What is creative writing for?

This talk was originally presented at the Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference on February 6, 2021.

The very first teacher of color I ever had was in my MFA program. Her name was Bhanu Kapil and she was British Punjabi. She was also the first and only teacher who ever tore up my short story, put the pieces in a State Farm insurance envelope with a crayon drawing of the Rocky Mountains and handed it back to me. At that moment, I became a poet. She introduced me to experimental prose, which is a multimodal, mixed genre, prose poetry form that was started by LGBTQ+ community in the Bay area and picked up by poets of color. This hybrid form was a breath of fresh air – decolonial and antiracist – and, unlike traditional creative writing, it was a form that many felt could better express BIPOC experiences, including my own.

I share this because in traditional creative writing workshops, we have preconceived notions of what writing, especially good writing, is. It is often grounded in a heteronormative, cisgendered, white patriarchy. In the traditional model, there will be generally be five to ten minutes of praise of the piece, after which the rest of the hour becomes focused on criticism and opinion. The writer is generally silent, except for the last 5-10 minutes in which they are allowed to ask questions about the work. The process is not to be dialogic or responsive in real-time; the theory behind this pedagogical strategy is that the writer could get defensive if allowed to speak or engage in any way in a conversation about their own work.

This model is flawed. It doesn’t consider the writer’s positionality nor does it consider who the audience is meant to be or what the writing is for. It is better, I think, to look at what writing is for. I think of my indigenous Filipino heritage and the word kapatid. It means brother or sister. It derives from the word kapwa, which is essentially about recognizing our shared humanity. This can be further broken down into the words ka, meaning relationship, and puwang, meaning space. I believe this is what good writing is, giving the space to explore relationships, to share what it means to be human. Because our experiences are all different, after all, you can never fully know the internal texture of someone else, and we all come from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, I believe the kapwa framework in creative writing can translate to thinking about how we choose what to read, and how we workshop and assess students’ creative writing.

In choosing what to read in the creative writing classroom, it’s important to consider the makeup of the class. We need to see ourselves represented in what we consume, to know that we’re worth being written about and that our experiences matter. We need to know what’s possible. In 2014, Junot Diaz wrote a piece titled MFA vs. POC for the New Yorker. Why, he asks, do we read William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro, but not Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, among others?

Diaz also described how two writers of color got shut down in the writer’s workshop. One peer edited out the big words in another’s piece saying that Latinos don’t use big words. Another student stated that people of color seemed to only show up when crimes or drugs were involved and that when she brought it up, her peers said the class was about writing, not political correctness.

There’s another word derived from kapwa and that’s pakikipagkapwa. It roughly translates as fellowship. The instructor is called tulay, which means bridge, and the participants are the kahalok, which means co-researchers. Together they form the umpukan, which is the group working together with mutual respect and camaraderie. It means to connect oneself with others. And isn’t the writer-reader relationship about connection? To dismiss the student as being too PC is to forget what writing is for.

I have an acronym I use in creative writing courses. It’s this group CARES. CARES stands for confidentiality: you’re always free to talk about your own experience. Please don’t talk about anyone else’s without that person’s agreement. A is for Acceptance: there’s no “wrong” way to engage in the writing process. Please accept yourself and each other without criticism or judgment. R is for Respect: we celebrate diversity and allow for differences in culture, process, opinion and style. E is for Empathy: we hold each other’s work gently and with compassion. And S is for support: we offer constructive feedback using I-statements, encouragement and wisdom.

When workshopping each other’s pieces, rather than critiquing whether the writing is good, we ask, what is the writer looking for? What does he/she/they want feedback on? What with the piece resonates? In one workshop with Bhanu Kapil, we passed around our pieces. Spending about 1 minute on each piece, we quickly highlighted words and phrases that stood out to us, that remained emotionally hot or vivid in some way. This more somatic way of thinking about the workshop helped the writer figure out where the story was.

