Talking About the Things We Most Need to Talk About in Creative Writing

By | January 14, 2019


This week we’re celebrating the publication of Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft, a comprehensive introduction to the key debates in creative writing today, from the ethics of appropriation to the politics of literary evaluation. Today’s post is from Janelle Adsit, the editor of the collection.

The students in my creative writing class have just submitted the writing they plan to circulate in workshop. I read their texts with eagerness. The pieces are ranging. One story, written in Spanish and English, takes place at a kitchen table with untouched frijoles and tortillas slowly growing cold. Another story is set in a schoolyard with young people asking questions about gender identity over a game of “getting married.”

As I read through the manuscripts, I think about the discussion each is likely to prompt. I think about the things students might say in workshop, and the things they might be hesitant to voice. Will anyone question the racial markers in this story, or the lack of racial markers in that one? Will anyone challenge the heteronomativity and cisnormativity in the next story? Will anyone make note of the fact that the only time disability is portrayed in any of the stories, it is as a plot device that is sutured to a secondary character? Or will anyone speak of the politics of appropriation when we encounter the Coyote story that is written by a white person in the class? Will anyone question how a writer has grappled with their positionality in telling a story that is not their own?

These questions are difficult, and we need to read more to trace their contours. It is in reading that we can gain shared reference points for understanding the dimensions of these necessary questions.

Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft is a collection of essays that speak to central issues: representation, privilege, appropriation, and the cultural contingency of evaluation. Critical Creative Writing exists alongside books like The Racial Imaginary (edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Cap Max King) and Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation (edited by Bruce Ziff).

In reading, we see that there is no such thing as “pure craft,” as Matthew Salesses notes in the opening essay of Critical Creative Writing; there is instead the process of coming to see the implications of what we enact on the page.

I want a creative writing course to intensify students’ perception of the dominant narratives mobilized in the texts they write and read. I’ve found the work of Dorothy J. Wang, Craig Santos Perez, David Mura, Conchitina Cruz, Porochista Khakpour, Kristen Harmon, and Leslie Marmon Silko—included in Critical Creative Writing—to be essential to honing this type of awareness.

Having these authors’ work in a comfortably sized compendium allows us to keep their ideas present with us in every classroom conversation. I want to be able to point to Taiye Selasi’s essay “Stop Pigeonholing African Writers” if a student voices a set of stereotyped expectations for a writer based on their identity. I want to be able to reread Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” when a monolingual English-speaker complains that the story written in Spanish and English isn’t accessible to them. These occasions in the classroom are moments when we come to do the self-reflexive work every writer needs to do: What assumptions am I making here? What am I valuing? Where do those values come from? How are those values contingent and related to my background and my positionality?

These are questions we ask more fully with the help of writers who elucidate them with care. These are the writers who have included their essays in Critical Creative Writing. I thank them, and I’ve learned much from them in editing this book.

Janelle Adsit is an assistant professor of creative writing at Humboldt State University. Her books include a collection of poems Unremitting Entrance and two texts for the creative writing classroom: Toward an Inclusive Creative Writing and, with Renée Byrd, Writing Intersectional Identities: Keywords for Creative Writers. She maintains the website www.criticalcreativewriting.org, which provides an index of resources that help us think critically about the work we do as writers. She is the editor of Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft, now available from Bloomsbury.

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