What are creative writing workshops good for?

People bemoan workshop as tedious, cutting, or writing by committee. I beg to differ. Writing workshops make me a better ally. In workshops the writer sits in a cone of silence as her fellow writers talk about the work. When the writer can’t talk, she can’t influence the discussion, and thus (the theory goes) she sees an honest unbiased discussion of her work. And no matter how enlightened we all think ourselves to be, our first reaction to criticism is “Nuh-uh, you got it wrong!” The cone of silence allows us to suffer through the first stage of denial until we get to acceptance.

If one has taken numerous workshops, one becomes intimately familiar with that feeling of denial. Sometimes our denial is justified, but more often after a few minutes, months, years, we realize that in fact rhyming “true” with “blue” is not an ironic sendup of Hallmark sentiments, but irritating and wrong. [Note: Indy Clause would never rhyme true and blue.]

An ally is a person with privilege who tries to stand in solidarity with people who are oppressed. I waded into a facebook argument yesterday. Someone posted a critique of white liberals, and someone else waded in and said, “But! I’m an ally!” [Note: The conversation was more pointed, interesting, and in-depth than the example above, but I’m trying to hold onto my fraying anonymity.] This is the natural reaction, the denial, the very familiar feeling of, you got it wrong, you don’t mean me, I’m different, a special snowflake, this is not how I am.

Facebook is a place of lightning reactions, so easy to say something cutting or ironic, no time to stop and think. As a creative writing workshop veteran, my jaw aches from clenching my teeth; however, if something bothers me, I know that sometimes if I wait I will understand it. Let’s take microaggressions—this was a topic that I understood intellectually but not emotionally for many years. However, as I do more reading and work for my (fucking awesome) gender studies class, I have come to understand it emotionally.

It’s that old feeling of denial. But the cone of silence, the time it takes to sift through responses to your writing apart from the emotions evoked by the responses, is what Mia McKenzie means, I think, when she says, “Shut up and listen.” So next time a person calls you out on your privilege, remember the cone of silence. An essential part of privilege is that those who have it do not see that they have it. Think it through. Minutes, months, years later you may see it.

What have you learned recently?

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