Another way to level the playing field, so to speak, is to have everyone write their origin stories. Have students write a short ethnoautobiography, which asks the question, who are you? It is a visionary and imaginative process that grounds itself in time (smaller and larger planetary and celestial cycles), place (ecology, history of place), history (stories and myths), ancestry, and stories of origin and creation. It takes ethnic origins (genealogy) as one of its pivotal starting points.

Writer Ching-In Chen suggests a simple exercise to start the process. The instructor would have everyone write an origin story for their name. If they want, it can start with the etymology or meaning of the name, but it doesn’t have to. I wrote one; it’s in my book, titled Marilyn. Some context before I read it. I am an adoptee from the Philippines and my birth name is Marilyn Malinao. My adoptive family is Irish.

***

“Reavey” is the Anglicized form of the Gaelic “O’Riabhaigh.”
It means “brindled,” “grizzled.”

Twelve years ago my family and I went to Ireland to meet relatives and research family origins. Hanging upside down we kissed the Blarney Stone. We touch the North Shore. Roamed the streets of Belfast. We saw the library at trinity College and the Book of Kells, the calligraphy swooping down the page like vines. I touched the soil. My cousin, 11 years old at the time, cried and said, “Do you feel it, Amanda? Our ancestors came from here.”

I smiled, “yes, yes. I feel it too.”

Later I took a walk alone in an old cemetery down the street in Swords. There was a Celtic cross grave marker with worn etchings surrounded by a rusted iron-wrought fence and overgrowth. I wanted to touch it. This beautiful, forgotten grave marker.

Wanting towards. My wanting is not the grid’s wanting. Marilyn, remember your name. Malinao, remember your story.

Name and story and tribe are the same thing. A name is a story and a story is a tribe’s identity. Malinao. It means “clear.” From a phrase in Bikol-naga: malinao na isip. Because my ancestors had such “clear thoughts,” they birthed an island.

I cannot give birth to an island.

Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference 2021

Happy to say the proposal that my friend Danielle Harms put together was accepted. So I’ll be presenting with her and with Nora Boxer about creative writing pedagogy.

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The 16th Annual Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Virtual Conference February 4th-7th, 2021

Keynote Speakers

Rachel Cargle

Alfred L. Martin, Jr., The University of Iowa


About MIGC

The 15th annual Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference is an annual graduate conference organized by graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

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Roundtable Description

Title: “Pure Craft is a Lie,” Now What? 

The field of creative writing pedagogy has established with growing clarity the many ways that the concept “good craft” in writing is a problematic tool of literary “gatekeeping” and creates harm. Still, the work of deconstructing pedagogical practices that adhere to outdated and corrosive ideas about “quality” and “craft” is ongoing. Writers like Matthew Salesses, Janelle Adsit, Renée M Byrd, and Ocean Vuong have clarified and expanded the conversation around how “pure craft is a lie,” as Salesses argues, one derived from a literary tradition that evolved to accommodate violent structures like sexism, colonialism, and white supremacy. And yet teachers often continue to bring problematic ideas around craft into the classroom, from college settings to community workshops. This panel will explore ways to turn this awareness into pedagogical action. What can it mean to offer a more expansive, equitable, and socially just vision of “craft” in creative writing pedagogy? How can educators work to examine their pedagogy and practice to recognize the impact of how “literary writing” or “good craft” is applied and conceived? What action needs to happen, and what research still needs to be done? This panel will offer a conversation of the theoretical background and history of “craft” as a concept in creative writing, provide pedagogical strategies and practices participants can apply to their own work.  

Keywords: 

Craft, creative writing pedagogy 

Stereotype Life: Episodes 6-10

DJ Lee’s book Remote: Finding Home In the Bitterroots. How does “place” function as an archive? How is writing also a spiritual experience? What were mental hospitals like in the 40s and 50s? What does it mean to write through shame? How is mental illness in some ways un-boundaried like the wilderness? 

Listen here.

