

Adsit, Janelle, editor. Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 

Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft is a collection of creative writing criticism essays that cover the key debates in creative writing today, including the ethics of appropriation, the politics of literary evaluation, language and community, identity and authorship. The book anthologizes critical essays written by international literary writers. Each essay is contextualized with an introduction as well as sample questions, writing prompts and suggested readings. The book also has a companion website offering supplemental materials such as lesson plans and course materials. Authors include Ayana Mathis, Leslie Marmon Silko, Craig Santos Perez, Natasha Sajé, Porochista Khakpour, Taiye Selasi, Michael Nardone, Conchitina Cruz, Benjamin Paloff, Dorothy Wang, and many more.