Navigating a Pendulum: Normalizing Creative Writing Scholarship in the Classroom (Part 3 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. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.]


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A question might then be: Which kinds of projects & assignments can teacher-practitioners encourage (undergraduate) student-authors to compose, in order for them to both practice nonfiction and remain critical throughout their processes of creation? I can offer some assignments I’ve attempted utilizing myself, as well as provide a potential “rationale” for such work to help highlight what the work may do in terms of (1) normalizing scholarship in the nonfiction classroom, and (2) getting student-authors to process creative writing (CW) scholarship in ways that allow for broader thought around their own CW endeavors, habits, and practices.

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One possibility involves a “publication write-up.” Although my nonfiction student-authors aren’t actually required to submit work for review/publication, they’re nonetheless asked to attempt familiarizing themselves with publication options/the publication process. I often direct them, for instance, toward Newpages’ calls for submissions as well as Entropy’s Where to Submit page, both of which offer student-authors not just current calls for submissions but also opportunities to browse what those publications calling for submissions express about their own values, requirements, aesthetics, etc. As a class community, we can then hold conversations about such calls through the lens of the VIDA count—or, perhaps for a future semester, Richard Jean So’s and Gus Wezerek’s December 2020 op-ed “Just How White is the Book Industry?”

So and Wezerek have done the work of situating publication decisions within the context of both systemic and anti-Black racism—highlighting how, for instance, during the surge of #PublishingPaidMe posts on social media, both Black and white American authors had disclosed how much money they’d been paid by publishers for their work in contrast with each other. Crucially, So and Wezerek note that of “the 7,124 books for which we identified the author’s race, 95 percent were written by white people” (So & Wezerek n. pag.). This offers an opportunity for a classroom community to discuss not just publishing from the “Big Five” (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster) but also publishing within independent & small press, literary journal, etc. environments, and the ways that, similar to what VIDA has helped highlight about gender equity and publishing, the conversation So & Wezerek have propelled can begin to attempt shedding a light onto racial equity for student-authors interested in publishing. In doing so, they can also begin to make decisions about their own comfort levels with a targeted publication—that is, perhaps they’ll end up wishing to submit to a certain publication because they believe they’ll be valued by the publication and can in turn value the publication itself. This is especially good for student-authors who are beginning to debut their work and, for those who do want to publish, enter an environment often characterized by a pendulum swung between rejection and acceptance.

I have provided student-authors Daniel José Older’s “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing” (from Travis Kurowski’s, Wayne Miller’s, and Kevin Prufer’s anthology Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, 2016) to offer them direction toward their own targeted publications. Older recounts the experience of getting feedback from a publishing industry professional who had dismissed an instance of racism, which Older had written about. And, as part of the professional’s dismissal, they’d also made the claim that this particular scenario was perhaps outdated. Older then moves into describing a gap between perceptions on the part of (mostly white) publishing industry professionals and the scenarios, situations, experiences, characters, etc. written about by nonwhite authors, and the existing gap that results in what has commonly been commented on regarding overall disparities within publishing. This further results in nonwhite authors not being published as a result of industry professionals who see such authors’ frames of experience as not “relatable”—that is, not being salable to their target audiences, most of whom are also likely white. Older writes, “I want to take a moment to recognize a more unspoken consequence of having a mostly white industry dictate mostly white standards to a mostly white author-base: the stories that won’t get told” (Older 155). This comments on a gap existing between white authors who are often published and nonwhite authors who are not, also based on “industry standards,” and how this results in an overall lack of representation on the part of nonwhite authors and their stories, their promotion, and their perspectives.

Older also notes that “[w]riting and, more so, publishing are always negotiations between what you want to say, what you can say, and what society will allow you to say” (155). This feels key especially for nonwhite student-authors, who attempt to gauge available means of getting their work out there. Older recounts once working with a student-author who’d looked for an agent, and who had mentioned that none of the agents the student had found shared their racial background. This is a scenario that may arise for many student-authors at the initial publishing stage, not just in searching for agents with whom they share a background, but also in a search for those in positions making decisions based on what publishers (journals, magazines, etc.) claim they’re seeking. This can help student-authors consider the “negotiations” they do make in aligning their work with a target publication, recognizing that, although their work may meet the criteria for submission, the work may still not be “in line” with much of what else appears throughout the publication’s history.

