May 12


The Unbearable Whiteness of MFA Workshops

In MFA vs. POC, Junot Diaz argues that Creative Writing workshops have a big problem: they are too white.

I can say that Rutgers-Camden, where I did my MFA, was very largely white in terms of the student population, and some of the program’s non-white writers voiced how frustrating and disappointing this was. We weren’t (I think) as racially numb as Diaz’s description of Cornell, however, and partly this was due to the presence of excellent teachers, particularly Patrick Rosal and Adam Mansbach.

I’m curious what you think of Diaz’s piece, whether or not you’re in the creative writing world. On the one hand, he’s pointing out the simple unfairness of such an environment:

It’s been twenty years since my workshop days and yet from what I gather a lot of shit remains more or less the same. I’ve worked in two MFA programs and visited at least 30 others and the signs are all there. The lack of diversity of the faculty. Many of the students’ lack of awareness of the lens of race, the vast silence on these matters in many workshop. I can’t tell you how often students of color seek me out during my visits or approach me after readings in order to share with me the racist nonsense they’re facing in their programs, from both their peers and their professors. In the last 17 years I must have had at least three hundred of these conversations, minimum. I remember one young MFA’r describing how a fellow writer (white) went through his story and erased all the ‘big’ words because, said the peer, that’s not the way ‘Spanish’ people talk. This white peer, of course, had never lived in Latin America or Spain or in any US Latino community—he just knew. The workshop professor never corrected or even questioned said peer either.

But Diaz is also, I think, making an artistic argument. It’s not that he thought his classmates were genius-level novelists with an unfortunate lack of social awareness. It’s that their lack of awareness harmed their writing.

Diaz mocks again and again the presumption that “serious” creative writing students want to write “True Literature.” The workshop’s demand for “serious” writing seems less like a telescope, offering incredible visions of distant places, and more like a set of blinkers. It prevented his classmates’ writing, Diaz’s tone implies, from being as good as it could have been.

“True Literature” seems somehow smaller than “literature,” limited by its own strict demarcations, and is probably much less appealing to read.

I was also struck by what Diaz’s argument says about the workshop. After all, the workshop is not the only possible method to teach writing. It’s certainly the standard approach within creative writing, but that isn’t for lack of other options.

I can imagine a more Aristotlean method, as screenwriters use, where the first step is an analytical one: what is a story, and what components makes a good story good? I can imagine a writing education based on imitation and practice, of the sort that Francine Prose and Virginia Tufte demonstrate in their great books. I can imagine something closer to a standard English Lit education, based around communal reading and discussion of canonical novels. Lastly, I can imagine an apprenticeship model, following a more established writer around, sniffing out clues about the craft and the market through observation.

All of these methods exist at present in the creative writing world: they just aren’t central, the way the workshop is.

While I am a foreigner in America, my experience is not that of a writer of colour. My own memories of how workshops feel too narrow, or limited, or exclusionary, are obviously not the same as Diaz’s.

Yet what’s strange is that one of the most common counter-criticisms I hear, used in reply to my critiques of the workshop method, is that the workshop protects diversity. When I have expressed hope in other methods of teaching writing, I’ve often been reminded that one cannot force aspiring authors to write a certain way, and that everyone is different. The workshop, I’ve been assured, is how we protect individual writers. The workshop’s very lack of structure enables all kinds of unique writing–which another method would suffocate.

If you believe that Diaz is right, however, then the workshop isn’t doing the thing its defenders claim. It isn’t actually preserving a rich diversity of individual outlooks and approaches. In fact, it feels restrictive and claustrophobic to a lot of writing students.

But if it isn’t protecting writers, then what is the workshop protecting?


diversity, junot diaz, writing workshops

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  • The short answer is that the workshop, especially the MFA workshop, is protecting the MFA workshop system. As discussed in MFA vs NYC, it has become a self-perpetuating engine that is focused on providing careers for MFA workshop instructors, to the detriment of the literature and writers it produces.

    But to your blog’s point, my own MFA program was like yours and Diaz’s in its racial/cultural makeup. I would go so far as to say that creative writing in this country has largely been thought of as a white person’s domain (by members of minority cultures as well as by whites), and that the demographics of the workshop tend to keep it that way in terms of which writers are selected to participate, as well as the daunting prospect minority students face of having to deal with the workshop culture.

    It’s going to take a courageous effort to change this. We need MFA and other programs to reach out to minority communities and encourage young people to write. We need to level the educational playing field in this country so those kids have a decent footing from which to start. We need the workshop environment to learn to accept forms of writing that are not their own. None of this will be easy.

    BTW, there may be some kind of headline vibe in the air today. I found this article, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Liberal Media” on The American Prospect today.

  • Teaching-Annie says:

    Although workshops were created to allow a diversity of writing styles, the model retains a singularity interpretation of such works. U.S. colleges claim a diverse student population; I fail to see that in our college. Therefore, the workshop professor, also hindered by their culture of a vastly white population, teaches and infers writing styles based upon the dominating cultures. Changing academia proves a futile cause and those of true creative talent or of relentless character pursue other options into the market!

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