Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses and The Anti-Racist Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez

This entry is part 7 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

Before I discuss these books, I want to note that I was able to borrow both in ebook form from my local library: that is, the National Library of Korea’s Sejong branch. I didn’t expect them to be available, but to my shock they both were! (If you’re in Korea, Libby connects with the National Library—or at least your local branch—pretty much seamlessly… at least for English-language books.)

Anyway, as always, I’m sharing this at some remove after reading the books I discuss. I actually read these way back in early January, but it took me a while to collect my thoughts and figure out how I wanted to talk about them.  

To begin with, I wasn’t sure whether I should talk about these two books separately, or together. Most of the posts I’ll do this year will be about individual books, but this one deals with two at the same time. I finally ended up doing this because as I tried to write up my thoughts about the two separately, I kept reaching for comparisons with the other. Both of these books are very interesting, both are great reads, and both argue broadly that we need to decolonize the (ubiquitous, default, traditionally, and frankly problematic) creative writing workshop method. Yet at the same time, they’re also incredibly different in a few ways.  

I started out thinking that Salesses and Chavez were proposing quite fundamentally different approaches to decolonizing the workshop and creative writing education in general, despite the overlap in some areas. Ultimately, I think that that those differences are less drastically different than I originally thought; now, I think they instead reveal two ways that different teachers approached the same essential problem, and that reading them side by side tells us something bigger about the project in which they both engage.

And so it is that this post is about both of them at once. It’s also long-winded, because I’ve edited this down as much as I have time for, and need to move on. Still, I hope it gives a useful overview of the two books. 

But before I get to that, I guess I should explain what I mean about how to “decolonize creative writing education.” Here’s the short version: creative writing programs and the use of creative writing workshops within them began in the 1930s. They didn’t just spring into being fully formed: they were constructed in a specific form, for a specific purpose, by specific people. 

What was the specific form? If you’ve taken a creative writing class, you know how workshops go: there might be discussion of assigned readings or submission and discussion of individual focused writing exercises, but mostly it’s a weekly routine involving one or two students who “submitted” work last week climbing into the hot seat and remaining silent while their classmates and professor take turns talking about their work (and mostly discussing its problems and how it could be improved by the “correction” or improvement of their “craft.”) 

Who were these specific people? Well, you can guess, since it was the 1930s when Creative Writing really took form within the academy, that most of them were male, and white, and upper-middle class, and people who valued a certain kind of literature and style, and who imagined most of their students ought (in the moral sense, if not yet) to share in their cultural biases. The people who built this system were, generally, members of the dominant majority of the time, which means that whatever happened in their private lives, they by default publicly self-identified as cisgender, heterosexual, “patriotic,” and  practitioners of the elevated Western “literary tradition.”

No, no, not not this literary tradition:

You know, the “real” tradition. The, ahem, “great literature” canon. (I’ll get back to that.) 

Finally, what was the purpose of creative writing education? Well, presumably creative writers wanted university jobs and felt creative writing instruction would be worth adding to universities. But there was also an explicit political agenda, and that agenda was anticommunism, a project that Salesses reminds us was not just political in nature but also racialized: some of the material he quotes specifically mention how East Asians would benefit from creative writing education as it would help them become more individualistic and less prone to communist ideology. We can easily imagine that if foreign communism among Asians was on the minds of the discipline’s founders, they almost certainly were also concerned about the (real or apparent) spread of Communism among various marginalized communities within the United States prior to World War II, such as Latinx communities (whose labor movements were often quickly labeled “Communist”), Jewish-Americans, and Black communities, where Communist writers were quite visible and unapologetic, at least before the war. (Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War apparently traces the role of anticommunist ideology in the formation of Creative Writing as an academic discipline; it’s now on my list of books to get to sometime in the next year or so.)

Which brings us to the present. (Sort of.) There’s now a broad reassessment going on—or at least, there’s talk of one, and effort on the ground, a lot of it being done by instructors who experienced marginalization themselves in writing classes they took during their studies. Realistically, I think most Creative Writing Workshops are still sort of lumbering on with mostly the same model that’s been used for decades, but the pressure is building to “fix” the kinds of exclusion and marginalization that this system imposes on already-marginalized people. This isn’t just a change in attitudes toward inclusion and diversity within the academy: it’s also because more and more students who experienced that kind of compounded exclusion and marginalization are actively speaking out about them, and because many who went through those experiences are now joining the academy as instructors themselves.  

