We Owe More to Our Young Writers: On the Relevance of the Workshop
Ru Freeman Considers the Responsibility of the Writing Life
In post 11/8 America, the citizenry became more aware, more active, more willing to submit themselves to self-examination. Yet while the world of journals both print (Freeman’s), and online (Guernica, Lit Hub, Electric Literature), have increased their commitment to the exploration of socio-political realities in their literature, and while even the usually slow-moving publishing world has stepped up their game, throwing a fair portion of their customary caution to the winds in an effort to slip anchor and sail toward the future, creative writing programs have refused to budge. And they have refused to budge in two significant ways: in their rote pedagogical practice, which remains insular, and in the criteria they use to select new faculty which emphasize paper qualifications that favor a certain demographic over skills and experiences that defines others.
The preoccupations of a changing demographic, the churn of their concerns and the eloquences with which they articulate them, have remained, to all intents and purposes, the subject of a voyeuristic and oddly self-conscious glance on the part of English departments from coast to coast. A course on the literatures of, a faculty member who looks the part but cannot speak the now tender, now razor-edged languages of the outsider—displacement and refuge, the largesse born of impoverishment, the brutality and beauty of communal embrace to name a few—and most departments seem to believe that they have filled the vacuum. It is as though the inclusion of voices that are not merely global in thought but so in deed, or that straddle multiple realities while still attempting to walk the path of linearity required of them, might bastardize a pureness of literary form and inquiry.
In a recent article for the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-Winner author Viet Nguyen described the hide-bound thus:
The identity behind the workshop’s origins is invisible. Like all privileges, this identity is unmarked until it is thrown into relief against that which is marked, visible and outspoken, which is to say me and others like me. We, the barbarians at the gate, the descendants of Caliban, the ones who have no choice but to speak in the language we have—we come bearing the experiences and ideas the workshop suppresses. We come from the Communist countries America bombed during the Cold War, or where it sponsored counter-Communist efforts. We come from the lands America occupied, invaded or colonized. We come as refugees and immigrants, documented and undocumented. We come from the ghettos, barrios, reservations and borders of America where there are no workshops. We come from the bedrooms and the kitchens of the American home, where we were supposed to stay, and stay silent. We come speaking languages other than English. We come from the margins, where English is broken. We come with financial aid and loans and families that do not understand what “creative writing” is. We come from communities we do not wish to renounce in the name of our individualism. We come wanting to do more than just sell our stories to white audiences. And we come with the desire not just to show, but to tell.
Nguyen’s argument is not against the model of the workshop, per se, but the notion of the sanctity of its origins and the absoluteness of its conduct. I have taught now for several years in a variety of settings, small and large universities whose students are drawn from the vast and rural American landscape, and distinguished urban institutions whose students range from the very wealthy to the not-so-much, each displaying their own prejudices. In each of these, no matter the class, my approach has been not to prioritize the dissection of prose—and sometimes poetry—to shape a voice, but to treat the pre-existing conditions of desire and intent behind those voices as they speak of the world to which their stories are addressed. That first, always.
The choice to teach in this way might be considered unorthodox. Surely, line-edits on a particular piece of writing would be more useful. Perhaps it is. But of what use is a well-written bit of prose if it is devoid of substance? The most artfully written sentence cannot make up for what is missing in content and which does not, in some way, move humankind forward. If there is no emotional truth to what is being set down on paper, there is nothing that can be done to salvage it from the dustbin of history in which it surely belongs.
Here’s an example: I was once required to critique a piece of non-fiction written by an undergraduate at a highly competitive liberal arts college in New England, whose intention was to write about her experiences studying human rights over the course of three months of travel in Nepal, Jordan, and Chile. The piece I read concentrated on her month in Jordan, during which she was supposed to master “the human rights issues, histories, and current politics,” not only of Jordan, but its surrounding nations of Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Israel.
I submit to you that my role in that classroom, as her professor, is not to perpetuate the myopia and the idiocy of the American program directors who obviously feel that the long histories and complex cultures of other nations can be imbibed with, say, a vial of arak or a cup of Arabic coffee—by young people whose only comprehensive reference to their own country comes in a seventh grade assignment to match the 50 states to their capitols. No. My role in that classroom is to direct her gaze at the baggage she is being asked to carry with her through the world, the kind that cannot be hauled into the underbelly of her transport and picked up later, the kind that will blight her vision for the rest of her life. To give her, in other words, an entry-point to her essay that is far more useful in this world than the non alors! of the drivel that might otherwise ensue.
