| Don’t Write Alone
Notes From Class Whose Voices Get Heard in a Writing Workshop?
In my MFA, the people who spoke the most were praised for their intelligence. But the pressure to participate isn’t helpful for every student.
In the spring of my first year in an MFA program, my evening seminar took place in a cramped university classroom under weak fluorescent lights. There were only a handful of students sitting in a circle of chairs, most of us holding blue paperback copies of the book we had been assigned to read for that day. We were discussing the book’s political argument, and I jumped in to share what I thought about the way a specific passage was crafted.
A few minutes later, the professor repeated my comment about that passage approvingly. But rather than attributing it to me, he turned to one of the other students and complimented him for his analysis. I looked at the other student, sure he would correct the mistake. No, I didn’t say that. Kiley did . Instead, he was smiling at the professor, nodding. I looked at each of my peers in turn, waiting for a flicker of recognition that never came. I considered whether I had imagined it. But no—the chapter was open in front of me, my penciled annotation visible in the margin. The class continued, and I was left with the queasy feeling that I might as well not have spoken at all. Afterward, I walked to the subway still holding the book we’d been discussing in my hands. It was Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me .
This incident would turn out to be typical of my attempts to participate in some of my MFA classes. I began my degree in nonfiction determined to speak up more than I had in my previous experiences as a student. I’d been trained to believe that “getting the most out of every class” meant interjecting, commenting, and critiquing with perfect confidence; my previous teachers had often made participation mandatory and stressed the importance of joining the discussion. Students who spoke the most were praised for their engagement and intelligence. As an undergraduate, I had been a silent participant in many of my courses, listening intently to what was being said but rarely voicing my own opinions. I disliked being forced to weigh in on topics or questions that I hadn’t had a chance to fully process, and I didn’t know if I necessarily believed that verbal participation—of any kind or content—was the surest path to learning or understanding.
In the MFA, I expected I could simply overcome my reluctance to speak. But I discovered that it was not always so easy to make myself heard. Some professors ascribed credit for something I’d said to a male peer (it was always a male peer, and always a male professor) so often that I wondered why I bothered to prepare for class. Whenever this happened, I could never figure out how to interrupt the discussion in a way that wouldn’t make me seem petty and petulant. There was little evidence that the men involved in these interactions were doing it on purpose, which made standing up for myself harder. I did not think my professors were erasing me intentionally; it seemed unconscious, an alchemy of bias that occurred between the moment I spoke and the moment they echoed my thoughts back to the class, now tagged with someone else’s name.
It wasn’t just the professors—other students left me feeling like I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) speak too. In one nonfiction workshop, I submitted an essay about a red coat that I loved. I had noticed that I seemed to get catcalled more often whenever I wore it, and the essay told the story of my attempts to reclaim the coat for myself despite my fear.
Some professors ascribed credit for something I’d said to a male peer (it was always a male peer, and always a male professor).
“You need to take responsibility for what you did,” one student, an older woman, told me during the critique. Because I had continued to wear the coat, she believed that the street harassment that followed was my fault.
“I don’t believe it’s really this bad,” another student announced a few minutes later, matter-of-factly. Because the class was using the traditional creative writing workshop model, where the writer being critiqued cannot respond during the discussion, I said nothing, though inside I was seething. The professor didn’t intervene or seem to realize what effect these comments might have on me and other students writing or speaking from personal experience, how that kind of naked doubt was an insidious deterrent to wholehearted engagement and further participation on my part. Later, I wrote both students into the essay itself, just like I’m writing them into this one, pinning them to the page like souvenirs in a shadowbox.
When I started teaching writing two years later, I brought both experiences with me into the classroom: that of the reserved student, hesitant to join the conversation, and the talkative one still being overlooked. I knew that I carried unconscious biases too, just as my professors had, as nearly all human beings do, and I wanted to consciously work against them in my teaching. How could I create a space where each of my students felt encouraged to speak? How could I avoid the trap I’d seen so many of my own teachers fall into unknowingly?
