On the Response to Junot Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC”

On The New Yorker web page, fiction writer Junot Diaz recently published a critique of the “whiteness” of MFA programs:  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/mfa-vs-poc.html   This is a shortened version of his intro to the VONA anthology, Dismantle: An Anthology of Writings from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.

Some of the responses to Diaz’s intro in the comment section are reprehensible, and I’ve written this post in response to those comments:

 

“The number of ad hominem attacks here certainly give weight to Diaz’s arguments. When the person of color brings up a critique, the response is often to critique the so-called character or personality faults of the person of color–or to critique the language in which the critique is expressed (too angry, uses too many swear words, the person doesn’t have the right to make this critique because he or she is in some other way privileged, etc.). These critiques are all ways the dominant culture uses to dismiss concrete and systemic issues.

One key issue: Are the faculty in MFA programs well versed in a variety of literary traditions and thought? When I was in an English Ph.D. program I read a handful of poems by Amiri Baraka and that was it. In my MFA program I was not taught anything about the tradition of African American letters (much less about Asian American, Native American or Latino American, much less the traditions of global writing or post-colonial theory). Many of my students at VONA and other writers of color I’ve encountered also express a similar absence in their MFA training and thus, in the faculty that teach in these programs.

A second issue about the “whiteness” of MFA workshops is addressed not to individual white people, but to the literary practices and ways of thinking which are deemed standard in a white dominated society and literary world. For example, the default literary practice in American writing is that white writers do not have to identify their white characters as being white. Is this practice politically and racially neutral or is it a practice which can be examined in light of a literary and political critique? In most current MFA workshops, what would happen if such a critique were expressed? Would it be acknowledged that there are actually at least two sides–if not many more–that are addressing this practice? Or would such a critique be dismissed as too political, as “PC” and therefore not literary? And what would the response be to the student who offered up such a critique?

One exercise of power is to keep critiques of the dominant power from ever being voiced. Ad hominem attacks are one way, ignoring the existence of the critiques are another (i.e., not knowing the literary traditions and thought of people of color), and standard practices of how workshops are run are another. The motive is to keep actual debate of the issues outside the classroom or from occurring in the literary world.”

 

I know, as so many suggest, I shouldn’t be looking at comment sections. I can certainly understand the argument that it’s useless to respond to “trolls.”

Still one comment about Junot’s piece on the New Yorker blog seemed to me to voice a valid concern. Here’s the comment:

 

“This is my perspective as a white guy in the academic world….My concern is, if I try to talk about race, people’s reaction is likely to be: nice try guy, but you can’t understand the experiences of people of color. On the other hand, based on Junot Diaz’s remarks, it seems like if I choose to keep silent about matters of race the reaction is: you’re afraid to confront these issues, so you’re part of the problem. I have no doubt that it’s hard for people of color, especially when it seems like their concerns are widely ignored. But it’s hard for me too — I honestly don’t think anyone, person of color or otherwise, wants to hear my perspective on race. I’ve never felt encouraged to join that conversation.”

 

Here’s what I wrote back:

 

“I can understand how you, as “a white guy in the academic world,” might feel you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Many whites don’t think race is a pressing issue so they don’t feel the dilemma in the way you seem to. But your dilemma isn’t the same as POC in the academic world who, when they do voice their critiques about institutional practices concerning race, are met with disbelief or ad hominem attacks or derision (as shown in this commentary section).

I recall talking recently with a young white male writer who said while he knew race was an important subject, he was afraid to write about it because he was afraid of being called a “racist.” So I’m sure there are other whites–writers and academics–who feel like you, that perhaps they’re better off not engaging, remaining silent.

Conversations are, of course, two way streets. But when individuals of different races converse, that conversation doesn’t take place in a neutral, ahistorical realm. Richard Wright has indicated that white and black American are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. But one key difference is that that white description has prevailed and dominated our society and culture.

As a Japanese American, I grew up thinking I wanted to be a white person and thought it a compliment when white people told me they thought of me as a white person. I went through twenty-six years of education without really being presented anything like the black description of our social reality and history (much less a Japanese American description). I only got that education after I left English grad school. On my own.

