Here we are now, in a strange & beautiful galaxy for the first time. After negotiating my job offer for a long & grueling week (where I constantly doubted myself & worried about tenure track horror stories of rescinded offers by small religious liberal arts colleges) & then waiting a long & torturous month for my contract to finally arrive via express mail, I can now finally say that I’ve accepted an offer to be the new assistant professor of English & creative writing at Bowling Green State University, starting in August.Read More
By this point, most of us have already read part or all of Junot Diaz's critique of MFA programs in the New Yorker as being oversaturated with white faculty and white writers. If somehow you've been hiding in a capsule hotel with a nasty case of Malaria so you haven't been able to catch up on the world, you can check it out here:
Are MFA programs too white? Junot Díaz reflects on his experience: http://t.co/ebVcYqyM2u
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) May 4, 2014
Anyway, Junot Diaz doesn't need me to defend him in any way, but I do have a few things to add to this discourse concerning the role (and also the constraints) of race in workshop. Here are my thoughts:
1. Most of the pissed-off comments on the New Yorker website are by white educated readers, which proves the very point Junot Diaz was making about our cultural inability to tolerate, moreover, accept race as both a construct and also a cultural and literary reality for writers of color. In fact, the response of most of the posters mirrors the response of many writers I knew in my own MFA workshops concerning race, who either saw race as an ideological and thematic obsession for writers of color that made their writing polemical somehow (because writing about being white is never polemical), an impediment to some imaginary "pure" prose school that was supposed to focus on the universality of human beings and not their particularities, or a direct challenge to literary realism that has been dominated by white, upper-class, heteronormative, East Coast writers for so long now that the"white" narrative has become a synonym for "neutral," "standard" and "uncontroversial." In fact, whiteness is still part of the literary default settings: if an author doesn't specify the race of a character, most readers still assume s/he's white unless there's a stereotypical race marker.
2. One thing most commenters failed to understand about MFA programs is that they don't share the same theoretical training or theory-obsessed culture as the English PhD programs that MFA programs are usually part of. For example, critical PhD students rarely enroll in MFA workshops because of enrollment caps in workshops and many MFA students avoid literary theory classes whenever possible. What this means is, it's very possible (and also very normal for MFA students) to avoid any and all conversations intersecting with minority discourse, postcolonialism, queer theory, marxist theory at all. The point is, most MFA programs are dead spaces for the examination of racial discourse and the analysis of non-white cultural/racial narratives. In fact, in most MFA programs not located in Oakland, California, race becomes a venereal disease that no one wants to talk about. They don't even wanna touch it.
3. As a hapa who reads white but is actually part Asian (Japanese) and part white (French and British), I'm actually on both sides of this dynamic. And I have to say that I mostly agree with Junot. I encountered a shitload of resistance when I wrote about non-white characters during my MFA years in part because of the assumptions that other writers made about my own race (which filtered what they believed I was allowed to write about and what I wasn't). I remember in one piece I submitted to workshop, I had a desi character who I was very fond of. For a draft, I found her to be smart, independent, complex, and intriguing. But the workshop completely rejected her characterization, not because they found her to be an Indian stereotype (for this would assume familiarity with Indian culture), but because they didn't understand why I had an Indian character in my manuscript at all. One white student even suggested that I put an Indian character to spice up my chapter. That's a verbatim quote, by the way. And when even one of my Pakistani writer friends (another desi!) in workshop vouched for both the cultural authenticity and also the uniqueness of her character, the workshop rejected his comments and then spoke over him. Think about that for a second: a group of mostly white writers telling a hapa writer and a Pakistani writer what was culturally authentic and culturally permissible in workshop about non-white people. The reality is that having mostly white writers and mostly white faculty can create a hostile MFA atmosphere in which people either deny that race exists at all (either in the world or on the page), they treat race as if it were some cultural crusade to punish white people or they assume that race in fiction and in workshop is always an act of tokenism, shallowness, political correctness, white guilt or even more paradoxically, of racism. Even worse, many white writers and faculty treat race, the issue of race and racism and racial constructions like a didactic exercise that writers bring into workshop in order to teach the workshop something, as opposed to simply being a reflection of non-white reality. There must be a reason why there are non-white characters in this short story, they say inside their minds.
