Lessons from the Writing Workshop #19 — Difference

We live in a society that is unjust. Some people have greater access to resources and opportunities, as well as safety and protection, than others. This is not due to individual luck or merit, but to the socially constructed categories they belong to—race and ethnicity, gender, economic class, sexual orientation, religion, age, and physical and mental ability. Although these categories don’t tell us much about us as individuals, they are used to describe our place in the social pecking order. Our position in this order serves to shape our experience and perceptions. We do not all encounter the world in the same way.

People who have advantages often take them for granted, and may not even realize others are not getting them (that’s part of the privilege). It gets complicated, too, because many people experience both privilege and dis-privilege. A white lesbian will gain the benefits of white skin, but may experience discrimination or even threats because of her orientation. Sometimes we focus only on those areas where we are disadvantaged and overlook those categories that give us privilege.

These issues show up in our writing, and in our writing workshops. In the workshop, you find participants whose experience with discrimination is different than yours. People who experience privilege may be insensitive to someone who hasn’t. People who face injustice daily are infuriated by it, as well as by the seeming lack of awareness they encounter. This can create conflict, as well as opportunities for dialogue and learning.

Those who take their privilege for granted may create misrepresentations in their work. Whether it’s men writing stereotypical depictions of women, or white writers creating one-dimensional characters of color, these writers have the opportunity to further develop their tools of research, observation, and empathy.

Those unaware of their privilege may also challenge the writing of non-privileged writers when it doesn’t reinforce their ideas of the world. I’ve heard such phrases as: If you’re going to use words in Spanish, don’t you have to translate them for the reader (this assumes the reader will be a monolingual English speaker); How dare you write negatively about the police; don’t you know they risk their lives to protect us (this ignores the fact that some people have experienced being targeted by law enforcement); and Two women together would never do that (this asserts that LGBTQ experience is identical to heterosexual experience.) Sometimes I’ve even heard the claim that one aesthetic is better than another. This kind of feedback can make non-privileged writers feel at best misunderstood and at worst negated, which can produce fury or despair. This is not what anyone wants in their writing workshop or in their lives.

Culture—our literature and art and plays and films and music—is a big part of what shapes our perception of the world. If categories of people are misrepresented within or absent from cultural products, it perpetuates dis-empowerment in our institutions and in our social behavior. Additionally, because so much of the culture in the United States has been created by white, straight men, usually from privileged economic backgrounds, women, people of color and LGBTQ people have not had the same opportunities to tell their stories and to represent themselves. This is the backdrop to discussions of difference in the writing workshop, along with each participant’s individual history of injustice.

When we encounter misrepresentations in the writing or the commentary presented in the workshop, it creates tension in the group. For those who feel misrepresented, the stakes are high. For those who have created the misrepresentation—due to ignorance or lack of awareness—shame may kick in, and that can produce defensiveness. While it’s not easy to navigate, it’s crucial to create a climate in which these issues are discussable in a manner that is respectful to all.

We begin with the assumption that every participant has valid things to say, and that every participant has important things to learn—be that craft or content or about the world. We acknowledge that we come from different circumstances and work to establish a climate of respect for those differences. We make an agreement that we will respond solely to the work on the page and not make judgments of the individual. These guidelines help, but hard conversations still happen, because the workshop is a microcosm of the world.

It’s easier to hear something like, I didn’t find that female character’s behavior believable or Why do you only describe the racial characteristics of the people of color in the story? than it is to be called a sexist or a racist. At the same time, if a participant has strong reactions to a piece of writing based on issues of social difference, there has to be a safe space for these feelings to be expressed.

When an issue of misperception or misrepresentation arises, the non-privileged person hopes someone else will notice it and raise the issue. They hope that I, as the instructor, will bring it up. Or they hope their classmates will step up as allies and address the issue. Internally they wonder, why do I always have to be the one to bring it up? Do the others really not see it? This leads some members of non-privileged categories to seek out groups or workshops of others like them—a women’s workshop, an LGBTQ writing group, a program for people of color, a class for seniors. While solidarity groups have great value, there is also much to be learned from reading and dialoguing outside our social categories. Ultimately, I believe this is what brings change.

Here are some strategies to help you to address injustice in the writing workshop:

  1. Cultivate an expanded aesthetics that incorporates work from traditions you are not part of. Open your mind.
  2. Work to educate yourself about groups you are not a member of. Be open to admitting what you don’t know.
  3. Don’t disparage the cultural traditions or aesthetic output of groups you are not a member of.
  4. If a student is writing about experiences or history about which you are not familiar, or in a language you do not know, take responsibility to familiarize yourself with it, rather than demanding the work explain itself.
  5. Don’t demand more of characters unlike you than you would demand of characters like you.
  6. Don’t assume you are the intended audience (and therefore the work should be changed to conform to your aesthetics.)
  7. Don’t presume to challenge the factual accuracy of experiences you haven’t lived.
  8. If you observe an act of negation due to unexamined privilege, speak up in the moment. Your silence implies tacit agreement.
  9. Take the time to examine your own privilege, and how it has shaped your experience or limited your perception.
  10. If someone in the workshop calls out an instance of misrepresentation in your work, thank them. They are helping you to expand your perception of the world.

 

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

 

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