We Need New Metaphors: Reimagining Power in the Creative Writing Workshop

Rachelle Cruz
From the September/October 2020 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

I’ve taught creative writing at the college and university level for seven years. I’ve taught all-ages poetry, creative writing, and performance workshops with nonprofits and community centers for the past thirteen years. I’ve experienced trauma during my undergrad and graduate writing workshops, when I was asked to translate myself and cultural backgrounds as a Filipinx woman and first-generation college student, and to clarify my experiences with sexual abuse and more. I was asked to perform whiteness through “imitating” white poets. I was also asked to perform my brownness and “foreign exoticness” to a white audience. I’ve been in “dead author” workshops (also known as the traditional workshop) for my entire education. Through this model, the writer is silent while the professor, or a classmate, clumsy or emboldened by the professor’s lack of guidance, begins to eviscerate the work. Everyone else then joins in.

Today I teach my classes and workshops with a very different approach. We begin with creating community guidelines (notice how I wrote “we”—I offer but don’t dictate) on how to interact with one another, the texts we’re reading, and one another’s work. We check-in at the start of each class—everyone says their name then shares a highlight of the week. Folks actually start to care about, or at the very least are interested in, one another. We also talk about how to handle involuntary racism and discrimination in our work. I’m a supporter of “calling in”—or addressing harmful behavior by first talking it through in an open, respectful fashion that does not call out or shame people—as a method and sometimes the whole class feels comfortable enough to do this as a collective conversation.

Regarding workshop I share my own experiences. I tell them how much I hated workshop for the reasons I listed earlier. I ask them about their own experiences, and we unpack them. No surprise—they, too, have experienced trauma, racism, sexism, transphobia, and more. We read “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” a short, accessible, and informative history on writing workshops from a Vietnamese refugee writer’s point of view published in the New York Times in 2017. We unpack the “invisible origins” of the writing workshop—Nguyen cites Eric Bennett’s book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press, 2015) in tracing it to a midcentury American fear of Communism—and how it’s marked by whiteness. We talk about how today’s writing workshop format was informed by this fear and a move toward individualism and individual art-making. We talk about how the “gruff” (read: toxic, masculine) style of communicating feedback to students was informed by the militaristic settings familiar to World War II veterans, who were the predominant workshop attendees during this time.

Then I ask my students, “So, what kind of workshop do you want?” I tell them that a workshop is a form like any other—a TV show, a film, a poem. It can have varied yet specific uses, depending on the writer and the piece. For example, do you have a rough draft of a poem or story that you feel uncertain about? Maybe you want to be inspired by other works similar to your draft. In the Gift Method of workshop, students bring in art, poems, films, and other media that speak to the craft and content of the workshop poem or story. Students share why their “gift” reminds them of the piece. Or maybe the student has a poem or story in response to queer feminist theory. The student can assign an article alongside their piece. The workshop then discusses the workshop text alongside this article, foregrounding queer feminist theory.

Students brainstorm other workshop formats depending on what they need, and of course this varies depending on the piece. Here are some of these format titles (if you want descriptions, e-mail editor@pw.org with the subject line “Workshop Formats”): the Oprah Method, the Mix-Up, In the Dark, and the Exquisite Corpse. In my classroom each writing workshop format changes from student to student, depending on personal preferences. I tell them a format might fail, but we’ll all learn something from it.

The writing workshop and the creative writing classroom suffer from a lack of imagination. They suffer from cyclical trauma, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism. It’s our job, alongside our students, to change this.

In his New York Times piece, Nguyen writes that “the ‘workshop’ invokes the nobility of craftsmanship, physical (not intellectual) labor—and masculinity.” We need new metaphors. In the workshops I’ve facilitated, I’ve witnessed students create tremendous joy as they center themselves and their stories in the curriculum. The workshop is no longer a “workshop” but a greenhouse, a director’s cut and commentary version of a favorite film, or a boba tea shop. Over the years students have agreed upon a wide variety of new models, but the following guiding principles recur in our classroom conversations—community, accountability, rigor, and joy. The workshop is no longer an instructor-centered space where individualism and scarcity models of “genius” and publishing reign. The workshop no longer serves an invisible history of whiteness, a history made invisible because of whiteness. The workshop space becomes a community, an extension of students’ lived realities, rather than just another institutional space where they are asked to check themselves at the door. I admit that this tension persists as I teach workshops at a university, but the power of the academy is one more thing to make visible, to question, and to resist. Here, in this reimagined workshop space, students create literary magazines centering BIPOC trans and queer writers. Here students break bread and make fun and call in or out. Here students already know that they are writers and poets. We listen to one another with authenticity and verve. 