Of course, this isn’t (necessarily) everyone’s apparent experience in workshops. There’s a certain kind of student, from a certain background, writing mainstream literary fiction who thrives in this kind of system; of course he does, the system was built by people whose sentiments and values he shares, explicitly for people like him. Or her: not that writing workshops are devoid of sexism—at all—but things are somewhat better in this department, since female instructors have been running workshops and the academy has kind of digested at least some of the changes that feminism has wrought in Western culture. But for people who are marginalized in other ways—LGBTQIA+, disabled, racially, culturally, by class—writing workshops can be pretty miserable, and once you start layering forms of marginalization on top of one another… hoo boy. I’ve seen it myself, and as a younger student I’m sure I even said ignorant things occasionally in class. I’ve also heard absolute horror stories from writer friends and acquaintances who went through workshops that outright traumatized them.  

But I’ve also known people who pretty much took the writing workshop methodology for granted, who felt it was as good as it could be, who seemed to thrive in that context. Some of them even went on to publish their work, a few of them even doing so quite extensively. Likewise, a lot of people who use this method in teaching don’t have a problem with it… most instructors, after all, are pretty daunted by the idea of a thorough overhaul, and might fail to see why they should risk it. Therefore it’s not a surprise that both Salesses’ and Chavez’s books begin by outlining the problems. It’s also no surprise that both authors have experiences of this kind to share, which shaped how they—as creative writing instructors themselves now—are working to address in their own classrooms. (Salesses is adopted, so unlike Chavez, it might not be apparent from his name alone that he’s a visible minority in America.)

What both Salesses and Chavez describe in terms of workshops gone wrong is disheartening, but not exactly surprising: even a lot of non-marginalized people (like me) have seen instances of unwitting (or conscious) marginalization in class; if you’re old enough and have learned something in life, you may have also be able to reflect on cases where you unintentionally contributed to it yourself. Still, stating these experiences is important: Salesses’ description of ignorant comments in workshops had me rolling my eyes in sympathy, but what he’s really driving at is the profound the way that universalized notions of craft facilitate the maintenance of those blind spots, specific failure modes common to workshops, and what I’d call a resulting critical and artistic poverty of imagination. Meanwhile Chavez’s discussion goes beyond the classroom itself, to include her general experiences as a Creative Writing student and a literature major, but also as a person of color out in the world: experiences with housing, with the incidents of sexualization and bigotry she experienced working as a writing tutor in Chicago, experiences in the cultural milieux of her own family. (Unlike what both authors described occurring in classrooms, I actually was caught off guard by some of Chavez’s experiences off campus, especially when she described some of the moms of the kids she tutored being annoyed when she refused to perform cooking and cleaning duties around the house. I muttered to myself “Who asks a writing tutor to cook or clean?”, but Chavez answered it in the text: these moms didn’t see themselves doing that, they just saw themselves asking a nonspecific brown woman to do work that they assumed all brown women do for money.)

All of this makes clear that white supremacy in general is what we’re up against if we aspire to be anti-racist educators… and my own shock at some of the details just says a lot about my own relative privilege and blind spots, and how the system this book calls us to fight against has advantaged and centered me and my experiences. 

This divergence advertises a bigger divergence in terms of the kinds of changes Chavez and Salesses each propose, which I think comes to a head with this passage in Chavez’s book:

…craft itself is just another make-believe construction. Workshop leaders are equipped with approximate definitions, adapted to their individual aesthetic preferences. They guide by gut, intuiting when student writing “feels off,” when it has “that certain wow quality.”

Chavez does immediately go on to note that craft is a thing, but that classes need to develop their own understanding of it, look to (diverse! student-driven!) collections of exemplary texts to see it in use, and use a shared vocabulary of craft to discuss one another’s work, and look at their own.

Salesses, by contrast, elevates the concept of craft. On some level, I feel like his argument implicitly asserts that, yes, the master’s tools are actually among the best tools for dismantling the master’s house. He asserts implicitly that craft is a real thing, it’s just been perverted by a self-stranglingly narrow definitions and biases springing from white supremacy and imperialism.

(In all honesty, I came to Salesses’ book a little skeptical, because my experience of the language of “craft” was very much like Chavez’s: it came across to me like a lot of fancy-sounding but ill-defined terms words people threw around to make their assumptions sound somehow more authoritative and clever, and also to show that they were literature insiders and deserved to be in the room. (This is especially something you see done in graduate-level creative writing classes.) Salesses’ discussion helped me understand that there really is a “there” there, a fascinating one, if you can move beyond the way craft was traditionally constructed and get people to understand that this approach needs significant and constantly active re-surveying.)

I feel like if they were music teachers, Salesses would be the prof who urged students to set aside the idea of European traditional theory and structure as “rules” and instead use those frameworks to try envision other ways of structuring music outside of that tradition, from jazz to Chinese opera to post-tonal pop music. I get the impression that, in contrast, Chavez would be the prof who tossed the Palestrina counterpoint book across the room and then called everyone over to the piano to lead an applied discussion involving experimenting with how stacking chords in different ways, with different upper partials added, changes the color of the chords, with extensive discussion of personal responses and homework involving students going off to the piano themselves to explore further and re-voice a bunch of chords to their liking before using in a composition or improvisation of their own.    

