I’m tired of creative writing teachers complaining that their students cannot accept criticism.
I find the opposite to be true: CW teachers refuse to interrogate their own failed pedagogical choices.
Students know if you’re lying to them. Talking to them one-on-one always yields a simple fact: to a certain degree, regardless of talent or ability, students crave honesty.
It all depends on how teachers go about offering it.
But I do become concerned when a student says, “It’s OK to rip me apart. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” Teachers often skip past such comments, maybe fearful that they’d be offering psychological advice rather than advancing writing skills.
This decision is a mistake. Would anyone sing up for a CW class if they didn’t care what everyone else thinks?
I always begin the first workshop with telling them the truth: I care whatever everyone else thinks. I want everyone to see me as The Beautiful And Amazing Artist I am. “Self-aggrandizement is important,” I say, “It protects us not from other people’s comments, but their stupidity.”
For the rest of this post, I'm writing specifically about the graduate creative writing classroom, not the undergraduate one.
Often times I find myself concerned that heterosexual men will not see me on their side. I feel the need to confirm that a gay man can see through their eyes. I can be a good resource for him on how to build character, advance a plot, etc. Yes, I want to say: I know how heterosexuals behave. Which causes me some difficulty in the classroom. From time to time, they create the most offensive representations of women I’ve ever seen.
Two semesters ago, I found myself in an odd position in my creative writing classroom.
It was a graduate class. That’s an important fact. The students were all graduate students. It was a predominantly male classroom; there were very few women.
As a gay male teacher, I always become nervous that the heterosexual men will feel alienated. They’ll read my queerness as a lack of ability to understand the heterosexual arrangements in their stories.
You can’t take a lie detector test to affirm that you are capable of understanding a story focusing a man getting drunk with his buddies, lusting after a woman. (In Alabama where I taught for several years, cow-tipping was a key plot point. I miss cow-tipping.)
Again here are my fears: If I critique these male-female scenarios, or heterosexual male friendships, then I might be seen as harboring a liberal politics that of course shuts them out.
And I also become concerned about how women—if I don’t automatically validate certain victim narratives (woman rages against psycho boyfriend, etc.), I’m ultimately sexist, as someone who ultimately favors men over women because he is a man himself.
Monitoring myself hampers my ability to be as straightforward as I like. I want my students to see my joy in reading their stories. I do think there’s something to be said about giving intuitive comments, spontaneous analytical reactions. Don't we read literature to feel that epiphany? Is there anything better to publicly witness someone else's happiness in reading your work?
Never in workshops do I allow myself to invoke the word sexist, racist, homophobic, knowing it would shut down the conversation. I wait for someone else to use the word(s). Once someone does, then I see it as permission to interrogate the word in regard to the given story.
I feel that for me to employ those words, I’m seen as impartial, revealing a liberal bias that would alienate conservative students. Not to mention that “liberal” students who employ the words somewhat lazily, wrongly dismissing some texts, refusing to read against the grain.
But this story was at best misanthropic, particularly creepy in its attitude toward women. There was no way in getting around it. I couldn’t imagine any of my graduate students not questioning its representation. I was naive.
It was written in the third person and featured the protagonist, Lucifer, a young male vampire, seducing women in the most uninspired ways. Lucifer was given a little comic dialogue—a meager attempt at characterization. His partner-in-crime Lucky, a vampire, smoked cigarettes and became jealous when Lucifer left their home during the middle of the night to prey on young beauties.
The women were described in peculiarly antiquated ways: “big-bosomed,” etc. It wasn't erotic. The women had no personalities. Which doesn't always have to be a bad thing. Some characters are merely functional in any narrative.
But the women were essentially mindless idiots; Lucifer picked them up in sleazy bars. Time and time again they threw themselves at him. Not once did they need to be hypnotized!
And sometimes the point-of-view turned omniscient declaring “A more than average amount of women want to have sex with Lucifer. He’s a bad boy. Almost irresistible to women.”
There were very few women in the class.
I opened it up to class discussion. When the line of inquiry quickly became repetitive (Do you like vampire stories? I like romances. Isn’t a vampire story a romance?), I deflected the conversation.
So I asked: “What are the conventions of a vampire story?” We briefly listed them. “How many of these populate the story?” We listed those. “How many of those does the author reinvent to a certain degree?”
One female student said, “Why do all women have to be so dumb?”
A male student responded, “Did you read the scene where the female vampire compliments Lucifer for being such a strong man, and then she claims that she’s jealous she’s not a man? Right after that scene, she cries in his arms. That’s character complexity. Maybe it is too subtle.” He wasn't being sarcastic. For him, it was a sincere question.
The conversation continued, one woman in particular arguing vainly against the men.
I felt it necessary to put my two-sense in: I turned to the author and said, “Why don’t you think about giving the women one nuance in the story. Just one.” I sounded like I was pleading. Which, I guess, I was.
It felt impossible to make the majority of straight men in the class to realize that offering one nuance to a female character would improve their story on merely a dramatic level, even in terms of something as key as suspense. Do we really want the vampire to see easily manipulate these women without some sort of fight.
A majority of the straight men in the class couldn't believe that someone would say anything other than yes.