Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping
Before starting my MFA, I’d taken various writing workshops where I was told to “show don’t tell,” “write what you know,” and so on. I was also told that I “used too much description,” (or too little), that my characters “weren’t believable” (or were “overly vivid”), and generally received a confusing combination of praise, vicious condemnation for the “morals” of my female characters, critique of negative depictions of male sexual violence as “unfair,” and very occasionally, helpful constructive criticism. My MFA workshops were a mix of helpful and difficult on many levels and I witnessed a complex system of learning to identify supportive readers (allies), and facing off in combat against those who reveled in tearing down other’s work. When friends asked me what I was learning in the MFA, what I usually (somewhat reductively) said was “how to defend my writing” or “how to identify a good reader.” The second point is part of what Matthew Salesses writes about across more than 200 pages exploring the teaching (and learning) of creative writing in the US. He asks difficult questions about what it means to teach fiction, to participate in the Iowa-style fiction workshop, and how those acts (re)create established systems of power—systems that favor “(straight, cis, able, upper-middle-class) white males.” (Parentheses are his.) In a culture that is built to support white male voices, the attempt to carve a space as a writer-outsider is incredibly difficult, a task, Salesses argues, made that much more difficult by the traditional workshop structure where the author is “workshopped” while sitting, completely silent, in a room full of other students discussing her work. As a side note, Salesses uses the pronoun “she/her” throughout the text presumably to avoid enacting gender bias while also ignoring the more inclusive use of “they/their.”
The book is divided into two parts, “Fiction in the Real World” and “Workshop in the Real World.” There is also a very helpful preface where Salesses outlines his goals for and arguments explored in his text. The book is organized, he says “with the understanding that while some readers may read from start to finish, others may skip around according to their particular interests.” I read it straight through twice and, while there is some repetition, readers may want to give the book a solid first read before skipping around. The arguments Salesses presents are complex and, even with careful chronological reading, may be difficult without attentive consideration. In addition, the appendix presents interesting and innovative exercises that make more sense if read within the context of the rest of the book.
There are many passages and lines worthy of re-reading (and highlighting) and some that are simply clearly stating what many of us already know in relation to our own experiences with the teaching and learning of writing. There are also moments when what you may have learned (and hold as foundational) is challenged and those are difficult places to work through, but this work is essential for ourselves, our writing, our teaching, and the future of the field. Assumptions about “craft,” “neutrality,” and audience, as well as trite and easy phrases (“show don’t tell”) must be unlearned if writing is going to survive outside the rarified world of the straight, white male workshop. This book, Salesses proclaims “is a challenge to accepted models of craft and workshop, to everything from a character-driven plot to the ‘cone of silence.’” In his extensive discussion of “craft,” Salesses aims to “take craft out of some imaginary vacuum … and return it to its cultural and historical context.” In other words (and I’m being somewhat reductive here), craft isn’t neutral (“the ideology of craft is to hide its ideology”), writing lives in the real world (just like writers) and not just in a world seen/experienced by white male America, and the traditional workshop model enacts a system of power that works to silence/other anyone writing outside the dominant expectations of/for fiction. Craft, Salesses states, is “about cultural expectations.” Because the workshop—as formulated at Iowa and recreated throughout the US—was designed to spread a specific set of American values without (supposedly) being overt, craft in this structure serves to hide ideology behind “style,” but craft is not without ideology and neither are the power-based aesthetics of the workshop. Throughout, Salesses is clearly more interested in race than gender but by centralizing his argument that “craft is a tool used to normalize whiteness,” we can all learn a lot about the state of American fiction and the teaching of creative writing.
Much is made in workshops about “the reader” or “the audience” and for Salesses, “the author’s choice of audience, whether intentional or not, is the foundational choice.” He claims the book is against the idea of “finding an audience” and for the idea of “writing toward the audience whose expectations matter” to the writer. It’s here that I run into difficulty because, while I can follow that many of us come from different cultural traditions and many of us write for different audiences, the idea of the implied reader (which I don’t see as much different from audience) can be paralyzing to those of us who are used to being silenced, unheard, or misinterpreted. The old maxim “don’t write for a reader” can be very necessary for many of us if there is fear of being silenced involved in our experience of the world—including our experience with what Salesses would call our own “audience.”
Similarly, Salesses critiques the idea of “finding your voice” (a central theme in many writing workshops) claiming that this phrase aligns with “cultural constructions that make us say one person has a ‘voice’ and another does not … what kind of voice is acceptable, unique, bold, etc,” but my own experience as a writer and teacher has shown me that the idea of “voice” and learning to speak/write after years of silence is directly linked to empowerment. While I was an MFA student, I was struggling to find teaching opportunities and began volunteering for the very non-MFA centered New York Writers’ Coalition (NYWC) that provides writing workshops to underserved populations. NYWC’s workshops operate on a system developed in Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others, where the workshop is a “safe space” and has none of the critique inherent in Iowa-style workshops. I set up a workshop at the Brooklyn Vet Center and was witness to many powerful and glorious stories. For one writer in my workshop, the idea of anyone listening to her voice was a new experience and one that she claimed helped her to heal, an experience I assume Salesses would support. Similarly, as an adjunct teaching more traditional workshops (post-MFA) at a small liberal arts college, I tried to provide a safe space for my students’ developing voices. Perhaps I am misreading Salesses’s critique of “voice” but it seems an essential part of empowering writers who have been silenced for too long.
Salesses’s overall project is one I fully support and his book is essential reading (I would go so far as to suggest it should be required of anyone teaching writing), but there are omissions that need to be addressed. Many MFA programs stress the importance of publication: to publish is to become a writer and while this is a contestable point, publishing is essential if one wants to have a life that is centered around writing—to teach, to reach others, to make a living (even partially) as a writer. In the US there are specific gatekeepers in publishing and those gatekeepers are overwhelmingly white and largely male. By not acknowledging this aspect of life as a writer, Salesses fails to support his statement that, “the goal of workshop should be to provide the tools a writer will use long after the workshop disbands.”
In his section on revision and the exhaustive/exhausting sample syllabus he presents toward the end of the book, Salesses seems to present the workshop as a sort of bubble wherein student writers learn to revise their writing, to supportively work with other writers, and then … what? Whether it’s the work of submitting writing for publication in literary journals or paying outlets or learning to apply for paid teaching jobs (which can rarely be done without some publications), writers have to learn to work within a hugely biased system if their goal is to get published or find a tenure-track writing job in the US. This clearly isn’t one of Salesses’s topics of interest in writing this book but with the stress on “real world” in his text, it’s important to acknowledge that the real publishing world is white and often prefers the type of writing produced by Iowa-style workshops. For Salesses, the “craft of American fiction is the tool that names who the master is.” And indeed that’s true but if the goal of the MFA is at least in part to produce writers who can publish, until we tear down the racist and gender biased system that is American publishing, we also need to ask the very hard question: how can we, as writers and teachers, make and find space for other voices, other stories outside the workshop? Salesses presents an in-depth critique of the traditional writing workshop and tells us that, “If the benefit of workshop is in the act of imagining what could be from what is, then we must look for ways to make the task less hazardous and more potentially useful.” It’s a noble endeavor but one has to wonder what he means by “useful” in a country where, according to the New York Times, only five percent of fiction books published since 1950 were by POC. However, that it is time to rethink and restructure the writing workshop is obvious and Salesses provides a solid critique and helpful suggestions as to how we can all go about that important work.