One of the best pieces of writing advice I heard in my MFA workshop was when my professor asked of a story, “Where is the money coming from?”
It’s a simple question that many writers often overlook and gets to the heart of the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. It’s also a question that is firmly grounded in craft.
When my professor asked that question, I was in my first semester of my MFA and I assumed the program would have the same culture as my undergraduate college. I assumed that we wouldn’t talk about money in class: how much it was costing us to attend the program; how much we we’re getting paid to write; how much we needed to make at our day jobs to be able to call ourselves writers. Luckily, my program proved me wrong. I had teachers who relished the practical and the uncomfortable—the questions that were not polite.
I think the desire to avoid talking and writing about race in some MFA programs stems from a fear of the practical and the rude. Race is a sweaty, uncouth thing—a little too obvious—I mean, we all know racism is bad, right? Duh? What could one possibly say about race besides that? And doesn’t the desire to write and publish about this stuff come from some place of weird white liberal guilt anyways, even when the writers and publishers of it are people of color (somehow, paradoxically, especially then)?
All these arguments are used to stop a beginning writer from trying to write about race. Sometimes they are explicitly stated to her, sometimes they are implicitly alluded to, and sometimes she tells them to herself. I know that I did. Compounding this problem: when race is written about badly, as it often is in a MFA program (because most things are written about badly in a MFA program—one is there to learn to write well), it’s unbearable to read.
So we have students of fiction writing often taught to ignore one of the greatest public narratives: race—that collective imagined space that exists only as metaphor, rhetorical argument, figurative language, in short, as a fiction, though that does not mean that it is not real. Race operates in the same ways all great fiction does: honesty is mixed up with artifice to make a lie that reads true.
The MFA program exists as a space to take risks and make spectacular failures. Beginning writers should not avoid writing about race altogether because the results will be awkward and clumsy at first. Students should tackle the subject as they would any other, until they get better at it, until they get to the heart of it. The problem arises when you have professors and program cultures that can’t or won’t help students do this hard work—themselves scared of getting sweaty, of being awkward, or worse, because they simply don’t see the value in it.
I was extremely lucky to be in a program run by writers who were also curious people. You’d think this would be a common trait of all writers, but I’ve since learned it is not. My teachers were, for the most part, older, straight white men. But they were also wide readers who were genuinely curious about the world, all of the worlds, around them. That curiosity led them to ask basic questions like “Where does the money come from?”
If I were to design a MFA program, I would first and foremost hire teachers who are curious like this, who care about asking questions of the world around them and aren’t so interested in providing lists of answers. That would be the first requirement for teaching, regardless of the teacher’s race, class background, or sexual orientation.
One of the most depressing things about talking to people about what fiction they read is how rarely people read away from themselves. That’s the one wonderful thing about literature, what elevates it above all other art forms: you can completely enter a consciousness utterly different from your own. If you are an upper middle class white man and only read novels by and about the concerns of upper middle class white men, then you’re ignoring what literature has to offer. Similarly, if you are a middle class black woman and only read books written by and about people like you, you’re missing out.
If I were designing an MFA creative writing program that encouraged students to engage with race and social justice, I would encourage all students to read as far away from themselves as possible. If you’re straight, read as much queer fiction and theory as you can find. If you’re white, read as many authors of color as possible. If you’re a man, spend a whole year reading only women writers.
And finally, I would encourage writers to constantly ask themselves difficult but also practical questions: “Where does the money come from?” and “How does this character love?”