“Pure Craft” Is a Lie (Part 3)
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The writers of color in this workshop where the craft values are white, or the LGBT writers in a workshop where craft values are straight and cis, or women writers in a workshop where the craft values are male, end up in the position then where they are told that they need to “know the rules before they can break them,” but the rules are never only “just craft,” because the rules are cultural. This is where it starts to feel like colonizing.
Let’s take the example of sensory details. Here are three things we might be taught:
- Choose “striking” or “lasting” or “unusual” (or so forth) details.
- Leave out unnecessary or “common” details.
- Defamiliarize the familiar.
Now imagine a writer of color submits to a workshop of mostly white writers who have read mostly white texts and have a white instructor a story about people of color. Not hard to imagine, I would guess. Let’s re-examine these three strategies through possible responses (responses I’ve seen and/or experienced) just to the writer of color’s use of sensory details.
For the sake of my own experience, let’s take a story about Korean Americans in Korea.
Let’s take the first two strategies together and explore two possibilities, one of the writer taking the advice of cultural craft, and one of the writer resisting that craft.
In the first possibility, the writer does as instructed, including what he thinks are striking details of a fish a man is taking home on the subway, wearing an incorrectly buttoned coat, and the smell of unwashed bodies, the slickness of the bodies pressed close, all of which will cause some kind of plot that has to do with the man with the fish, perhaps. Meanwhile the writer leaves out details that seem unnecessary to that story.
**In this example, it would not be surprising to me to see the workshop react by saying the writer has not done the things she did: that is, including unusual details and leaving out unnecessary details. Say the workshop starts asking the writer to include details like—an extreme example—passengers eating kimchi in their box lunches. The workshop might suggest this because the rules, again, are cultural and pertain to white culture. The idea is that the writer should be writing for white Americans who may have experienced the smell of unwashed bodies but would be “struck” by the “vivid” details of the smell of kimchi or so forth. There might even be a white American in the workshop who speaks up to say he’s been to Korea and to give some examples.
In the second possibility, the writer resists the craft lessons and tries instead, perhaps following other writers of color she has read (and maybe resisting stories where white expats in Asia eat exotified food, maybe on the lunar new year, etc.) to include common details meant to let other Korean Americans recognize a similar experience, details like, I don’t know, the way the man with the fish can tell by the protagonist’s clothes that he’s a kyopo, without explaining the term. Maybe the writer is reacting to the amount of fiction that doesn’t seem to be about people like him, and he believes it’s important to represent the experience for its recognition.
**In this example, the workshop might ask the writer to define kyopo if this is supposed to be a striking detail. They might say if it’s not a striking detail to cut it. They might complain that it’s not a familiar detail to them, or they might complain that if it’s a familiar detail to the writer, then what’s the point? They might complain how “the spell of the story was broken” when they found a word they didn’t know and it wasn’t defined. Or so on with a thousand other things you could imagine. Again this would be maybe even an appropriate response if the point of the craft is to to write for people of a dominant American culture.
It is exhausting to me too to go through all of these examples, but let’s take defamiliarization. You can imagine the above possibility would be similar if the writer wanted to familiarize rather than defamiliarize. Say the writer wanted to defamiliarize, though, wanted to take the cultural craft advice. So he went through and defamiliarized, say, the lunch box, described it as a square little jail of food. Defamiliarization is for the familiar, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the workshop told the writer they couldn’t understand what the square jail of food was, and encouraged her then not to defamiliarize, pointing out how, for them, the common details of Korean culture are already unfamiliar enough. The different strategies then come into conflict for the writer of color, who might end up simply confused.
What happens then if he can’t see, because the workshop doesn’t encourage him to see, that the confusion here is over who the craft is for?
Coming back to the question then of why writers of color often write about race in their craft essays, and perhaps even focus on race in craft essays, my general thought is that writers of color are doing the hard work of (a) reacting to a history of craft as “just craft” and even trying to correct it, (b) catching writers of color up by explaining the cultural issues that do go mostly unacknowledged and untaught, and (c) making sure that their craft essays reflect their experience and do not make the same mistake. It seems to me that part of what the craft essay must do, at this point, is to talk about how craft and culture can’t be separated.
The example of sensory detail is a small example in the scheme of things. How do I write a craft essay about things like how novels often hinge structurally on the past meeting the present without addressing that these concerns are cultural? Without examining how the craft has actually changed my own personal experience with my past and the way that I think about it? Without examining how my cultural experience and my learned cultural experience—my past and my present—informs even my understanding of plot and structure? And at the same time acknowledge that this negotiation between cultures is what goes on with craft and that the acknowledgement can help students to understand their own relation to craft as it is taught in creative writing workshops?
Cultural assumptions stand behind what makes many craft moves “work” or not, and for whom they work. There’s a lot of work to do, with craft, and writers of color know it.
In Part 4 I’ll think about what can be done to combat all of this in the classroom. I’m really not sure. As always, write to me if you have comments or want to contribute something to this teaching creative writing series: m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].
Photo: Flickr/Global Justice Now