That said, I definitely felt like Salesses’ approach is more from “within the existing system” while Chavez’s is much more of a complete reenvisioning of workshops. For this reason, I found myself less anxious or uncertain trying to imagine how I myself could apply Salesses’ ideas in a creative writing classroom. Changing how we relate to the real thing called craft, and reorienting our relationship to it from seeing it as a matter of “rules for good writing” to instead kind of decision matrix within writers consciously and questioningly make choices as they work. There’s more than one way to work a coalface, and realizing that opens the doors to other traditions, values, to other perspectives. If we learn to ask the right questions about craft, in the right context—among other things—we can revitalize the workshop.

This specific approach appeals to me specifically for another reason that Salesses mostly only hints at, only stating directly once: that other forms of marginalization also exist in workshops. Without trying to equate the way genre and class marginalization work in creative writing workshops, I will say that elements of their described experiences resonated with me because, back when I was a student, being a young science fiction writer with a working class background definitely meant I had two strikes against me: it was harder to find a thesis advisor, harder to get useful workshop feedback, harder to form positive relationships with instructors who often assumed I didn’t read widely1 or value “good writing.” It was an unspoken rule that genre work was not eligible for prizes or awards within conservative departments, and I eventually got used to being furtively approached by students who confessed they were genre writers, but didn’t feel brave enough to share their “real” work with the workshop. No kidding, genre writers literally closeted themselves… even with well-meaning or open-minded instructors, because being labeled “a sci-fi writer” was so detrimental to their status within the program. None of this compares to racism or exclusion because of gender, sexuality, or sex… but it’s another form of toxicity that should be eliminated from Creative Writing education. 

For this reason, personally Salesses’ book was particularly helpful to me because it crystallized how some of the tools we must use to achieve decolonization can also result in a broader and more general reforming of our pedagogy in general. He mentions writers marginalized because of genre in passing, but it’s something his work clearly and directly applies. Likewise, when I saw Chavez’s effort to open up readings to the kinds of works that students found inspiring—to do what a few friends and I sometimes call the process of “building your own canon”—and she discussed the challenges she felt trying to inform herself about all this work that wasn’t in her own experience, I immediately thought of how instructors and students alike could benefit from everyone (instructor included) being exposed to work from beyond their personal comfort zone, including work from other genres and class backgrounds, as much as work by authors of other races and racialized experiences, sexualities, gender identities, and so on. It demands a lot more flexibility of instructors and students… and I think it rewards this with a much richer experience and a much more flexible vocabulary.

I was on the verge of saying that I think Salesses’ book is likelier to appeal to a lot of early-career teachers out there—especially those who look like me, or in other words those who are not themselves marginalized individuals—since it centers craft and the teaching of craft as the thing to be decolonized, and because it feels more doable without as many intensely radical changes to the workshop system. (I mean, instructors early in their careers, trying to run a workshop and get good feedback, do need to worry about that, after all… if they want to hang onto their jobs, anyway.) Similarly, I have some reservations about some of the specific techniques Chavez uses, not because there’s anything wrong with them but because I’m not sure how well they’d work in my classroom. Teaching English in South Korea has made it very apparent to me how students respond to the race of their instructor, often in ways that can profoundly shape classroom dynamics too. I’m a white man, it’s not hard for me to imagine some students in my classroom experiencing a “check-in” of the type she describes as an invitation to closet themselves and their experiences for the class, even if only because of their past classroom experiences. (I can imagine things going wrong in several other ways, too, again especially based on what I’ve seen happen in Korean classrooms.) 2