So the thing is, when you as a white person enter a conversation about race, most likely there are many things you don’t know–about the cultures and histories of people of color, about the arguments and theories we have of our mutual history and how this society functions, about the lives of people of color. But people of color, if we have gone through your school systems, know we have to know how whites tell their histories to themselves, how they regard themselves and their racial identity (which is often–“whites don’t have a racial identity”). We have heard the white side and view of things; we can’t avoid it. We have read books about white people by white people, seen movies and television shows about white people by white people. We have listened a lot to white people. It is really hard, if not impossible, for us to be successful in this society without listening to white people–and often, listening while holding or biting our tongues.

If you are really interested in having a true conversation about race with people of color, then you should realize that historically this has been a mainly one-sided conversation. Since whites have been dominating the conversation so long, perhaps the role for you as an individual white person is, at first, simply to listen, to find out what you don’t know. As Donald Rumsfeld has infamously observed, there are things we don’t know we don’t know. That is often the case when whites enter conversations with people of color about race. Whites don’t actually know how much they do not know about the lives of people of color. The only antidote to this is to be curious and listen. Listening too is part of the art of conversation.

Unfortunately, as so many of the negative responses here to Diaz’s article indicate, there’s a sizable number of whites who simply cannot hear people of color describe their experiences. That simple description of one’s life as a person of color so challenges white assumptions about our social reality that the white person cannot even entertain that the person of color may actually be telling the truth about his or her experience–as in sjdmccarthy’s comments below.

In Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, there’s a great quotation about identity. In it, Baldwin pictures a stranger walking into a village. Encountering that stranger, says Baldwin, should cause one to question one’s identity because the stranger looks at the world and herself and you differently than you, and your identity must now shift to include not just the strange, but the perspective of the stranger in your consciousness of yourself. But for that to happen, you have to listen to the stranger, you have to learn from the stranger. And that requires you, said Baldwin, to change your robes, to reconstruct your identity. Listening then is dangerous, threatening. But as Baldwin implies, necessary and life affirming.”

 

At the Stonecoast MFA program, I and Alexs Pate teach a workshop, “Writing About Race.” In it, writers examine literary and other issues that arise from writing about race. The workshop is an attempt to create a safe space for white writers and writers of color to discuss race.

I also teach at the VONA Voices Writers’ Workshop, a writers’ conference for writers of color taught by writers of color. VONA is there for writers of color to examine and discuss their work and the issues that arise from that work. It provides a space where writers of color don’t have to spend a majority of the workshop explaining their work or their lives to white writers or arguing with white writers about our right to tell our truths and lives in our own voices.

We need more of both of these spaces.

“Make It New”: Creativity and the Workshop Model

The following is a familiar scenario to most writing teachers: Each time a student brings work to the class, the poems are all similar and share the same faults. When the student is confronted with these faults, whether, say, an overuse of generalizations or sentimental language or obscurity, the student clearly balks at the criticism. He may respond, “This is my style of writing” or “This is the type of poem I want to write” or “X read this and said it was wonderful” or “If I revise this I’ll lose the original impulse for the poem, my true feelings” (or any other number of defensive remarks). An argument may ensue where the teacher tries to bring to bear his or her superior knowledge of the craft and tradition and articulate more clearly the failures of the poem.

All the while, in this dialogue, the student either grows more defiant or sinks in a morass of emotions–self-pity, embarrassment, anger and resentment, self-loathing, feelings of failure. Whatever happens, it’s clear the student does not want to revise the poem to any great extent. And the question of whether or not the student knows how to do this is moot. The desire is not there, so what good is any exposition on technique going to do?

What is the primary source of this impasse?   Is it merely a lack of knowledge or learning or experience, all of which the teacher possesses to a greater extent than the student?

I would say No, the primary source of this impasse is psychological. And this impasse, I believe, stems from a faulty understanding of creativity and the writing process. One way to understand this impasse is to imagine what is going on in the head of the student: If this piece of writing is not working, then that means I may be—or am surely—a failure as a writer. I have no potential. I will not succeed.

A different approach: This poem may not work. It’s an experiment. I am one step closer to the answer. I am just starting to discover my potential as a writer. This discovering is a process, whose end neither I, nor my teacher, can predict. What I do have control of is this: I can learn to write differently and in new ways. I can experiment more. I can learn new techniques. I can continue on with the process.

 

The structure of the workshop model tends to encourage an approach to writing that stresses performance and product. The student often feels as if the presentation of her work to the class is a performance. She is producing a product that will be judged by her peers, and she wants that judgment always to be positive. This dynamic is increased in a writing class or MFA program where students feel especially competitive with each other.