We must be willing and able to recognize that what we are called upon to do in our classrooms goes beyond polite discussions of craft. And this is particularly true today for we are at long last agreed on the moral contours of our socio-political landscape. We are all equally unblinkered: looking at an age of consternation, panic, hysteria, blaming, myopia, fear, all of which can be encapsulated under the concept of ignorance. We are a nation of ignorance, and by this I do not mean every soul on this great stolen land, but rather that we combine—with our silences and our inactions and our cowardice—to make of ourselves a nation’s worth of ignorance where the meek walk sans compass or light cursing both the stars and the dark yet lacking the will to exert our energies toward demonstrating a more thoughtful, relevant, and courageous conduct of life, in our minds, in our deeds, in our words, and most particularly, in our classrooms.
It isn’t as difficult as we have been persuaded to believe it is. Around this same time in 2008, I was listening to news of Israeli forces bombing Gaza, leaving 1,417 people, 313 of them children dead, when my father called me from Sri Lanka, wanting to know what American writers were saying about all of this. He suggested that I ask my own publisher to bring out a collection of writing about this issue for once, in a braver time, there had been a collection of American writers who had written about Vietnam. It would have been easy to say “but, my potential prospects for employment…” or, “but, my NYT book reviews…” There is always a way to imagine that servility and playing by the rules will somehow propel us to great fame. But, as we have learned from the tale of David and Goliath, one does not beat Goliath by accepting his rules of engagement which have been designed to serve him. So I and 65 other writers, chose not to.
There are no excuses to be made. There never have been. And this will, this determination to address with our art and with our teaching and with our very life every single day, this world and its injustices alongside its beauty, is not something to be learned, it is something to be recognized as a privilege. For privilege itself accords us that responsibility. I wasn’t born here, you might say, I was raised differently, but in America, among its poorest and its darkest, there is a similar innate recognition of what we are here to do, that what is morally repugnant must be referred to as such, must be countered with all our might.
No, I could not wait for anointment, for someone to say, all hail Ru, she must be the one take this on, and here’s the golden circular embossed stamp to place on your book covers, and here’s your byline in the NYT so that fear will no longer grip the cockles of your heart. Go forth and preach, sister! And no, we others couldn’t wait, unlike, say, the ACLU, for a bottom feeder to occupy the white house before we could have our come-to-Jesus moment and realize that, hey, no, it’s not okay to disrupt a fellow human-being’s moment of mourning and burial as the Westboro Baptist Church did regularly, doggedly defended by the ACLU which was in turn roundly applauded and funded by many of us. No, we others cannot wait until the correct number of congressional aides have answered the requisite number of tallied phone calls to protest the murder of another Black child.The most artfully written sentence cannot make up for what is missing in content and which does not, in some way, move humankind forward.
This might be our burden, but it is also our gift. And it is called fearlessness. And if we cannot teach fearlessness in the creative writing classroom, the classroom where, above all other classrooms, we learn to imagine and we learn to articulate not only what is but what can be forged into being, what the hell else is there to teach? If we cannot hire and defend the people who can and will take on that work, who have a lifetime of preparation to do that work, in our creative writing departments, at what unconscionable price do we protect an evil that flourishes in plain sight? For your solutions are everywhere: we are your mostly female, mostly of-color, often foreign adjuncts, we are your visiting lecturers, we are your non-tenure-track faculty, we are your Distinguished writers, we are your American Quarter Horses, who have already experienced first-hand a world of injustice and cruelty that is untenable and have set out to mend it because there is no other way to conduct our lives.
We must commit, as a collective, to bringing a fierce energy to our classrooms where, a few students may develop an intensity of discomfort in their intestines, but most will finally identify their guts as being part of the body they inhabit. With passionate effort, our students might yet go from being a concert of crows cawing in the same register, safe within the dull shades of uniformity, to articulating the music and iridescence of a truly creative menagerie.
There is no other way to be a professor, a title whose etymology comes from the Latin, profiteri, which is to lay claim to, and to declare openly. To be, in a word, public. This is not a profession for the faint of heart, for the cowardly whose concerns are to do with notions of safety and security absent from the scrutiny of the young people before them or the judgement of their fellow human-beings now and in the future. Teach. From the Middle English “techen” which is to show, train, direct, warn, from the Proto-Germanic “taikijana” and Proto-Indo-European “dejge-” which is to declare, to tell, and the German “ziehen” which is to accuse, to blame. Students are not served by those who are willing to abdicate the responsibilities that if they have been forgotten by many of us, might be remembered if we only consider the very terms that define our lines of work: professor, teacher. Line-edits are the least of our tasks.