Finally, Older writes that “[t]here are so many paths to success, so many meanings of the concept, and race and power complicate the equation infinitely. It’s not enough for writers of color to learn craft, we need to navigate the impossible waters of an unwelcoming industry” (162). I very much agree, and this is also part of why “Diversity is Not Enough” is a text for student-authors to read. They must know, whether they’re nonwhite or white, that Older’s statement that it’s “not enough for writers of color to learn craft” holds much weight—it’s not enough for student-authors of any background to only learn craft, however for nonwhite student-authors, in particular, the challenge ahead of them is a bit double-barreled. In one way, their working through craft helps them focus on improving their own work. But in another, they must also focus on what Older calls “navigating,” discerning how to reach through to industry professionals who may not believe their work is “relatable” enough for publication.

What can happen in a racially diverse classroom, then, is bringing to the fore various conversations about publishing at-large, rather than only holding conversations about “craft” or publication conventions. We can of course talk with student-authors about how to compose cover letters, about how to locate a publication’s masthead, etc., but none of this is particularly helpful for nonwhite student-authors navigating a landscape detailed with information and context about what they should expect. It is, frankly, not enough to teach them how to submit their work, when we can also teach them to note when a given publication mostly contains authors whose subject-positions don’t align with theirs.

Older concludes that “[w]e can love a thing and still critique it. In fact, that’s the only way to really love a thing” (163). As long as we maintain hope as a dimension of publishing conversations with student-authors, we can help them continue to love their goals of becoming “professionals.” We can help them want to continue to write, and to improve, and to submit, and to become published, and to check all the boxes they’ve created since entering their beginning CW courses. Perhaps the real love can and will come from getting them to know the industry not by way of How-Tos, but in regard to the industry’s own invitations. This may prepare them to simultaneously love and critique publishing—and it can prepare them to perhaps love their own work even more once they know, based on some informed decision-making, where the work can truly find a home.

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One other assignment asks students to more deeply consider the use of nonfiction scholarship in the CW classroom through direct responses to questions. These questions, addressed briefly in about three pages per essay and adapted from a model for fiction appearing in Janelle Adsit’s Toward an Inclusive Creative Writing (2019), give undergraduates an opportunity to reconsider what they’ve studied throughout the term, engaging with the material in a reflective manner while examining the rhetorical and aesthetic choices of authors featured throughout course texts. Specific to the Fall 2020 semester, such questions included:

  1. How might 21st century technologies (YouTube, podcasts, interactive websites, etc.) affect the production and consumption of creative nonfiction for culturally diverse audiences?
  2. In which ways might creative nonfiction operate specifically as a method of political action?
  3. If authors are formed by the communities from which they come, how might they then compose creative nonfiction for diverse readerships?

For the first question, this past semester some students took the opportunity to discuss what might be referred to, more or less, as “multimodal nonfiction,” and the ways that nonfiction operating in multiple modes holds potential to exercise helpful ways of communicating content by accessible means. One student in particular focused on the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” using this to discuss how a relationship between new media and nonfiction can potentially communicate with broad audiences on a spectrum—audiences who have an opportunity to interact with visuals in ways they may not be able to interact with alphanumeric text based on their disability, their linguistic background, etc. Although students themselves didn’t consider multimodal composition specifically, this was one of the things on my mind when it comes to composing for diverse audiences and also composing toward accessibility—which shouldn’t only be relegated to the realm of composition but also remains relevant for nonfiction.

For the second question, numerous students this semester somehow gravitated toward Holocaust literature. They wrote about Anne Frank and Primo Levi, and the ways their autobiographical nonfiction helps highlight issues of ethnoreligious injustice that encourages us, as audience members, to better consider experiences we may not be aware of without such literature existing. Outside of just Holocaust literature, one student wrote about Marjane Satrapi’s work, also centered on ethnoreligious issues, and this altogether opens doors for future students to consider how (especially autobiographical) nonfiction might intersect with border stories, with discussions of #AllBlackLivesMatter, with discussing healthcare inequities, etc.—all not just “hot topics” of our current moment, but aspects to be carried over into how we understand our own societies and how we converse with one another about who becomes affected by certain politics, and how they become affected. 

