In Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, Matthew Salesses rejects the notion that writing craft is, or could ever be, culturally or politically neutral. In the opening chapters Salesses argues that craft is in no way universal but represents, instead, a set of culturally specific expectations: “culture stands behind what makes many craft moves ‘work’ or not, and for whom they work.” Salesses would no doubt argue that many of the craft books considered in this essay represent “the dominance of one tradition of craft, serving one particular audience (white, middle-class, straight, able, etc.),” a tradition that does not necessarily serve, and often limits or silences, “emerging and marginalized voices.” Thus, many writers find it necessary to “break the rules” found in craft books in order to render their experiences in fiction and to tell stories that speak to their own communities. Salesses calls attention to the need for writers to consider who their audience actually is, since this determines “what expectations the writer engages with,” what they can assume their readers “believe in and care about, what they need explained and/or named, where they should focus their attention, what meaning to draw from the text.”
In addition to its many insights about the non-neutrality of craft, Salesses’s book also offers a set of new definitions for frequently used craft terms. In part 2, “Workshop in the Real World,” he critiques the workshop model used in most creative writing classes, offers a number of alternatives, and even provides a sample syllabus. The book concludes with thirty-four exercises for revision.
David Mura’s A Stranger’s Journey examines how white writers and writing teachers consistently dismiss or disavow the role of race and politics in their work and that of their students. Mura rejects the supposed political and social neutrality of craft. White writers, he argues, operate from “certain basic assumptions about race and literature.” They assume, for example, that the reader will default to imagining an unmarked character as white, and so do not feel a need to “label their white characters by race.” This aligns with many other assumptions, including a disregard for “how a reader of color might view the white characters” and, more broadly, a dismissal of the importance of race to the content and form of a given story. But Mura observes that “for many writers of color … the lens of race is essential to understand their characters and the way the writer[s] view [their] characters and the larger society.” Writers of color must also make artistic choices “concerning the ways a white reader, a reader of the writer’s own group, and other readers of color will read the text.” Because Black people and people of color must constantly “take into account the power that whiteness and white people exert over their existence,” to ask writers of color “to write outside politics is, in many instances, to ask them to write in a way that denies who they are, that denies their people and those who came before them.” Mura develops his arguments through close readings of texts by Jonathan Franzen, ZZ Packer, Sherman Alexie, Junot Díaz, and others. In one chapter he offers frank advice for “the student of color in the typical MFA program.” Race will probably not be “considered an essential area of study,” he cautions, “since the majority of the white faculty do not believe that such a study is essential to their own writing or to their own pedagogical practices.” In other chapters, he asks white teachers of writing to show greater humility, recognizing that they may not possess “all the tools that writers of color require to improve their craft,” and that writers of color may themselves possess tools that are “outside the common knowledge of white writers or even in opposition to some of the tools offered in a white-dominated workshop.”
Part 2 of A Stranger’s Journey consists of craft advice for fiction writers, emphasizing the need for the protagonist not only to want something, but also to face an irreconcilable choice. “The protagonist is forced to decide [about] an action which will lead her closer to one things she wants, but which will take her farther away or even eliminate her chances of achieving something else she wants.” Part 3 is concerned with memoir, rather than fiction, and the book concludes with a set of writing assignments.
In The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom, Felicia Rose Chavez offers a bold vision. She critiques not only the way creative writing is typically taught in college classrooms, but also many of the assumptions behind standard craft advice. She rejects the premise of Francine Prose’s book, for example, that a beginning writer learn about craft through a study of canonical literature. Chavez argues that such an approach serves to “affirm the authority of white literary ‘masters’ … imparting an implicit rubric for the ‘right’ way to write.” She also questions the value of standard craft terminology, an “academic vocabulary” deployed in workshop settings as “a badge of authority.” Chavez validates the alienation writers of color often experience in the traditional workshop, which she describes as “an institution of dominance and control upheld by supposedly venerable workshop leaders (primarily white), majority white workshop participants, and canonical white authors memorialized in hefty anthologies.”
Her solution is to radically restructure the form and content of the workshop according to an anti-racist model. In the traditional model, writers remain silent while classmates critique their story. In the anti-racist model, authors are allowed to “moderate their own workshop while participants rally in service of the author’s vision.” Craft terms are developed and agreed on by the participants, canonical texts are replaced with “a living archive of scanned print material and multimedia art” from diverse artists, and these texts are, whenever possible, paired with “a conversation with the author, contextualizing their stories within a specific lived experience.” In addition to providing a trenchant critique of the traditional workshop model and a fully developed alternative, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop also offers sample lesson plans and an associated website (www.antiracistworkshop.com), which includes “an ever-evolving, multi-genre compilation of contemporary writers of color and progressive online publishing platforms.”