How the Hell Do We Fix the Creative Writing Workshop?

Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World proposes a new way to educate young writers without the baggage of the often biased and bland MFA pedagogy.

In the first years of my life, while my parents worked full-time jobs, I was looked after by my Lolo (Tagalog for “grandfather”). Handsome and charming, Lolo had immigrated to the United States from the Philippines as a young civil engineer, bringing along his wife and small children. I was his first grandchild; we were inseparable from the moment we met. My earliest memories are backdropped by the smell of his cooking and the sound of his laugh. Home videos show us just hanging out: him telling stories, me babbling in response.

In the manner of most babies, I at some point began to speak. And when I did, I spoke with a Filipino accent. Lolo’s accent.

Lolo was very unhappy about this. “She needs to speak like an American,” he told my parents. My mother, who had come to the United States at the age of 11, had been teased mercilessly for her accent, until she practiced it out of her voice altogether. Now, Lolo’s first grandchild—the first natural-born American in his lineage—was speaking with an accent: to him, an unacceptable state of affairs.

In any case, he didn’t need to worry. When I began attending preschool, the accent of the Midwest took over, and when I attended high school out East, my Chicago accent was sanded down into highly educated American generic. I then spent six years in England, and God knows what that did. The traces of my first accent are either buried deep in the recesses of my brain, or simply gone.

If I tried to tell you what my “voice” is today, I couldn’t pinpoint it for you: It just is. And it’s not only the way I speak; when I write, I write in a voice unconsciously shaped by the expectations of my location and my time, as well as the expectations placed on the many who have raised me and loved me, expectations I have so wholly digested that disentangling them from my writing would require significant study and care.

This, at least, is part of the premise of novelist, essayist, and creative-writing professor Matthew Salesses’s salient and instructive book Craft in the Real World, which attempts to explore the homogenous ideology of the traditional writing workshop, and how a more reparative and culturally attuned pedagogy might help writers give voice to more complex stories and worlds.

Craft, Salesses explains, is a series of expectations, and until those expectations are made explicit, they will enforce the status quo by concealing their traits as the marks of quality, of literariness. While the gambit of Craft in the Real World is decidedly unrevolutionary (adjusting the pedagogy of writers’ workshops is a pretty tame proposal), writers and readers alike stand to benefit from Salesses’s insights into literary production and the insipid ways in which the creative industries perpetuate milquetoast, dominant-culture artistic production.

When we talk about craft in writing, we are trying to make part of that unconscious conscious—inherently a proposition that makes some uneasy, others defensive, still others bored. The whole premise of creative-writing courses has been dissected to the point of excruciating tedium on all sides, and it does seem, in 2021, that we are probably at a place where we can all admit that most writing is terrible, and the rare piece of writing that is worth reading can be born out of the strangest or most programmatic of contexts, with the only real requirement being that its creator has sufficient time to bring it into existence.

But I, a writer endeavoring not to be terrible, digress. Salesses’s efforts here are admirable, if limited in scope: to challenge and expand the set of expectations that constitute craft; to identify why literary institutions treat craft with such preciousness; and to make modest, actionable proposals for how creative-writing workshop practitioners might begin to stop kidding themselves about whose expectations of quality and taste they pay attention to. Offering a fresh framework as well as concrete exercises and workshop paradigms, Craft in the Real World is an attempt to renovate what others might call to dismantle.

It is also a paradox: a book that wants to speak to the way that writing and the real world interact, but that focuses its attention on the writing workshop, an excruciatingly narrow slice of the real world. Still, for a narrow sliver, the writing workshop casts a shadow on the kind of mainstream literature that is published. Right out of the gate, Salesses sets himself a mammoth task:

The challenge is this: to take craft out of some imaginary vacuum (as if meaning in fiction is separate from meaning in life) and return it to its cultural and historical context. Race, gender, sexuality, etc. affect our lives and so must affect our fiction. Real-world context, and particularly what we do with that context, is craft.

The goal is to alter the terms of engagement when individuals—in particular, undergraduate and graduate students in creative-writing classes—first begin to study and develop the process by which they write.

Craft in the Real World is broken down into three sections: “Fiction in the Real World,” “Workshop in the Real World,” and an appendix of writing exercises, a resource for workshop teachers and students as well as for writers outside of workshops. Salesses begins by breaking down the misconceptions around craft—namely, that it is a neutral entity, rather than a charged set of expectations that should be rigorously and perpetually reconsidered—and by establishing the stakes of the book’s success.

