• Short Takes and Essays from voices across the landscape. Join the conversation with #MFAvsPOC

Racial and Ethnic Justice in the Creative Writing Course

Joy Castro

As a professor who teaches in the creative writing, literature, and Latino studies programs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where we offer the Ph.D. with a creative dissertation, I’ve been teaching creative writing at the college level for twenty years now, as well as to various groups in the larger community—domestic violence survivors, Latina and African American high school girls, sexual assault survivors, economically disadvantaged adults, at-risk inner-city teens—and I’ve thought a lot about how to make the creative writing classroom a welcoming place for everyone, especially writers of color.  I try to construct the kind of environment I would have wanted as a student. 

All of my creative writing professors—all my professors, come to think of it—were white.  As an undergraduate in Texas in the 1980s, a first-generation college student, a Latina from a background of poverty, I was devouring (on my own) the writers of the Latina boom (Cisneros, Alvarez, Ortiz Cofer, Castillo, and so on), reading Robbe-Grillet and Duras on the side, and churning out twisted little stories that unraveled themselves in a kind of savage frenzy. 

My creative writing professor was a kindly white man nearing retirement.  He put tiny xs in the margins of my manuscripts next to lines I should reconsider.  The only comment he ever uttered, after workshop was over and the students were trickling away, was, “Are you okay?”

Until then, I had thought I was.  I’d thought I was becoming an artist.

His question made me feel singled out and crazy.

In retrospect, I have no way of gauging how much of his concern was due to my ethnicity, how much due to gender, how much due to my aesthetic, how much to the content of my work, and so on.  Prejudice is a gaslighty thing.  But one thing for sure:  I was not mentored.  My work was not nurtured, encouraged, or recognized as having any particular potential.  My professor’s reaction made me doubt the worth of my efforts and my own desire to continue writing.

In graduate school, where I did a scholarly masters and then doctorate that focused on modernism, I took creative writing courses on the side, for fun.  Because of my undergraduate experience, I entered my first one with a certain amount of trepidation. 

On the day my piece was due to be workshopped, the fiction professor opened class by saying, “Let’s do Castro’s last.”

I panicked.  I thought perhaps he, too, had found evidence in my text that I was not okay.  I feared he’d called mental health professionals, who’d soon arrive to take me away.  Numb, I sat there while the other stories were critiqued, envisioning straitjackets and bite sticks for electroshock.

When the class got to mine, the other students talked for a while about various aspects.  I sweated and tried to breathe, waiting for footsteps in the hall.  Finally the professor stopped the discussion.  “Look, there’s nothing to fix.  This is ready to go out,” he said.  He drew diagrams on the board explaining the structure of my story—diagrams I didn’t understand.  The relief that slowly dawned was overwhelming:  he’d saved it for last because it was good.  Later he gave a paper about it at AWP, which he urged me to attend as well, but I didn’t grasp what AWP was, and I was a single mother with a toddler and no money for travel.  (I was a professor with tenure before I finally attended.)  In her graduate poetry workshops, another professor was equally encouraging—and explicitly feminist, which was nice.

I do not know if my professors thought much about racism, but both were generous to my work.  They were aware of my “difference”—it was my fiction professor who encouraged me to submit a story to Mid-American Review’s call for a special Latino/a issue, and that became my first publication—but I do not remember being maltreated in the classroom; I have no complaints.

Still, when I became an instructor, I wanted to make my own pedagogy more intentionally welcoming to writers of color.  More explicitly inclusive.  Like any instructor, I address racial and ethnic stereotypes when those crop up in student work, as they occasionally do, but that after-the-fact intervention doesn’t go far enough toward fundamentally transforming the environment.  Three preemptive strategies have worked particularly well to lay the groundwork for decentering whiteness and making generous room for all voices.

First, my syllabus includes a modified version of the Macondo Workshop’s collectively developed “Compassionate Code of Conduct”:  ground rules for a sane, kind, and respectful workshop experience.  The Macondo Workshop itself, conceived in 1995, is the brainchild of Sandra Cisneros, whose goal was to create an environment more welcoming and nurturing than she herself had experienced as an MFA student.  Hosted today by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas, the workshop attracts a primarily but not exclusively Latina/o audience of writers.

The Macondo ground rules address various issues, encouraging compassionate mindfulness as “a practice motivated by having witnessed marginalization in our communities.”  My favorite passage is this:  “Many of us come from places where we’ve been involved in long-term conflicts and have learned extremely valuable survival skills, including persistence, skepticism, and a willingness to confront others.”  Both of these descriptions of origins immediately work to decenter all students who have grown up in privileged environments—and to make them conscious of the fact that they have.  Not many white suburban kids can identify with these descriptions, which automatically center the experience of many students of color.

Next, I create a larger context for our work by consistently alluding during class discussion to literature by writers of color.  There is a literary tradition, and you’re invited to contribute, this strategy implicitly asserts to students of color.  I use texts by writers of color as my reference points, employing examples of aesthetics, choices, and techniques from Morrison, Kingston, Erdrich, Justin Torres, and Helen Oyeyemi, for example, rather than from Faulkner, Hemingway, and Tobias Wolff.  In doing so, I offer no explanation, allowing literature by writers of color to function as the (apparently) unexamined norm in my classroom, as white writers have functioned elsewhere for so long.

