We’re Going to Need More than Erasure: Normalizing Creative Writing Scholarship in the Classroom (Part 1 of 4)–Micah McCrary

[Editor’s Note: “Normalizing Creative Writing Scholarship in the Classroom” is a four-installment Assay project by Micah McCrary, who researches inclusive creative writing pedagogies in U.S. colleges & universities.]


It’s been a couple months since Melissa Landrigan’s “Teach This, Not That” (perhaps from Dora Malech’s Kenyon Review post of the same name?) in which Landrigan discusses the realization that her syllabi were not as diverse as she may have once thought. She even incorporates Yvette DeChavez’s idea that we should “decolonize” our syllabi—a certain call to pedagogical action about the kinds of texts instructors choose to include (and exclude) based on histories and patterns of institutional knowledge. But, in following only the suggestions of those like Landrigan and DeChavez, the act of syllabus revision risks becoming instructors’ own kind of politically- or pedagogically-justified version of exclusion, as they merely begin effacing the work of one author by replacing it with another.

While the inclusion of traditionally-marginalized authors is certainly a necessary issue to discuss in creative writing (CW) pedagogy, it doesn’t feel like a foundational concern at this point, for me. Currently being in the throes of dissertation-writing, that is, I’ve considered very often issues of inclusion in CW curricula, leading me to develop and teach a course (to aid my research) that uses as its foundation Janelle Adsit’s “The writer and meta-knowledge about writing: threshold concepts in creative writing” (further developed as a chapter in her book Toward an Inclusive Creative Writing: Threshold Concepts to Guide the Literary Curriculum). Such research has led me to believe that if CW instructors are willing to revise syllabi based on certain authors being deemed over-taught or “problematic” (Landrigan is also careful to note that there are plenty of white, male, cisgendered authors whom she’ll “miss dearly”), then this particular call-to-action must also execute itself without a narrow focus. In other words, it’s a call with the potential for wide-reaching reform, which can work toward the benefit of CW programs and curricula that hold inclusion and diversity in high regard.

It’s not that a call for erasure is solely narrow. But merely replacing authors might be shortsighted in that it may fail to note that part of the problem is a subcultural insistence on propelling certain notions of what it means to be an author living the “writer’s life” (often already attached to markers of gender, race, and class) and how often this affects the opinions of student authors early in their academic/creative careers—especially those who’ve chosen to embark on CW specifically by way of the Academy.

It’s therefore crucial that instructors instead look to broader notions of “cultural competence” in creative writing, especially following the direction of writers and researchers like Adsit, like Claudia Rankine, like Katharine Haake, like Cristina Kirklighter, or even Assay’s own Emma Howes & Christian Smith or Bernice M. Olivas, who pose for instructors the questions they need to ask about how to encounter a diversity of texts in their classrooms, for the sake of diverse students. Pedagogical joy can be found not just in revision/reform that creates room for voices hardly ever found in syllabi, but this can also be achieved by way of avoiding the privileging of craft.

As Janelle Adsit writes, any “analysis of craft must be grounded in an understanding of the varying orientations of readerships” (Adsit 310), noting that “[d]iverse audiences come to their texts with diverse needs” (310).2 Numerous CW courses and programs talk about the “writer’s craft” in ways that connect to what’s also inherently problematized, in the English studies subfield of composition studies, as expressivism—writing, we’ve come to see over time and through detailed scholarship, however, operates not just within but beyond expression, recognized as also being socially mediated. But this conversation is a chance for focusing on representation, as well, admitting that authors who are skilled (and lucky) enough to become published also create an imprint on the scene of American literature and culture.

I stopped to think about this a few weeks ago, when running into a professor and his toddler son in our department’s hallway: “Look, that’s Micah!” he said to his son. “That’s the future of American literature over there!” And while I took this in as a very kind, gestural joke it also got me thinking about the fact that a number of authors are going to become “the future of American literature”—and with this being the case, CW instructors can and should do a better job in their classrooms of considering the image of such literature as it gets (re)presented, not just to eager students but also to readerships beyond U.S. borders, who gain impressions of American culture by way of our literature.