It’s here that I experienced my most resistance to Salesses, a resistance he might himself have predicted. Salesses writes, “If writers really believe that art is important to actual life, then the responsibilities of actual life are the responsibilities of art.” No! my gut reacts. Art is without responsibility! That’s the whole point! But it’s a thought that after a millisecond of interrogation falls flat on its face. While art may well come from a place beyond consciousness and thus beyond conscious responsibility, what we do with our art—how we edit, refine, critique, and nurture it; how we place it in the world—should be handled with responsibility and care.

Salesses gamely redefines various craft terms (for example, what does it mean when we describe a story as “lacking conflict,” or being “unrelatable,” or having “off-beat pacing”?), illuminating the assumptions and expectations implicit in the conventional, accepted reading of each term. He then goes one step further and proposes redefinitions that are both broader and deeper, and therefore more useful.

The second part of the book, “Workshop in the Real World,” interrogates the idea at the center of the traditional MFA writing workshop: “the reader.” Salesses points out that there is a kind of colonization latent in the way that many workshops smooth over differences between audiences, between reading individuals, by seeking to reach a critical consensus on a given piece of writing. This consensus almost inevitably regresses to the mean: white, middle class, and frankly unimaginative. “The real danger,” he writes, addressing the common refrain that MFAs produce drone-like, uniform writing, “is not a single style, it’s a single audience.” This results, he argues, in a degradation of fiction, especially for marginalized writers: “It demands from the imagination either conformity or exoticism.”

Conformity or exoticism pretty readily sums up a huge portion of today’s visible and marketable literary fiction. Meanwhile, attempts to diversify publishing or creative-writing programs are often seen as “correctives,” a word that brings to mind something bitter and medicinal. Even well-intended efforts at expanding the canon carry more than a whiff of tokenism; writers from outside of the dominant literary culture are made to speak on behalf of their background, forced to carry banners that proclaim their currently-saleable-but-only-if-framed-in-a-certain-way identities. Salesses’s book is an attempt to get a bit closer to the source of the problem by hitting earlier in the production pipeline, but pedagogy seems too gentle a fix for a problem that goes far deeper than the writing workshop.

With a different frame, could there be a broader readership for Craft In The Real World? It strikes me that questions of craft and context and criticism are, in fact, fairly central to conversations far outside the domain of writers’ workshops—from debates around representation and justice to “the discourse” around social media’s impact on cultural consumption. Online, we exist in a world where everyone’s a writer (i.e., hell) and where the fashion is to splurt out neurotic-yet-unconsidered language with no particular audience in mind beyond the monstrous choir of the online id. “What we call craft is in fact nothing more or less than a set of expectations,” Salesses writes. “The more we know about the context of those expectations, the more consciously we can engage with them.” When so much human expression unfolds in a space without examined context and with expectations even less considered than those of the modern-day writing workshop, what happens to our cultural production, let alone our minds? Conformity or exoticism sums up the Internet pretty well, too.

As I read Salesses’s book, a number of much-hyped novels, all by white authors, all populated by white characters, many of them perfectly good, were rollicking around my newsfeed, dressed in the glitter of praise and ubiquitous press coverage. These were novels that did not seem at all concerned with representations of experiences outside of their white narrators’ purviews—and fair enough! But what was unsettling, uncanny really, was the way in which these novels were quickly assimilated into Literary Culture (or, at the very least, Literary Twitter) as emblematic of, say, millennial writing, while other novels—almost always by writers from outside the dominant, straight, white norm—were branded as “brave” or “urgent” or “necessary.” Swiftly, readers across demographics appeared to agree, as though the trials and tribulations of middle-class white people really are the best artistic vehicle for accessing the universal, and the trials and tribulations of everyone else are the best artistic vehicle for driving into a niche. As though learning to speak “like an American” really was my first step in learning to speak to the most important, invisible audience, my best hope at being heard. I’m not sure what the solution is, and to Salesses’s credit, he doesn’t claim to have it.

Approaching the real world—including, but well beyond, the workshop—with a sense of interrogation, an attention to craft, might be a beginning. But how, exactly, does it end?

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