What is Creative Writing for?

This talk was originally presented at the Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference on February 6, 2021.

The very first teacher of color I ever had was in my MFA program. Her name was Bhanu Kapil and she was British Punjabi. She was also the first and only teacher who ever tore up my short story, put the pieces in a State Farm insurance envelope with a crayon drawing of the Rocky Mountains and handed it back to me. At that moment, I became a poet. She introduced me to experimental prose, which is a multimodal, mixed genre, prose poetry form that was started by LGBTQ+ community in the Bay area and picked up by poets of color. This hybrid form was a breath of fresh air – decolonial and antiracist – and, unlike traditional creative writing, it was a form that many felt could better express BIPOC experiences, including my own.

I share this because in traditional creative writing workshops, we have preconceived notions of what writing, especially good writing, is. It is often grounded in a heteronormative, cisgendered, white patriarchy. In the traditional model, there will be generally be five to ten minutes of praise of the piece, after which the rest of the hour becomes focused on criticism and opinion. The writer is generally silent, except for the last 5-10 minutes in which they are allowed to ask questions about the work. The process is not to be dialogic or responsive in real-time; the theory behind this pedagogical strategy is that the writer could get defensive if allowed to speak or engage in any way in a conversation about their own work.

This model is flawed. It doesn’t consider the writer’s positionality nor does it consider who the audience is meant to be or what the writing is for. It is better, I think, to look at what writing is for. I think of my indigenous Filipino heritage and the word kapatid. It means brother or sister. It derives from the word kapwa, which is essentially about recognizing our shared humanity. This can be further broken down into the words ka, meaning relationship, and puwang, meaning space. I believe this is what good writing is, giving the space to explore relationships, to share what it means to be human. Because our experiences are all different, after all, you can never fully know the internal texture of someone else, and we all come from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, I believe the kapwa framework in creative writing can translate to thinking about how we choose what to read, and how we workshop and assess students’ creative writing.

In choosing what to read in the creative writing classroom, it’s important to consider the makeup of the class. We need to see ourselves represented in what we consume, to know that we’re worth being written about and that our experiences matter. We need to know what’s possible. In 2014, Junot Diaz wrote a piece titled MFA vs. POC for the New Yorker. Why, he asks, do we read William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro, but not Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, among others?

Diaz also described how two writers of color got shut down in the writer’s workshop. One peer edited out the big words in another’s piece saying that Latinos don’t use big words. Another student stated that people of color seemed to only show up when crimes or drugs were involved and that when she brought it up, her peers said the class was about writing, not political correctness.

There’s another word derived from kapwa and that’s pakikipagkapwa. It roughly translates as fellowship. The instructor is called tulay, which means bridge, and the participants are the kahalok, which means co-researchers. Together they form the umpukan, which is the group working together with mutual respect and camaraderie. It means to connect oneself with others. And isn’t the writer-reader relationship about connection? To dismiss the student as being too PC is to forget what writing is for.

I have an acronym I use in creative writing courses. It’s this group CARES. CARES stands for confidentiality: you’re always free to talk about your own experience. Please don’t talk about anyone else’s without that person’s agreement. A is for Acceptance: there’s no “wrong” way to engage in the writing process. Please accept yourself and each other without criticism or judgment. R is for Respect: we celebrate diversity and allow for differences in culture, process, opinion and style. E is for Empathy: we hold each other’s work gently and with compassion. And S is for support: we offer constructive feedback using I-statements, encouragement and wisdom.

When workshopping each other’s pieces, rather than critiquing whether the writing is good, we ask, what is the writer looking for? What does he/she/they want feedback on? What with the piece resonates? In one workshop with Bhanu Kapil, we passed around our pieces. Spending about 1 minute on each piece, we quickly highlighted words and phrases that stood out to us, that remained emotionally hot or vivid in some way. This more somatic way of thinking about the workshop helped the writer figure out where the story was.

Another way to level the playing field, so to speak, is to have everyone write their origin stories. Have students write a short ethnoautobiography, which asks the question, who are you? It is a visionary and imaginative process that grounds itself in time (smaller and larger planetary and celestial cycles), place (ecology, history of place), history (stories and myths), ancestry, and stories of origin and creation. It takes ethnic origins (genealogy) as one of its pivotal starting points.

Writer Ching-In Chen suggests a simple exercise to start the process. The instructor would have everyone write an origin story for their name. If they want, it can start with the etymology or meaning of the name, but it doesn’t have to. I wrote one; it’s in my book, titled Marilyn. Some context before I read it. I am an adoptee from the Philippines and my birth name is Marilyn Malinao. My adoptive family is Irish.

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“Reavey” is the Anglicized form of the Gaelic “O’Riabhaigh.”
It means “brindled,” “grizzled.”

Twelve years ago my family and I went to Ireland to meet relatives and research family origins. Hanging upside down we kissed the Blarney Stone. We touch the North Shore. Roamed the streets of Belfast. We saw the library at trinity College and the Book of Kells, the calligraphy swooping down the page like vines. I touched the soil. My cousin, 11 years old at the time, cried and said, “Do you feel it, Amanda? Our ancestors came from here.”

I smiled, “yes, yes. I feel it too.”

Later I took a walk alone in an old cemetery down the street in Swords. There was a Celtic cross grave marker with worn etchings surrounded by a rusted iron-wrought fence and overgrowth. I wanted to touch it. This beautiful, forgotten grave marker.

Wanting towards. My wanting is not the grid’s wanting. Marilyn, remember your name. Malinao, remember your story.

Name and story and tribe are the same thing. A name is a story and a story is a tribe’s identity. Malinao. It means “clear.” From a phrase in Bikol-naga: malinao na isip. Because my ancestors had such “clear thoughts,” they birthed an island.

I cannot give birth to an island.