When I think of workshop, I think of fluorescent lights and scuffed linoleum. Long tables configured into a square, beverages — iced tea, coffee, kombucha, root beer, lemonade, reusable metal water bottles — dotting the square’s perimeter. A window, maybe, where crows blur past just before the last light of day fades. Notes of a distant marching band needling their way into the room. I think of what is insisted — we need to know more about the speaker. The arguments over minutiae — does the sidewalk cover the length between her house and the gas station? The compliments, the summaries, the probing, the attention to detail, the wanting for more, the gifts of enthusiasm, the rooms where cultures of respect flourish, and those where someone tugs at a thread until any sense of community unravels.
What I mean to say is workshop is a tender ecosystem, one that connects the physical — stacks of marked paper, chalkboards, typed longform letters, uncomfortable chairs — with what often seems intangible or difficult to put into words. At its best, for me, workshop has held a kind of magic. In those spaces, I felt a sort of inner calm, a knowing that the others in the room brought their most complicated, nurturing selves to my pages and me to theirs. We demanded a lot from one another — held each other accountable for lazy moves, questioned form, encouraged experimentation — but did so with trust, and often joy.
But it wasn’t always that way. For a long time, during my undergraduate and MFA, I wrote almost compulsively about neurological illness; after losing parts of my memory, writing was not a salve, necessarily, but granted me the illusion of control, a feeling of power over my body and history that I often felt I lacked. The problem with writing about invisible illness, though, is simply that: it’s invisible. Invisible to doctors, my former Division I coach, former friends, administrators, professors, nearly anyone with authority to declare me well or unwell. It is also, due to the careful ways I choose to dress and present myself, invisible to peers. Once, in workshop, I submitted a piece about one of my neurological episodes in which I repeat the same word for hours on end, my head lolling back and forth, out of my control. In the hallway after my session was over, a peer, repeating the harm done to me by disbelieving medical professionals and so many others, quipped, “Well, I’ve never seen you do that before,” in a tone that suggested she didn’t trust the veracity of my narrative, or that she didn’t consider my illness grave enough to be worth writing about.
Different brushes with disbelief and a sundry of other insensitive questions have peppered my workshop experience over the years, both in workshop and in the halls after, but haven’t caused me any significant grief. As a white woman who passes as able-bodied when not episodic, I experience privilege in many ways. However, these questions from peers are usually rooted in deep-seated cultural misconceptions about what we perceive disability to be, and are rarely corrected by instructors, who have at times allowed the personal questions about my symptoms and condition to pass within workshop as being about “craft.”
As I move from workshop participant to workshop facilitator, I have been deeply considering exclusionary practices and systems of power — not only in workshop, but in academia as a whole — that allow for the perpetuation of harms directed toward people of color. In workshop, what, if anything, can be written on a syllabus or spoken aloud in class to ensure that each and every participant’s work is read with care? What is the role of a facilitator? What texts might be read throughout the course as a means of encouraging workshop participants to grapple with their own identities?
The vital essays curated here are not necessarily a direct answer to these questions, but they bring to light the violences engrained in workshop settings as well as offer resources for meaningful change.
1. Unsilencing the Writing Workshop (Beth Nguyen, April 3, 2019, Lit Hub)
When I asked a group of writers how they would describe their workshop experiences, responses included: crushing, nightmare, hazing ritual, test of endurance, awful, ugh. I’ve heard of students drinking before their workshops; I’ve heard of students crying in class and after it; I’ve heard of students never looking at their workshopped pieces again.
Most workshops follow the same format: the writer is silent while peers question, critique, and praise their piece. When Beth Nguyen began teaching her own, she wondered what it might mean to invite writers into the process by allowing them to speak. Nguyen ruminates on how unsilencing the workshop shifts dynamics of power, as well as offers practical examples from her courses to help others make similar beneficial change.
2. The Psychiatrist in My Writing Class and His ‘Gift’ of Hate (Rani Neutill, May 2019, Longreads)
When Rani Neutill, the only woman of color in class, submits her piece to be workshopped, a white psychiatrist responds by saying he hated her piece, and wonders aloud “when this writer learned to speak English.” Neutill examines the ways in which people of color “do not have the privilege of only showing, not telling” in their work, and questions the structure of workshop, the role of her instructor, and the multitude of ways in which the white psychiatrist inflicts harm through his treatment of both her and her work.
His commentary is laced with paternalism and condescension. It is spiked with hate and the repulsive natures of his probable desires. It undermines me. He probably does not register this. I can psychoanalyze him, but he cannot psychoanalyze himself. Such is a white man’s privilege.
3. The Optics of Opportunity (Hafizah Geter, June 19, 2019, Gay Magazine)
Among many other atrocious acts during a mysterious fellowship funded by Barnes & Noble, writing instructor Jackson Taylor uses the n-word in class. Hafizah Geter, a participant in the fellowship, not only reveals the many problematic elements about the fellowship and its origins, but also illuminates how larger systems of power continue enabling racism.
As I pushed back against Taylor’s racism, I did so consciously held hostage by my silent white peers and their white perception and notions of respectability — who heard our objections to a racism they couldn’t muster the energy to see, and thus would not allow our concerns to hold water.
4. To Know By Heart: Workshop, Whiteness, and Rigorous Imagination of Ai (Claire Schwartz, December 25, 2015, Electric Lit)
In ruminating on a memory from workshop with Professor Elizabeth Alexander at Yale, her study of Ai’s poem, “Child Beater,” and the ways in which she and other white family members and friends are complicit in perpetuating conditions that allow for racism and violence, Claire Schwartz comes to complicated conclusions about how language connects us to acts of both harm and beauty.
But. Can you imagine hearing and not intervening in a racist joke? Can you imagine attending a university that invests in private prisons? Can you imagine being an American and never learning black history? Can you imagine studying the Holocaust without talking about Japanese internment? Can you imagine teaching a science class without Henrietta Lax, without the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, without any thought at all to whose bodies have produced your knowledge?
5. When Defending Your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself (Matthew Salesses, July 20, 2014, NPR)
I have had “good” and “bad” workshop experiences, but for me whenever race comes up, it feels, somehow, traumatic. While most issues in workshop are presented as universal to story, race can come off as a burden personal to writers of color.
Matthew Salesses reckons with the ways in which writers of color are too often expected to defend not only their work, but their selves, in workshop, and presents ways in which workshops can be constructed so that the burden falls not on writers of color, but on instructors and peers.
6. Political Revisioning: How Men Police Women’s Anger in Writing Workshops (Jen Corrigan, October 22, 2018, Bitch Magazine)
When Jen Corrigan writes about her anger for workshop, a man named Andrew responds, “I just didn’t really believe it.” Corrigan explores the ways in which women’s anger is dismissed and disbelieved, both in workshop and outside of it, historically and at present, and advocates for workshop participants to scrutinize their own belief systems and biases before entering into conversation.
At first, I wondered if I was being too sensitive. I’ve never been overly delicate about being critiqued, but I instinctually questioned my perception of Andrew’s criticism. But, really, I wasn’t upset about Andrew’s critique of my essay because he had not critiqued it at all; he had critiqued me, my anger, and the way I processed and responded to aggression from men.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.