Given this dynamic, the student will feel pressured to present only that work which she is comfortable with and which she feels will be regarded as successful. She will be less inclined to experiment, to try something new, to present work she is unsure of. She will be more afraid of failing or appearing foolish. She will stay with the tried and true.

Such a dynamic is not an atmosphere that fosters creative growth. The best businesses—especially tech businesses—understand this. But I wonder how many writing workshops are conducted with such an understanding.

 

While writing workshops can teach students important critical skills, what the workshops often fail to deal with is the nature of the creative process. In my teaching, I start with certain basic premises about creativity:

1) The unconscious is always more creative and complex than the conscious mind.

2) Techniques serve to occupy the conscious mind so that the unconscious mind can be left free to create and bubble up to the surface.   Thus, though techniques call attention to formal elements, their ultimate purpose is to provide access to the unconscious mind. They do this in part by enabling creative “accidents”.

In this way we should not look at techniques as intimidating benchmarks or standards, but as tools to help us in the creative process.

3) Writing is like a chess game between the conscious and the unconscious mind. The conscious mind makes the first move, and the unconscious mind responds. Beginning writers are often more attached to the first move of the conscious mind. They often don’t see–or refuse to acknowledge–where the unconscious mind is leading. They want to cheat, to have the conscious mind control the whole process. The reasons for this are often psychological. In part, the beginning writer is afraid of what the unconscious mind is revealing.

4) Creative writing is the search for and creation of a language to express what the unconscious knows but does not have the language to express.

 

The student who does the same poem or story over and over believes he has only one voice. That, the student says, is my true voice. That is me. In this way, the student underestimates his own complexity.

Beyond this, partly as a result of the critiques they receive in the workshop model, beginning writers will focus on micro issues in their revising—changing a word or a sentence structure, line by line attention. They often avoid trying to radically rethink or re-conceive their work, to find a totally different approach or voice, to take the whole thing apart and try again.

But in our writing, breakthroughs often come less from small revisions or critical evaluations than from the discovery of a new voice; this voice is one that was previously repressed, often for various psychological reasons. At times this discovery may come through switching to a new form and even a new genre.

I’m a firm believer in Jungian psychology as useful model for the creative writer, the view that our psyches through the lens of polytheism rather than monotheism. Viewing the psyche as a multiplicity is far more useful than viewing it as a unity or even a Freudian division of superego, ego and id. Such a Jungian approach recognizes that we all contain a multiplicity of voices inside our heads, a pantheon of inner gods. Whatever religion we may profess, our creative impulses are polytheistic and poly-vocal (and thus, also multicultural).   Rather doing the same thing over and over, creativity comes, in part, from unleashing these different voices, from diverse approaches.

As I’ve said before here, many gods, many voices.

Viva for the Losers! or What My “Tiger Dad” Couldn’t Teach Me

“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.”–James Joyce

“Do it right the first time is insane advice. Nobody does anything…INTERESTING…right the first…or the twenty-first….or the forty-first…time. Doing the new means screwing around, trying stuff, and messing stuff up….again and again and again. That is…WASTE.” –Tom Peters

Growing up I fit soundly into the stereotype of the model Asian American student.

Not that I had thick glasses and a pencil holder in my white shirt and looked like one of the bit players from “Revenge of the Nerds.” The Asian math-science geek nerd was an image I very consciously tried to avoid.* Indeed, in my high school years, I adopted a look I thought at the time to be incredibly hip, and which could put Austin Powers to shame: striped bell bottom pants, a bright pastel shirt, a paisley scarf worn like an ascot, and my father’s old army jacket.

Still, despite my appearances, deep down, I was the classic grade grind, a nerd at heart. It took me a long time to realize the restrictions of this model, a long time to understand that there were things I needed to learn that a successful report card could not teach me. This included a crucial lesson in my becoming a writer–the value of failure.

That there was any value in failure was something I would have scoffed at when younger. For me, from grade school on, failure was unimaginable, unthinkable. Like a good Sansei (third generation Japanese American) son, I’d imbibed my Nisei (second generation) father’s admonitions on work and school and grades to the point where I felt a constant pressure to get straight A’s. At the kitchen table, my father would go over my report cards, remarking on the one A- or B+ that marred my record.