The importance of multimodality and making online classes accessible with Kristine Koyama. What were the challenges and accessibility issues you faced when moving classes online amidst the pandemic? What are some of the tenets of creating an accessible online classroom? How does multimodality fit with creating an online learning space?

Listen here.

Karen Tang on the correlation between addiction and mental health, and developing mindfulness and self-compassion. How can we design classes so that we as instructors help to minimize burnout? What is mindfulness and why is it important for self-compassion? How can mindfulness and meditation lead to better engagement and studying and working within the academy?

Listen here.

Having lupus, the perception of attendance and the accessibility of Dungeons & Dragons for training with Chrissy Mackey. How can we better support students who suffer from chronic autoimmune diseases? How does it affect attendance? What policies could instructors put in place in the syllabus so students could show how they are engaged in the coursework? How does gaming apply to industrial/ organizational psychology?

Listen here.

Authority, identity and unknowability in the classroom, as well as the intersections of feminist pedagogy and disability studies, and incorporating objects into teaching and learning with Krista Grensavitch. What does feminist pedagogy look like in the classroom? How do we make the material personal? How might we think about teaching in terms of creating learner communities? How might feminist pedagogy intersect with disability studies and making our classrooms accessible?

Listen here.

Stereotype Life: Episode 5 Dr. Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Connecting with Dr. Katie Rose Guest Pryal on her book, Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education. What are some of the pros and cons for keeping a psychiatric disability hidden? How do we challenge stereotypes and the notion that seeking accommodations is cheating? How do we raise awareness and change the narrative? How do we practice care for ourselves and for our students while also protecting ourselves inside of a neoliberal university system? What advice would you give to those who are thinking of leaving academia?

Highlights include:

  1. What are the pros and cons of keeping a psychiatric disability hidden? (3:04)
  2. Raising awareness and creating communities of care (7:56)
  3. How do we navigate intersectionality and de-centering authority in the classroom in terms of socioeconomic background, race, gender and other kinds of privilege (11:02)
  4. How do we challenge the narrative that people who need accommodations are faking their disability? (16:31)
  5. The mad genius stereotype (24:19)
  6. Persevering in the midst of a mental illness, the challenges of working inside a neoliberal university system, and saying “no” (30:14)
  7. Advice for those working in academia (36:30)
  8. Advice for those wanting to leave academia (40:00)

To listen to the podcast and/or view show notes, resources mentioned, our guest’s brief biography, and a downloadable, accessible PDF transcript, please visit: https://stereotype.life/2020/07/01/episode-5-dr-katie-rose-guest-pryal/

Stereotype Life: Episode 4 Jason Anderson

The fourth episode of Stereotype Life came out today. Apologies for the two day delay. As someone who wears hearing aids, I was struggling with creating the transcripts despite using a program (transcripts need to be double checked since the software isn’t perfect).

I sent out a call asking for an editor and luckily, someone volunteered! Her name is Frankie Martinez, a fiction writer from California. I’m so grateful. You can learn more about her here at https://stereotype.life/meet-the-team/ and also on her website www.frankieiswriting.com.

Anyway, in the fourth episode of STL, we discuss self-accommodation, self-advocacy and building resilience with Jason Anderson. How do we make accommodations for ourselves, learn how to self-advocate, and figure out what we need so that we can get what we need to be successful? What does it mean to build resilience? What are some resources in the community to help students with disabilities?

Highlights include:

  1. How Jason became involved in disability services (3:01)
  2. The differences between little “d” and big “D” in the Deaf community (4:53)
  3. Asking for help (10:31)
  4. What is self-accommodation and how do we build self-advocacy skills? (12:14)
  5. The differences between 504, IDEA Act and ADA (16:12)
  6. What is the process for working with an Access Specialist? (20:55)
  7. How do you have the conversation about accommodations with your instructor? (23:06)
  8. What is resilience and how do you build it? (24:55)
  9. Jason’s example of advocating for captions as a student (28:10)
  10. What are some resources out there to help students? (31:55)
  11. Do you have any final advice? (38:32)

To listen to the podcast and/or view show notes, resources mentioned, our guest’s brief biography, and a downloadable, accessible PDF transcript, please visit: https://stereotype.life/2020/06/17/episode-4-jason-anderson

Stereotype Life: Episode 3 Beth Vigoren

The third episode of Stereotype Life came out today. Apologies for the one day delay. We decided it was important to re-record in light of the recent death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests.

