CW Workshop & Trump: 7 Things I Teach (Salesses)
This is the third in a series of posts on teaching creative writing and the election. I’ve been thinking about how the classroom feels like the most productive space right now and wondering whether it’s because the classroom, the workshop, is a place where discourse still seems effective, desired, and open. Rather than a bubble ignorant of the rest of America, the classroom provides a space for America to be what it says it is: a place for freedom of expression, listening, and progress. As always, if you are interested in contributing, email me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc].
– Matthew Salesses
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I was inspired by Ellis Avery’s statement to her students to make my own list of seven things I try to teach and to share it with my students after the election. I teach a course called Culture and Narrative, which is a combination of creative writing, literature, and cultural/ethnic studies. On the Thursday after the election, I put our workshops on hold first to talk about the institutionalization of stories, and then to share with them what I am trying to teach them about storytelling.
I actually like to pause the course from time to time to talk about where we are going. I find it useful as a way of synthesizing what we’ve been talking about, making clearer the goals of the course, and reflecting on the ways our conversations have shaped and changed the class.
It seemed important after the election to reinforce the power of storytelling and the fact that storytelling is not innocent. We have been talking all semester about how the way we tell stories—and even the way we enjoy stories—is influenced by the stories we have heard and how we have come to think of what a “good” story is and what its purpose is. This is about institutionalization. So the stories and the ways we tell stories that are institutionalized, normalized, given power, are extremely important. Important to the results of the election and important to the fear people feel post-election and important to what might happen now and the long-term consequences of the stories that the election and the government-elect might further institutionalize.
I wanted to talk to my students about how what we are doing in this course matters to the above. Here are the seven things I told them I was trying to teach them:
- What we think of as culture is basically stories—stories about who we are, stories about what is valuable, stories about how to value ourselves and each other, stories about what stories are and how to tell them and how to pass them on. Understanding this helps us question what stories we want to tell and what those stories owe to stories that have come before them. In making stories, we are contributing to the production of culture.
- Specificity is subjectivity. Or to say it differently: specificity, that essential tool of storytelling, is about difference, and difference is what makes something individual. The specific is how we create characters who are like people, who are complex and particular, not simple and generalized. We have talked about how empathy is, in its way, the opposite of relatability, since empathy is the ability to imagine something from a specific individual’s perspective. What makes something relatable (which touches me not at all in fiction; even “likeability” is more valuable to me than relatability) is not what makes someone empathize. It may be what makes someone sympathize: Because I have felt loss, I’m sorry for your loss. But it is not what makes someone empathize: Because I understand the specificity of your loss, I understand how it is different from mine, I understand something of what makes it yours. Specificity, too, is how we find our own subjectivity. The difference between how one person in class writes a scene about x in which y happens with z characters and how another person writes the same is essential to understanding who you are. Maybe think about it like this: Would you want to get to know a person who has no specific likes or dislikes, who loves or hates everything indiscriminately? No, that person would be insufferable, because that person would be impossible to understand as a subject; to talk to him would be the same as talking to an object.
- Relatedly, I want us to develop a better idea of what we like, why we like it, where that like comes from, and what to do with it. The better we know what we like, the better we know who we are—as artists and as people. But to like something and to know what you like are not the same. To be attracted to someone is not to know why you are attracted. It takes getting to know the person to get to know what the attraction to that person says about you. Liking something without really knowing what it is can get us into trouble. Beyond this course, we should question and examine our aesthetics and other people’s. We want to make the stories we tell truer to who we are.
- Words are symbols with their own history and identity. As we know, they are not the things they stand for; they are cultural productions. Often the things they stand for are also cultural productions. This is to say that to write anything is to engage with a cultural history of which words are “correct,” which words have power, which words certain people can use and others can’t, which words etc. If specificity is subjectivity, we can only make within that history or through it. To write in English is to utilize the cultural history of English to express ourselves. This history is not equal for all of us.
- Making is becoming. Becoming > being. We don’t want to simply be. We don’t want to let ourselves be overtaken by cultural production, be defined by other people’s stories. We want to tell stories because we want to become. To accept the status quo, to read or tell a story uncritically, is a kind of death. Like a story, we are effectively dead as soon as we stop becoming.
- Making and becoming occur in resistance. All of this is to say, we don’t want to regurgitate the same stories we’ve heard. None of us wanted to become writers to do that. A person needs resistance in order to grow, to become. We need resistance in order to distinguish ourselves from the world. If you got everything you wanted, perhaps you would be the insufferable person without any self-possession. It is in resistance that we define our individual tastes, because we understand what it is we want when we don’t have it. It is in resistance that we desire to make, because we want something we do not yet have. I am asking us to resist, to make, to become—more consciously. To own our resistances, and to own our stories. Always resist.
- Though this may seem sentimental or trite, we’ll keep coming back to the fact that stories matter, that making stories matter. Which means we should make stories that matter more, matter better.