One route I propose in trying to achieve more widespread cultural competence is by aiming for a broad, comprehensive, and conceptual move toward not just the creative writing that instructors have students write and read in classrooms, but also the ways in which, as instructors, we talk to students about their own composing choices. This matter regards both their reading and their writing, of course, which may be informed by discussing (for example) authors who take trips to Africa and reflect on these trips, or those who discuss what it means to write about an “other.” I believe these reflections, when examined, may then lead toward a more prominent research agenda for CW programs and curricula, beyond just the critical introductions that inform master’s/MFA and doctoral projects.

The readings I’ve discussed with my own students (as magically influenced by Adsit’s work, as well as Stephanie Vanderslice’s Rethinking Creative Writing in Higher Education: Programs and Practices that Work—both of which have remained foundational to my research these days) have allowed us to discuss authors ranging from Gloria Anzaldúa and James Baldwin and Alice Walker, to Jenny Boully, to Kristen Harmon, to Porochista Khakpour, to Leslie Marmon Silko, all of whom discuss facets of representation that help widen the discussion of authorial practices and lives. We also discuss representations of authors in Hollywood films and what it means for an author to “find their own voice.” Other readings specifically talk about issues of language diversity (such as in Christina Tang-Bernas’s “\’in-glish\”) or resources from composition studies such as Vershawn Ashanti Young’s “Should Writer’s Use They Own English?” We also look into publishing practices and their effects on literary representation, via Arifa Akbar and Roxane Gay, examining the ways they influence how and what students read, which in turn also influences how and what students write.

What we need, I think, is a greater openness towards a more foundational, fundamental overhaul of how (especially new) student authors become exposed to the world of professional creative writing. And while I don’t currently teach at a university where introductory creative writing courses are cross-genre, I think one way to go about this might be in examining these issues specifically within the multigenre CW course, as an access point towards discussions of identity, access, privilege, and representation in creative writing. Alternately, curricula may be designed to be split by genre (my current course design is titled Critical Concepts in Creative Writing: Nonfiction) so that the course may be treated as an introductory survey in critical readings on creative writing (which, for nonfiction, are taken from journals such as Assay, TEXT, New Writing, and The Essay Review) and their literary counterparts, examining the issues discussed here through lenses specific to the genres that are part of an instructor’s specialization. In teaching texts like these, and in having these conversations with my own students, I’ve been able to witness their developing a healthy conception of the ways creative writing may work both culturally and professionally, examining not just how it works in and outside of the college/university but in communities directly informing, or impacted by, student authors’ writing projects.

These are the discussions I want to be having with students. I want to talk about authors’ choices not just being influenced by their style and diction but by their subject-positions—and I also wish to discuss how these choices may be refereed not just by what authors are willing to express but what, in some circumstances, they are or are not permitted to express.

In all, this call-to-action looks a bit like CW more often and deliberately incorporating other fields like cultural studies or critical race studies into its curricula, the way these fields have already been incorporated into English/literary studies. Especially for those of us in literary nonfiction, who constantly engage with texts about others’ lives in addition to writing about our own, I’m calling here for a kind of mélange at all levels of CW in the Academy to work toward more transdisciplinarity, so that perhaps the creative writing course I can become most comfortable teaching in the future may feel, in some ways, like an introduction to the field rather than merely its techniques. Where, instead of scene or POV we discuss with students issues of privilege while acknowledging the diversity of bodies behind creative writing, making those other aspects, rather, nuanced layers above new foundations.

I want instructors to be willing to stick their hands in the mud a little more, to eventually build something that has not only become well-constructed but well thought-out, created through diligent conversation and research (a term I know many creative writers fear) so that our curricula are not designed in silos, but instead as part of a world that’s easily recognized as transnational. Where, after all, our ability to listen to someone 5,000 miles away can be as easily expected as our willingness to send them a Facebook message or an e-mail from the same distance.

Micah McCrary is the author of Island in the City (University of Nebraska, September 2018). His work also appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Midwestern Gothic, Identity Theory, and Third Coast, among other publications. He is an assistant editor at Hotel Amerika, a contributing editor at Assay, and a founding co-editor of con•text.

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