In this episode, we discuss life as a first generation student and single mother from rural Minnesota with Beth Vigoren. What assumptions do we make about first-generation and/or rural students? How do we handle sensitive, but timely topics in our classroom, that could potentially divide the classroom community, and at the same time, take care of our students’ emotional well-being during these conversations? How do we develop skills in self-advocacy and asking powerful questions?

Highlights include:

  1. First experiences transitioning into college (2:15)
  2. Self-advocacy and rural students’ perception of professors (6:55)
  3. Student conferences and de-centering authority (10:15)
  4. Finding and developing an on-campus community (13:02)
  5. Stereotypes of rural students (14:57)
  6. Being belittled in academia as a rural student (18:00)
  7. Defining rural intersectional feminism (20:40)
  8. The death of George Floyd and the recent protests (23:00)
  9. Handling sensitive, but timely topics in the classroom and asking powerful questions (25:41)
  10. Challenging thoughts and beliefs when one feels their identities are at-stake (35:47)
  11. Process-Based Pedagogy (42:52)
  12. What failure teaches about having good conversations (45:55)

To listen to the podcast and/or view show notes, resources mentioned, our guest’s brief biography, and a downloadable, accessible PDF transcript, please visit: https://stereotype.life/2020/06/03/episode-3-beth-vigoren/

Stereotype Life: Episode 2 Meredith Williams

The second episode of Stereotype Life drops tomorrow, May 20 at 12pm CT. In this podcast episode, I interview Meredith Williams, a PhD student in Public Health at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Meredith talks about public health, universal design for learning and the DREAM organization. What Is public health? What things do we need to think about when teaching students with disabilities? How might the way we think about teaching change? What does college look like for a student with disabilities and how might they receive accommodations and mentorship?

Highlights include:

  1. What is Public Health? (2:00)
  2. The relationship between income and psychological distress for people with disabilities (4:20)
  3. Barriers students with disabilities may be facing (8:06)
  4. Rethinking accessibility statement in the syllabus and how you teach and assess materials (14:23)
  5. Universal Design for Learning (15:10)
  6. Gaining a place at the table and how college systematically excludes students with disabilities (20:54)
  7. Assessment vs. Labor-Based Grading (25:34)
  8. Finding community and representation (28:59)
  9. The founding of DREAM at UWM (32:00)
  10. Advice for students with disabilities entering college for the first time (37:56)

To listen to the podcast and/or view show notes, resources mentioned, our guest’s brief biography, and a downloadable, accessible PDF transcript, please visit: http://stereotype.life/?p=590

Stereotype Life: Episode 1 John Thurgood

The inaugural episode of Stereotype Life drops on May 6, 2020 at 12pm central. In this podcast episode, I interview John Thurgood, a PhD student, teaching assistant and fiction writer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He talks about creative writing, skateboarding, grad school & teaching amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Highlights include:

  1. A quote from Kyle Minor’s Praying Drunk (1:45)
  2. Creative writing and skateboarding (7:31)
  3. Piquing students’ curiosities and getting them invested in composition through researching the communities they live in (13:15)
  4. How we’re stories within stories (15:11)
  5. Balancing a rigorous curriculum with teaching and learning amid the coronavirus pandemic (21:10)
  6. Keeping an open dialogue with students and navigating what it is to be a student right now (27:13)
  7. How we as instructors can be catalysts for our students (35:57)

To listen to the podcast and/or view show notes, resources mentioned, our guest’s brief biography, and a downloadable, accessible PDF transcript, please visit: http://stereotype.life/?p=697