When developing classes and curricula, I consider the following questions.* But before we get to them: If you’re a white educator, or an educator with privilege, stop. Have you read books on whiteness and your own role in it—even or especially if you’re a non-Black POC? Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor (Sourcebooks, 2020) by Layla F. Saad and How to Be an Antiracist (One World, 2019) by Ibram X. Kendi are great starts. (Remember, this is a start. Read the bibliographies in those books and keep going.)

1. Have you read “A Talk to Teachers” by James Baldwin? If not, read it.

2. Are you reading widely? How often do you read white writers versus Black writers and other POC writers? And are you reading a wide range of work by Black writers and writers of color, e.g., speculative fiction, poetry, nature memoirs, science and food writing? Are all of the books you read about Black people and people of color centered around violence and trauma?

3. What is your own writing’s relationship with white supremacy? Anti-Blackness? Anti-racism? Queerness? Intersectionality? Are forms of white supremacy, misogyny, anti-queerness, and/or anti-disability perpetuated in your work? (Read, read, and read to learn about your own biases. Do the work. Journal it out, if you need to. Please don’t burden your colleagues of color with this.)

4. What is your own relationship with the writing workshop or the creative writing classroom? What trauma did you experience as a result of this exchange? What privilege did you experience? How have writing workshops failed you? How have you benefited from them (like one-on-one mentorship with a professor, a publishing deal, an exclusive workshop for a small subset of students)? Which privileges allowed you to reap these benefits?

5. In the past, when students have come to you with troubles in the workshop, how did you deal with the situation? Did it lead to a safer workshop environment? Do students feel safe coming to you with issues in the first place? 

6. What kind of emotional labor do you expect students to perform?  Do you ask students to explain their ancestry and history to the class?

7. What does an ideal writing workshop look like to you? A robust conversation or a quiet creative exchange? Other possibilities?

8. Consider your own learning and teaching style. Which students will succeed from this? Which students will be left out and how can you reach them?

The following are pedagogical questions* to ask yourself about the work of leading your own anti-racist creative writing class. I also recommend reading Dena Simmons’s “How to Be an Anti-Racist Educator,” which includes more valuable questions to consider, and checking out Neil Aitken and Dao Strom’s De-Canon project (www.de-canon.com), which showcases work by writers of color and information and essays on how to navigate the creative writing classroom.

1. Have you and your students set up community guidelines for class discussions? Workshops?

2. Which guidelines have you and your students set for student participation and your participation? Do you set the tone for discussions and workshops, or do students?

3. Which guidelines have you and your students set for instances of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the classroom and in student work?

4. Which texts are you teaching?

5. Whose work is considered “in the canon” or universal in your genre? Why? (Are you having this conversation with your students?)

6. Are marginalized writers—Black, Indigenous, and people of color—on your syllabus and reading list? Remember “inclusive” or “diverse” doesn’t mean anti-racist. How can you, as an educator, highlight craft and context in these conversations?

7. If you are teaching the work of writers of color, are you just teaching “voice” and content, or are you also teaching craft (or how these writers challenge craft)?

8. Are narratives by writers of color you teach centered only on trauma? If so, why?

9. Are narratives by writers of color you teach already in the canon? Are you teaching contemporary writers as well?

10. Are students of color expected to “show, not tell” in their work?

11. Are students of color asked to translate easily Googled cultural artifacts? Are these students expected to give an entire history of their cultural backgrounds?

12. Which protocols do you have set in place in your syllabus or in community guidelines to avoid placing this emotional labor on students?

13. What is the environment of your writing workshop? Is it hostile toward marginalized writers as Viet Thanh Nguyen argues in his article “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile”? 

14. Does your writing workshop take on a “dead author” format? Why? Whose voices are silenced here? Whose are amplified?

15. Do you have accessible office hours in person and online? Do students of color feel comfortable talking to you? If not, examine why. 

*If you use these questions in public, please cite me.


Rachelle Cruz is the author of the poetry collection God’s Will for Monsters, winner of an American Book Award and the 2016 regional winner of the Hillary Gravendyk Prize. She also wrote and edited Experiencing Comics: An Introduction to Reading, Discussing, and Creating Comics. (Cognella Academic Publishing, 2018). She lives in southern California.