For the third question, students took the opportunity to write about recognizing their own subject-positions and biases by way of nonfiction authorship. White students, especially, were able to discuss the communities from which they came before entering college and recognized shifts in their perceptions as a result of being in a university environment. They recognized themselves as white writers, as straight writers, as cis writers, etc., and in doing so also seemed able to comment on perceptual shifts within their own communities—able to comment on how they transitioned from communities which they may no longer be a part of, and how such recognition entered the nonfiction they both read and composed. In a way, they’d begun to recognize intersections: of race, class, sexual orientation, religion, etc., and how the worldviews attached to those intersections could shed light not just on relationships between potential bias and nonfiction, but relationships between nonfiction and global/community attentiveness in general. That is, they maintained an awareness of the communities their own nonfiction might be communicated/distributed to, and how such communities could process the articulation of their own perceptions.

In responding, students chose one or two texts from the course (my Fall 2020 class utilized the anthology How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Writing Discourse, 2017) to help exemplify/illustrate their responses, allowing them to also consider how they worked toward examining an issue highlighted in (a) text(s) that could help demonstrate the possibilities of nonfiction. Not quite like a craft essay, so much as a brief exercise in fusing social experience with nonfiction scholarship, these responses allowed students to do the kind of work Bernice M. Olivas mentions, by studying nonfiction “as a means to speak back to the social conditions that affect peoples of marginalized identity” (Olivas 6) or, examining authors’ “lived experience of racism, sexism, gender bigotry, and ableism to push back against the power dynamics that create the conditions in which social bias thrives” (6). This overall became an issue of how to narrow students’ ideas within a particularly focused environment, which allowed them to pursue aspects of social bias through the ways they also came to understand nonfiction—hopefully better than they had before.

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I’ve done this all at the introductory level for a variety of student-authors from different writing backgrounds, whether from CW or from journalism, for example. I’ve witnessed the light bulbs go off over their heads, in regard to their seeing just what nonfiction can do—in seeing the diversity inherent in nonfiction itself. As a next step, teacher-practitioners could perhaps take more opportunity to see what this looks like beyond introductory courses, especially in those wherein student-authors may be deliberately asked to produce scholarship of their own, rather than merely be assigned scholarship as readings—or, as in my case, as part of a final exam. This potentially leads teacher-practitioners into territory where student-authors are encouraged to do even more thinking about how nonfiction communicates the complicated nature of minoritized/marginalized lived experiences. In essence, student-authors become able to highlight more of nonfiction’s focus on culture, identity, (in)justice, etc., through further highlighting professional authors’ craft choices as they intersect with those very authors’ subject-positions.

By getting nonfiction student-authors to become more versed in dialoguing about the hurdles of not just nonwhite lived experiences—but also how such experiences get written in the first place—student-authors’ considerations of such experiences can blossom in spheres both written and experienced. That is, their understanding can grow toward not just greater attentiveness to the diversity of authors assigned in their courses, but toward their nonfiction peers, as well. With this, they find their footing not only as student-authors but as student scholars, better prepared than ever to lead conversations around nonfiction’s relationship to the many and varied perspectives uncovered in class, and ready to connect the perspectives of their peers with those testimonies they find on the page.


Works Cited

Older, Daniel José. “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Travis Kurowski et al., Milkweed Editions, 2016, pp. 154–163.

Olivas, Bernice M. “Politics of Identity in the Writing Classroom.” Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-29.

So, Richard Jean, and Gus Wezerek. “Just How White Is the Book Industry?” 11 Dec. 2020, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/11/opinion/culture/diversity-publishing-industry.html.


Contributing Editor Robin Micah McCrary [he|him|his] is author of Island in the City (University of Nebraska Press), a memoir-in-essays. As Micah McCrary, his work also appears in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction StudiesEssay Daily, and The Essay Review, among other publications. A contributing editor at Assay, Dr. McCrary lives in New York, where he researches Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Internationalization in creative writing pedagogies and teaches at Syracuse University.

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