4. Of course, writers in workshop should call out racist, hackneyed or shallow characterizations of characters of whatever race, but this shouldn't create a culture of fear or intolerance in which either people are too afraid to talk about race and racism or deal with race or racism in their own writing, or where writers are denying the cultural vocabulary of writers of color (or characters of color). And yet, I saw this shit all the time in my MFA where white writers were the most intolerant to the topic and the examination of alternative racial realities in writing. And the thing is, there were more than a few writers of color in my MFA (desi, Asian American, Latino), but none of them ever contributed to the discussion of race in class whatsoever. In fact, most ran away from the topic at all, maybe because they didn't want to get dragged into the cesspool of race, derail the workshop flow or maybe they didn't share any "radical" views about race at all. Or maybe they believed that art was about people, not race, and so they sympathized with the subtle white persecution of race in workshop. Either way, and this is precisely where I partially disagree with Junot Diaz, even the inclusion of more writers of color in workshop doesn't necessarily dismantle the structure of white supremacy that operates silently sometimes inside workshop. Especially if those writers of color have been trained (brainwashed) to believe that literary merit, not the translation of literary merit through the lens of class, race, gender, etc., etc., should be the sole criterion of workshop analysis.
-To read more about my thoughts about the construction of race in writing, workshop politics for writers of color, and the importance/impossibility of writing non-white cultural narratives, you can go here.
-Additionally, to read more about the ongoing problematic of teaching creative writing workshop as an instructor of color, and also the no-win situation of being a writer of color inside a creative writing workshop, check out Matt Salesses smart piece in NPR, "When Defending Your Writing Means Defending Yourself."
I met up and chatted with Ron Carlson today (the author of Five Skies, The Signal, and Plan B for the Middle Class,among other works) and I have to say, I thought he was pretty cool: smart, funny, interesting, observant, slightly offbeat. Aimee had introduced me to him being a UCI MFA grad and everything. Anyway, here are some of the highlights of our convo:
1. Unlike some compulsive fiction writers (à la TC Boyle and Joyce Carol Oates), he told me that sometimes he doesn't write for days and he really enjoys that perspective, the simple act of living, which gives him a good counterbalance to his writing life
2. He said he never wants to hate (his own) writing, which is why he never pushes himself to write when he doesn't want to write
3. He said that you can't force your writing. You can't rush your writing. And you can't quantify the quality of the work itself as if your writing operates on some point system. If you write one awesome page, that's better than say 50 meh pages
4. After I told him that I've had a bunch of agents asking for full manuscripts of Ninjas in the past year, and how Coffee House Press was still considering Atlas of Tiny Desires, my collection of short stories and how Kaya Press was about to give me their verdict on Amnesia very soon, he said: —You're busy. Then he said: —I hope you don't mind me giving you some advice (which I didn't), but don't get burned out, Jackson.
I told him I knew what he meant, but also that I tried to use one manuscript as artistic respite from another manuscript. So, for example, if I got sick of revising Amnesia again, I'd work on Dream Pop Origami, my experimental memoir. When I could no longer evaluate that manuscript effectively, I'd switch to Ninjas. It's my way to keep writing without hating the act of writing itself. So far, it's been working out pretty well.
5. I also told him that if he needs any more lecturers in creative writing in the future (it can't hurt to ask), he should hit me up. He gave me a knowing smile and then said he's got my email now, which was his way of saying "Nice way you snuck in your pitch like that but as you know since you teach here, our department is being ravaged by a Dean who just gave a bunch of lecturer positions to TA's from other departments."
6. I told him how much I'd learned from Aimee, one of his protégées, how she taught me to actually sit with my characters instead of whizzing by to the next scene and he seemed to appreciate that advice. He said that often the biggest mistakes fiction writers make aren't the obvious ones that workshops focus on, but the things they passed on up, the missed opportunities in their own fiction to let a character, a place, a moment, bloom for just a few moments.
Ultimately, there was a lot more I wanted to talk about with him, but our conversation came to a comfortable and organic lull after forty-five minutes and I was happy to leave it there.
Just as important to me, I know now that when I spot him in the bright hallways of UC Irvine in the next year, we'll recognize each other, which can only be a good thing for me in the writing universe.
There are a lot of writers on this planet for the simple reason that writing is a technical, redactive + analytical process--meaning, people who are skilled at conceptual organization, editing + analysis can + often do write really well. Further, these are learnable/transmittible skills.
Then there's the writer-artist, someone who can create entire worlds, characters + experiments, + direct them in the service of a storyline, conceptual framework or idea, transporting you into another, parallel, self-sustaining universe with the flash work of a single paragraph. That's what great writing can do when it's art, change the universal vibration of everything around you, whether it's literary fiction, chicklit, Stephen King or George Saunders.
The problem then, is that, the most distinguishing characteristic for a writer--i.e., your artistic, non-technical matrix--is precisely the one thing no MFA workshop can teach you. Workshops have to focus on technique because technique is technical + technical things can be taught, practiced, improved. But ultimately, while improving your technique will make you a better writer, it won't--it can't--make you a better artist. MFA programs know this. They're not delusional. In the back of most directors' mind, they know that, more than anything, their MFA program is basically a gift, a gift of community, support + time, + time, above all else, is a prerequisite to write, everyone's least common denominator, both writers + artists. But all of that writing doesn't mean you're an artist--didn't I just say this?--it means you're a fucking writer, which honestly, isn't a bad way to go at all.