The traditional workshop model benefits student critics as much as, if not more than, the student being workshopped. In Craft in the Real World , Matthew Salesses writes about the ways that workshopping others’ writing helps students to “clarify their own aesthetics (often referred to as ‘finding their voice’).” The process of reading and talking through how you view a piece of writing is invaluable to the development of your own style. “As one of my MFA professors used to warn,” Salesses writes, “workshop is most helpful to whoever speaks the most, not to the person being workshopped.” This is true in other kinds of courses too; studies have shown that there is a link between students’ time spent talking in class and student achievement.
Participation also matters because the writing classroom usually reflects the power disparities that already exist in the world, as Salesses points out. “A cis white male who leaves workshop feeling disempowered finds the rest of his American life more than willing to empower him again,” he writes, which would not be true of someone with less structural privilege. (The night of the Rebecca Solnit discussion, I exited the subway in downtown Manhattan and watched a man stroll past me wearing a graphic T-shirt that read, in large block letters, “I HATE WOMEN.”) I saw the same disparities play out in my teaching: In the classes I taught, especially at the beginning of the semester, I noticed a participation gap, which persisted no matter the age of the students or the subject I was teaching. Women spoke less often than men, and women of color often spoke least of all. Women were also more likely to privately express reluctance to participate, sometimes because they’d had a bad experience with a previous teacher and sometimes because they were nervous or uncertain or just introverted. When I was the quiet student, taking notes in the corner, I would have told you that my silence was purely a matter of personality. There was something to that explanation, but it wasn’t the whole story. When I was a kid, I was chastised and mocked for being a “know-it-all,” and I’d been careful not to seem overeager ever since.
The writing classroom usually reflects the power disparities that already exist in the world.
There are limits to what any individual instructor can do to correct deep-seated inequities, and in my teaching, I’m still figuring out which approaches work best. One of my MFA professors, Brenda Wineapple, concluded each workshop session by summarizing and acknowledging each student’s most important contributions, a teaching technique that models how to distill a group critique into its salient points—and how and why to listen carefully to each person’s ideas. In my classes, I take notes when students are speaking and try to model collaborative discussion by recognizing their ideas first before I add something new or ask another question. Salesses’s book offers alternatives to what he calls the “cone of silence” workshop template. Instead, the teacher encourages the student being workshopped to direct the conversation rather than sitting quietly, another means of countering the sexist and racist hierarchies inherent in conventional modes of teaching writing, which were developed for classrooms populated primarily by white men.
Maybe the answer lies in valuing what it is possible to create together in the classroom just as much as we value the eloquence of the individual voice. In Leslie Marmon Silko’s lecture “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective,” which I’ve taught in some of my classes, Silko describes the Pueblo tradition of oral storytelling, a collective act that links narrators of the past, present, and future with their audiences. This approach stands in contrast to Western modes of narrative, which tend to focus on the single, pioneering author rather than the ingenuity of the group. “A great deal of the story is believed to be inside the listener,” Silko says. “The storyteller’s role is to draw the story out of the listeners.” When it is working, the classroom discussion is a kind of collaborative storytelling, recognizing the influences that inform the conversation as well as the voices of the people in the room, speakers and listeners trading places, neither one superior to the other. Meaning is made “like a spider’s web, with many little threads radiating from the center, crisscrossing each other,” every person’s words building on and depending on the words of others.
No one speaks—or writes—alone. I’ve come to realize that my struggle to be heard in the classroom was based on a learned assumption: that what is most useful about studying writing in the company of others is the opportunity to prove the originality of your own voice. The truth is that the value of my writing education is to be found not only in what I said or produced, but in what I read, heard, and absorbed, and then in all the ways that those ideas collided with my own. When I’m writing, I can hear my professors talking, their fragments of advice and couplets of wisdom; my peers’ insights and epiphanies; lines of poetry or prose that first got stuck in my head when I encountered them in class. Their voices intermingle with my grandfather’s Irish songs and my great-grandmother’s sonnets; my dad’s jokes and my mom’s prayers; all the sentences and verses from literature and music I’ve ever loved. The truth is that every creative voice has a chorus swelling beneath it, an ensemble made up of all the other voices that have mattered to us, and what we hear as monologue isn’t one plinking line of melody but layers of ringing harmony—and it’s more of this music that I most want to encourage when I’m teaching. When the timing is right and the acoustics are good, the classroom can become something else entirely—not a place for silencing or shouting to be heard, but a symphony hall.