The funny thing, though, is that in my own teaching, I’ve much tended an approach somewhat more like what is described by Chavez. I’ve often tried to make the classroom a place where students could share and explore their own interests. I’ve always wanted students to understand that the differences between English language structures and those that they were used to were just that: differences, another way of doing things. When the pandemic swept the world—and then continued and dragged on (and on… and on…) I could see that many students were suffering, and struggling to adapt to classes online. Instead of just “cutting them some slack,” I decided to try make my writing classes with them a place where they could grapple with their feelings of fear, frustration, anxiety, and anger. I designed assignments where they could mourn what they’d given up, where they could talk about how online classes were or were not working for them. I talked honestly with them about my own worries, and about shared some of what I was mourning and angry and tired about, and I tried to redesign lessons to try remedy some of the loneliness and cut-off feelings they were having by foregrounding authentic connections and interactions, by assigning them interviews about personal topics and assignments involving writing together or to one another about things they discussed. We also discussed and then wrote about places we missed, or hoped to visit; I stopped asking them to quietly listen to feedback, but instead to ask questions about their writing to their classmates: Does this part make sense? What feeling came across in that part? Do you think it might work better if I did this instead of that? During this pandemic, I’ve assigned the most unusual assignments that my students have ever seen in all their years of schooling—and I know this because they happily tell me so. (For example, having them demonstrate that they know how to write a formal email to a professor about an imaginary, impossible problem: dragons having savaged their hometown, say, or a haunting that caused them to miss class; or writing a letter of encouragement to a peer after discussing what they were struggling with during the pandemic.) A lot of this, I pursued by instinct and a sense of my students’ need, though I’m heartened to have discovered Jeffrey Berman’s work in the same area. (I’ll discuss one of Berman’s books in a future post.) 

However, it’s easy to overemphasize the differences between Chavez’s and Salesses’ approaches. To pick one small example, both authors address ways in which  classroom space can be used differently: Chavez jokes about arranging pages on the floor and how it’s inevitable for people to trip over someone at least once a class, while Salesses talks about taping manuscript pages to the walls and having students walk around, moving pieces or rearranging them in useful ways. Salesses emphasizes that taping pages and moving things around can reveal new insights about a work; Chavez emphasizes that reconfiguring the classroom space makes it more natural to reconfigure relationships with the work, peers, and with writing itself. Many such similarities emerge, when you look at the two books side by side or in quick succession. 

Honestly, I think the main difference is that the two projects are approaching the reform of creative writing education with different sense of what workshops are for and can and should do. Salesses seems to be primarily concerned with workshops helping writers become more aware, thoughtful, and inquisitive about their craft, regardless of what they to write or with what traditions they want to engage. Chavez’s project seems to aim for something broader: the creative writing workshop as a site of decolonization and resistance, of shared acknowledgement of struggle, of supportive empowerment that extends past the bounds of writing. It might be simpler to approximate the difference this way: Salesses is mapping out how to to decolonize the kind of traditional writing education that happens in workshops, Chavez seems to envision the workshop itself as a place of potential decolonization of the student through writing education. This is reflected by Salesses’ tighter focus on craft, certain kinds of workshop dynamics and exercises, and discussions of alternate paths through the decision making process faced by writers, and Chavez’s efforts to map how interactions with professors and classmates and experiences outside of the classroom or campus all connect, and how they all relate to what’s wrong with the typical workshop. She speaks of finding her voice, of maintaining mental health as an instructor, and even how to make classrooms feel different from a regular classroom space, right down to integrating snacking, music, scented sprays, and so on into classes. 3 

The bottom line, though, is that both of these books have a tremendous amount of insight to offer, and that people who want to explore ways to make their creative writing classes and teaching methods more inclusive, equitable, and empowering for all of their students should read and draw insights from both books. Both authors offer a lot of illustrative examples supporting the approach they discuss: Salesses in the form of writing exercises and guidelines for craft discussions; and Chavez in a more big-picture approach to helping classes become an engaged, empathetic, and empowered community of learners. Each offers insights into the other that are valuable, sometimes because of overlap but also sometimes because of the differences in approach. You just need to remember going in that each of these books are in many ways a record of what has worked for their authors so far, rather than an explicit prescription that will be directly applicable to others’ classrooms. In other words, the most important lesson one can draw from reading these two books side by side, I think, is that there isn’t a single, clear roadmap to reforming the workshop and to fixing creative writing education. We all need to experiment, to think carefully and reconsider who we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. Decolonization is a part of the larger process of forging a more just, humane, and empathetic pedagogy, after all, and the questions and problems before us will remain, and shift, and develop as time passes. Grab bags of ideas, strategies, and a sense of what questions to ask are what we need for this work, just as they are what we need as writers.

Finally, as an added bonus: when I read these two books in quick succession, and reviewed them for this post, I kept thinking I’d love (love!) to see them in dialog.

I asked, and Youtube answered! 

Chavez’s website is here. Salesses website is here. I highly recommend both books. 

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  1. I will never get over the irony of being hectored to read more widely by someone who shamelessly admitted to never reading any fiction but mainstream “literary” kind for the past few decades. “Mainstream,” too, is a genre, after all.

  2. I was hoping to participate in some online workshops Chavez recently gave exploring these ideas, but… in the end, the time zone difference foiled my efforts.

  3. Not all of these would work for everyone! I’d be congested from the scent in the air, and too distracted by the music to read… but I suspect she talks with students about these things, and makes accommodations for such issues, finding other ways when necessary to give the room a different mood.

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