This type of thinking and training worked for me—that is, until I hit English grad school where I ran up seven course incompletes and was told to take a year’s leave of absence (as mentioned in my previous blog).

So there I was, the embodiment of the stereotypical Asian American student, a grind, a young man who went into tests thinking I should get an A because I had studied twice as much as any other student. And now I was being drummed out of grad school. A washout. I was humiliated, depressed, wondering what would become of my life now that, at twenty seven, I was deemed a failure.

 

Shortly after I flunked out of English grad school, I began to teach in the Writers in the Schools program. Gradually, like Kenneth Koch and others in such programs, I came to see that teaching poetry writing to young children involves quite a different approach from those I experienced as a student in an English Lit Ph.D. program. Rather than presenting writing as foreboding and forbidding, with an emphasis on standards and the literary canon, I needed to help young students feel comfortable with the process of writing. Through my teaching and reading books on creativity in science and business, I learned some general conclusions about the writing process:

1.  Attention to the “rules” hinders the creative process.

Though I first came upon this notion when teaching poetry to young people, I soon realized this attention to the rules meant more than the rules of grammar or spelling.   This doesn’t mean that you don’t learn these rules or other rules or techniques. As an adult I didn’t worry about the rules of grammar or spelling because I had learned them. (Well, actually that’s a lie. I don’t worry now about spelling because I have a computer and spell check does the work for me.)   What this does mean is that worrying about rules you are just learning and, at the same time, creating a new work is too difficult a task. Separate the tasks. Don’t make your brain do two things at once. When you’re creating, your unconscious needs to follow its own course rather than worry about rules.

2.  In writing, the creative mindset is one that is relaxed and loose. It involves a willingness to travel anywhere, to entertain whatever comes up. It can be helped along through work beforehand gathering images, ideas, material, etc. so that you don’t feel you’re starting to write with only a blank page before you. Instead you have the sense that there’s a vast array of materials you can draw from.   You have to adopt an attitude of openness to whatever language comes forth.

3.  Creativity comes through a willingness to experiment, to make mistakes. It involves what others might call waste or failure. But Thomas Edison remarked that no experiment is a failure; it taught him what didn’t work, and that brought him one step closer to an answer.

4.  What hampers creativity? A pressure to be perfect, to get it right every time. A pressure to produce a product, to perform to a grade. A pressure to never do anything foolish or outré, anything risky. In other words, the exact mindset I’d learned as an A student—to get everything perfect—was a recipe for writer’s block.

Or, as William Stafford put it, the key to writer’s block is “lower your standards.”

 

Where does language come from? Our unconscious.

Thus, when the conscious mind decides to write, it is the unconscious mind that sends up a sentence.

But then the conscious mind, the critical mind, the A student mind, the get-it-perfect mind, says, “Well, that’s not good enough.” Depending upon who you are, your conscious mind might add, “That’s so far away from Garcia Marquez…” or any other writing hero you might use as a critical standard setter. And then, another part of your brain might add your parents or family members saying, “This isn’t serious real work, this is a waste of time.”

A bit daunted, your unconscious tries sending up another sentence.

“Not good enough,” says the conscious mind. The other voices clamor in with their jeers.

A third sentence. Criticism, rejection.

By about the fourth or fifth sentence, your unconscious mind shouts back, “Screw you, I’m not going to work for you anymore.”

Hence, writer’s block.

 

Imagine yourself getting up before two groups and speaking.

In the first group is a committee of tenured English professors and administrators who think everything great was written in the distant past and who want to prove creative writing is a waste of time.

In the second group are the people with whom you feel most comfortable speaking, your partner or spouse, your best friends.

With which group will you be more articulate? With which group will speak to more easily, more naturally, more eloquently? With which group will you be more likely to let your personality break through?

The second group, of course.

So why do writers think if they imagine themselves writing to the first group, that will make them better writers?

Banish that first group—the censors—from your writing room. Do not listen to them. Stop wringing your own throat. Lower your standards.

When you sit down to write, there’s nothing you can do that will make you smarter, more talented, more interesting, sexier, more learned, more prepared. You are who you are at that moment. You can be no one else.

Accept who you are, accept your words.

You have to be the reader who welcomes your language. You have to listen to whatever language your unconscious mind comes up with, whatever sentences that happens to drift into your consciousness.

