This weekend I joined a group of other writers–some of them fellow WVU MFA students, but most of them simply writers from around the country–at the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop.  It’s always a wonderful (and humbling) experience to get to see so much talent in one place, and it’s a real honor to participate in the work of other people as part of the workshop process.

That said, it is not always easy.

A well-meaning, myopic woman gave us an essay about a simple trip to the local courthouse that became an Odyssey into parts of town she rarely visits.  A wrong turn leads her into an economically depressed area, where she sees an unconscious woman tossed from a car into the road but–seeing the woman eventually rise and stumble into the neighborhood–does not call 911 or offer any assistance.  She asks directions from the Hispanic folk who live in this part of town and is a little put out that “no one speaks English any more.”  She finally makes it to the courthouse, and she recounts for us a long anecdote shared by another woman waiting for her hearing… and, in order to catch the “flavor” of this woman, she writes in a very Joel Chandler Harris sort of high dialect, all “axe” for ask and “dem” for them.  The anecdote eventually winds its way around to why the woman is in the courthouse; by the end of the essay, she is going to jail for a few years.  All of this, the author wants us to know, is very funny.

Only, of course, it’s not funny. 

This woman is not a bigot, although there can be no doubt at all that she is a racist.  (We tried to explain the difference, but I think by that point she’d gone past listening.)  There wasn’t any malice in her writing, only a world-view so myopic that it is impossible to imagine her functioning in the day-to-day world.

We tried, as a group, to be respectful without giving up the point.  She felt attacked, that was clear.  We were surprised when she continued to show up for the workshop, but she did, and I suppose that was brave.

But the young black woman who was also a participant, the one who said that this was the one piece she didn’t have time to read and so did not want to comment, did not return for the final session.  Maybe she had other things to do.  Or maybe she could see that, any minute, this woman was going to turn to her and say, “You don’t think I’m racist, do you?” and just didn’t want to be put in the position of mouth-piece.  Either way, it was a damned shame.  We never got to review her piece, and it was a good piece, too.  One that we could have talked about for a long time, and that had a strong voice and a story to tell that had truths in it.  One that I hope she’ll tell again to people who will be better ready to listen to it.

  1. Kori says:

    I think that’s a major problem with these kinds of workshops, where you have people of different skill levels and world views coming from different backgrounds. It should be a really enriching and valuable experience for everyone, but sometimes it’s not always that way because some people just don’t “get it.” And it can make what should be a really positive exchange of information really difficult when it should be helpful.

    In my undergrad, I had a friend who was a fellow creative writing major. We roomed together for a year and got along very well. She was my best friend at our college. Then we took a workshop together, and I discovered she couldn’t write very well. And she thought she could. It made things really, really difficult, and the worst part was that I heard people talk outside of class about the fact that her stuff just wasn’t good. Our department offered a memoir class one year, and she wrote this piece that was twenty pages and had no focus at all—it went from being a bastard child to how her family fits the southern redneck stereotypes to her aunt who hates her to getting her period on a boat. She had a lot of issues to get out and wasn’t always allowed to, so it just kind of all exploded in this essay. Of course the critique did not go well and it was hard for me to sit there and listen to it—the truth was that she wasn’t very mature and that was reflected a lot in her writing. Since this was a creative writing program and we were all generally assumed to be pretty adult college students, it made the class really unbalanced. Like I told you, I had the woman in question in my workshop at the conference last year, and looking back with what you’ve told me in mind, she reminds me a great deal of my college friend. She couldn’t look at the bigger picture and see her lack of focus, how her stuff was….I don’t know. I’m reluctant to even describe it. It’s just hard to be constructive when you’re dealing with something like that.

    That said, I’m really sorry that had to happen in your workshop. I think when something like that kicks off the first day of a program like this, it, too, skews the dynamic quite a bit. I think having Mark in there helped a lot because that guy is a genius and beyond that, he’s really good at dealing with the sensitive aspects of writing workshops. I think the opposite side of the people who write as therapy or revenge without realizing that’s what they’re doing is the ones who just write whatever they want without having a filter, and that might be okay for brainstorming or free writing, but when you put it in front of people, you better have the sensitivity and the smarts to cut all that stuff out. And it’s disjointing to the experience when someone doesn’t do that. Anyway, I’m done…I think you won’t have those issues in the MFA program and I hope there WERE a lot of positive aspects of Mark’s class to highlight.

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