Influenced by such texts as Julio Marzan’s Luna, Luna:  Creative Writing Ideas from Spanish, Latin American, and Latino Literature, and Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Free Within Ourselves:  Fiction Lessons for Black Authors, I develop and use exercises that engage texts by writers of color.  For example, for a memoir exercise that excavates our parents’ fossilized dreams (for good and ill) embedded in our given names, we read Sandra Cisneros’s vignette “My Name” in The House on Mango Street.  We discuss the broad range of familial, cultural, and historical ground that the protagonist considers—and declines—before students write the stories of their own names.  For an exercise in metaphor and synesthesia, we read her vignette “Sire,” identify the choices Cisneros makes, and then move into a fun, inventive prompt that compels the use of figurative language in an erotic scene.  And so on.

Incorporating and centering the work of authors of color is something I do simply, without commentary.  I don’t say, “By the way, folks, we’re decolonizing the classroom by using a Latina text.”  We simply engage Cisneros’s vignettes on the basis of their compression, range, imagery, and so on.  They’re offered as potential models for everyone in the class.  I hold up the work of authors of color as aspirational standards—useful, instructive, excellent, and intriguing—as Hemingway et al. were once held up to me.

Finally, a feedback technique that works well with very early drafts (before a traditional workshop critique occurs) is a form of what composition specialists Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff, in Sharing andResponding, call “pointing.”  In this feedback method, the writer reads aloud the revised piece while all the rest of us listen and jot down lists of striking words and phrases—perhaps those with particular emotional gravity, or linguistic freshness, or great sonic effects.  When the writer is finished, we go one by one around the room, reading aloud our own lists without commentary of any sort—no “I really liked x” or “Y didn’t work for me.”  One person simply finishes reading, and then it’s the turn of the next.  The writer listens quietly, making notes or not, until everyone has read.  (It’s important for respondents not to omit words just because an earlier respondent read them aloud; the writer learns a great deal from hearing how often particular choices resonated with listeners.)  When everyone is done, the writer simply thanks the class.  The reading of the lists is often surprisingly beautiful, like a strange, echoing poem, and pointing functions as a respectful, non-intrusive way to build trust and rapport early in the course. 

More importantly, it democratizes the feedback experience in a radical way, cutting past acquired vocabularies and concepts, throwing respondents back on their instincts and ears.  Everyone—no matter how prestigious the MFA with which they enter our program—is equally good at this method; there is truly no wrong or right.  Pointing thereby cuts out the “peacocking” (Emily Toth’s term) that often crops up in workshops, as some students vie to establish their expertise (or dominance) among their peers.  In my experience, such students have most often, though not always, been white men, who seem to feel more comfortable holding forth for extended periods, occupying air-time, delivering mini-lectures.  This can function to silence students with less privileged academic preparations, less confidence, or both, who are often students of color, female students, and/or students from the working class or poverty.

Pointing is an equalizer.  It focuses our attention, not on the clever critic, but on the text and on what’s working.  It builds respect for all the writers in the room, laying a positive groundwork for the traditional workshop-method critiques that will follow.

These three strategies work well to shift the dynamic of the creative writing classroom from one of unacknowledged white dominance to something more open, more equal, more diverse. 

Yet I write with hesitation, knowing full well that having survived within the academy for so long means that I have surely and unconsciously imbibed many of its white-normative assumptions, no matter how critically resistant I try to be.  I’m sure I’ve made many mistakes over the years; I’ve surely made compromises I cannot see or recall.  Like anyone, all I can do is keep trying, keep listening.  As Beverly Daniel Tatum writes, when it comes to issues of race, ethnicity, and white privilege, we are all works in progress.

What I’ve witnessed is that when we think of the discipline of creative writing as being somehow politically neutral, it ends up being mostly white, male, and straight by default.  Multicultural educators have been telling us for decades now that the “add one and stir” approach to diversity is insufficient:  mixing in a couple of writers of color, a couple of women writers, and/or a couple of queer writers keeps them at the periphery.  Revising our pedagogy to welcome all our students and nurture everyone’s talent means continuing to ask ourselves foundational questions.  What would my syllabus look like if I placed writers of color at the center of the course? female writers of color? queer female writers of color?  (If the last seems like an unconscionably narrow category, perhaps consider why a comparably specific grouping—straight white male writers—seems acceptably broad.)  How could the impact of this new centering ripple out into all of my classroom interactions with students?

What encourages me about the power of these strategies to transform creative writing classrooms is that they are all things I do, not things I am (though it’s things I am that led me to develop them).  They neither inhere in nor depend upon my racial or ethnic identity; thus, they can easily be transferred to the classrooms of white instructors.  Just as I am not queer but choose to use such phrases as, for example, “a writer and her wife” in the classroom to promote a more inclusive atmosphere for LGBTQ students (and destabilize heteronormative privilege among the rest of us), so too can white instructors employ any of these strategies to deconstruct the predominance of white-supremacist norms and white-authored literature in the small but influential spheres of their classrooms. 

Some of the people we teach will create the literature of the future, and that literature will shape our culture.  Our work in the classroom is a crucial, meaningful way to make change.