My concern, though, is this: there are already way too many fucking writers in this country, in this continent, in this world. And while I'll support to the end of my life the right for MFA programs/residencies/endowments to exist + give shelter to writers who just need time--that precious commodity--to work out their potential art that's all tangled up inside, at the same time, MFA programs are also partially to blame for the proliferation of writers that haven't smelled one whiff of art in their 2-3 years of workshop-hysteria gang-rape. What the world needs, what American culture salivates for, what the brainiacs + college students + aggressive critics + tenured faculty + jaded post-homeboy Generation Me slackers all need--+ let's be honest, we always need something, nothing is more painfully human than that--is more art that is ambitious + difficult + smart + great soulful + provocative + the opposite of safe + socially-conscious + socially relevant + breathtaking + thought-provoking + timeless + insightful/generous/brutal about the human condition + above all else, profound in some existential, cultural or global way.
We're told that the little moments are the big moments now, that the reader shouldn't expect pay-offs (i.e. epiphanies), that beautiful writing is its own end, that any narrative, any story, any emotion, any character is worth writing about + for whatever reason if it's done well enough. Maybe, that's right. But maybe, just maybe this legitimately-constructed defense of art-for-art's-sake (one I've made a million times against people that use literature as an ideological puppet show), maybe this point of view has kept the front door open for so long that now everyone comes inside. Everything's art, therefore, nothing's art. Anyone can write a novel (especially a once drug-addicted celebrity with a ghost writer). Anyone can print a novel in a vanity or self-publishing press, therefore writing + publishing, are no longer exclusive, protected domains in this new arrangement of mass media democratization (which seems like a good thing!).
Because there is so much writing in America--more than at any point in our own cultural history--but so little art, so little genius, no wonder people don't read anymore. Maybe we've cheapened the deal for them by publishing writing but downplaying, ignoring, even cockblocking great art for fear of poor sales. Editors want to make money, agents want to sell manuscripts + writers just want readers, which might be the most dysfunctional fucking love triangle I've ever heard of.
And yet, despite this, I still can't stop writing. It's the only place I belong in this world. Whether it's art or not, I can't say. I'm not even sure that's my call. But I'm willing to double-up--whether true or not--that I'm in this for the art. Whether my writing is good enough to be art, well, I'll let you decide. I already know what I think.
I guess we do this not only because writing is our life, but because all of this stuff makes us feel somehow like we're just a little closer to making it--whatever making it means these days. I'm sympathetic to all of this shit + I'm guilty of all these things too. But now I'm starting to think that:
1. While the average technical ability of a fiction writer today is much higher than it was a 100 years ago, I feel like there is also very little original art being created in America's workshops, which is troubling
2. While important, networking should never replace great writing. Ditto with name-dropping, program nepotism + market saturation.
3. Great art should trump everything else, and somehow, in this age of self-publishing, bottom lines, sell-throughs, contractual fine print, cost benefit analysis, great writing isn't making it to the bookshelves enough, and I'm not just saying that because I haven't found a publishing house yet for BLANK.
4. I don't like talking about writing anymore. Let me qualify that. For years now, I've felt like I'm not talking about writing for the right reasons. By that I mean, I no longer talk about writing because it's changing my life, but because I'm examining it, which, in a way, belittles writing. When writing stops being about great ideas + powerful narratives + starts being about narratives arcs, backstory, dialogue + flashbacks, I think the battle is already lost. I don't mind technical analysis, but the point is to analyze technique in order to improve the transmission of art, not to improve the technique itself. Isn't the ultimate goal of writing to produce art? Wait, before you bark back another writing platitude, think about that. Has writing + art become separate mediums? Because to me, it feels like the goal of writing has changed from creating art that is ambitious, socially-conscious + emotionally powerful into producing technically competent writing, as if that's the goal, as if writing isn't art anymore, but a form of circular logic whose ultimate destination is itself.
Whatever writing is, for me, it is above all else, art, motherfuckers. It's supposed to provoke, speculate, create, engage, analyze, move, inspire, devastate, reify, push and pull, twirl in circles, slur, slap, arouse, infect, overwhelm, exhale, fly, imagine, dare, delight, infuriate, affect, teach, hurt, open up, give voice to + often, scare us. If it doesn't do that, some of that, any of that + so much more, then I don't want to read it, whatever it is, no matter how well written it is, I'm just not interested. Medical journals are extremely well edited + technically polished, but yo, they don't fucking have what I need.