If you allow the unconscious to speak, it will keep speaking; it will lead you to places your conscious mind could not imagine. For the unconscious mind is smarter and far more creative than the conscious or critical mind.

Writing is a process. Enter into the process, let it unfold.

 

* It took me years to realize how this reaction was related to negative racial stereotypes and my own internalized racism (c.f. Where the Body Meets Memory).

 

Portrait of the Young Artist as Failure–or, What Is Wrong with the Workshop Model

I was twenty-seven, in my fifth year of study in an English Ph.D. program, when the director of the program called me into his office.

At the time I had taken a few creative writing classes and written a handful of poems, three or four of which had been published in minor literary magazines. Recently I had been one of two student readers fronting for a featured local poet at an on-campus reading series. The featured poet was my age and had published over four hundred poems. I had no idea how he had managed to do this—either his prolific output of poems or his massive publications. Most of my poems were short surrealist lyrics, much in vogue at the time. Except for a poem about my grandfather’s tiepin, a gift handed down to me by my father, I had not written anything concerning my identity as a Japanese American or the history of my community and my family. At the time I feared such subjects might mark me as a minority writer, would relegate me to a second-class literary status.

LastIncantationsCover

But it wasn’t my meager poetic output for which the head of the English grad program was calling me into his office. It was my scholarly output, which was even more meager. I had by that time racked up incompletes in seven courses. Though I had first drafts of the papers for these courses, I seemed unable to finish them.

I can still remember the face of the director, a balding middle-aged Bellow scholar with black thick lensed glasses. He was wearing a plaid shirt; his corduroy sports coat with leather patched sleeves was draped over the back of his chair. Around us rose shelves of books. Examples of what I myself would never write.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to suspend your teaching assistantship,” he said. “Take the next year off and see if you can finish some of your incompletes.”

I left the office devastated and in despair. How would I support myself without my assistantship? Where would I find time to finish the incompletes? I couldn’t even finish them when I had financial support.

When I entered graduate school I had thought that I would one day become a poet-scholar, teaching at a college campus, like a couple of my professors in undergraduate school. Clearly though I was not going to become either a poet or a scholar. My career had ended even before it began.

 

I’m in the process of writing a book on creative writing.   The principles invoked in the pages of this book come out of my own journey as a writer. I am a poet, a fiction writer, a creative nonfiction writer and memoirist, a playwright and performance artist; the writings here—spanning thirty years–reflect what I’ve learned as a practitioner and teacher of these different genres.

Though I write now in various forms, my start as a writer, as seen in my opening here, was hardly propitious. Like many beginning writers, I suffered early on from a massive writer’s block. It was in solving that block that I came to understand certain crucial aspects of the writing process.

Much of what I learned derived from asking a simple question: What does it mean to be creative?   This seems, in retrospect, an obvious and fundamental question. Yet it was a question absent from my early literary training.

All across the country, over the past few decades, hundreds of writing workshops have sprung up–at universities and colleges, in high schools, at community centers, at arts organization.   In them, the students learn many things, but often the main thing that is stressed is the development of a critical mind, the ability to criticize your own work and the work of others. The student is taught how to tell a good poem from a bad poem, to articulate why a story doesn’t work, to recognize when a character is underdeveloped or the plot of your novel doesn’t click.

As a result of this focus on the critical function, most workshops are designed along the following model: A student hands out a small sample of their writing to the members of the workshop; a week or so later, they proceed to tell the student what is good and bad about her piece. The question of what the student is to do next with her writing—the process of new creation and revision—is then left up to the student.

Given this model, what many workshops teach are critical, not creative, skills.

 

Occasionally, besides the critiques of student work, the teacher will bring in examples of work she finds to be excellent, and students are taught standards—that is, the tradition, who the great writers are–and through this study, presumably, they will learn how to write like these writers. The student learns to be serious with her own work, to measure it against the great works of the past; she understands that the tradition and the standards she has learned place demands on her, and those demands are to be honored.

But when the student sits down at her paper or at her computer screen, when she faces the blank page, all those great writers, all that tradition, all the critical skills she has learned, become a weight upon her shoulders, a tourniquet upon her psyche, a gag for her mouth. Nothing she has to say, nothing she will write, will live up to those standards. And often, not surprisingly, she finds that the most difficult part of her task is simply sitting down to write and continuing to write on a regular basis.

For such a writer, the workshop model has created or increased her writer’s block, not solved it.