Chapter Two: Fostering Engagement, Mindfulness, and Generosity
by Felicia Rose Chavez
reprinted with permission from Haymarket Books
Mothering Our Writers
I’m in an interdepartmental committee meeting that’s run long, well past the time I told my husband I’d be home to relieve him as caretaker for our son. I imagine him watching the driveway for my car, bored of the banality, preoccupied with his own work obligations, angry, maybe, that I didn’t just walk out of my meeting when I realized the time. More likely the anger’s imposed, a fossil lodged in my chest from my own years pacing the window: watching, waiting, frantic for the sound of the garage door, the car door, my husband’s muffled voice on the cell phone.
Inside, I was learning how to mother, a marathon of self-suppression, discipline, and labor. Order and obedience call and response, an everyday endurance fraught with claustrophobia. Inside, I was learning how to listen, a full body meditation like some sort of postpartum superpower: the stirrings, the coughs, the pitch shift in cry. The threat of a doorbell during nap. The clatter of keys that meant my husband was home and I could finally shower, pretend to be one person again instead of this newfound trinity: baby, mother, and me.
I choose to stay in the committee meeting because we’re talking about how to best serve our senior thesis writing students. “It’s not like we prepare them at all,” a white female colleague sighs. “And suddenly they’ve got these high-stakes, long-term writing projects with zero skills to cope.”
It’s true, I think. Writing is hard, physically, mentally, and emotionally. When working one-on-one with senior thesis students a couple of years back, I remember how dependent they were on their advisors for affirmation. If the advisor was happy with the thesis, the student was happy; if the advisor was unhappy (dissatisfied, perhaps, or inattentive, slow to respond or vague in their feedback) the student was doomed to despair, the crippling kind that resulted in weeks of no work. Rather than elicit ownership and resourcefulness, the thesis spiked students’ anxiety; they wanted their advisors to tell them exactly how to do it “right.”
“I found it helpful to listen to them,” I say. “I used to meet with a group of thesis students every week to check in about their states of mind. They’d talk about what they were proud of, or afraid of, or nervous about when it came to writing. A lot of the time the students expressed feeling isolated, like they were the only ones who were falling behind or were sick of their topic. Listening to one another took the pressure off the thesis as product and helped switch their thinking to the writing process. The questions became: How can I best manage my stress, because isn’t self-care just as important as the writing?”
At this a white male colleague scoffs. “I mean, doesn’t that detract from the whole purpose of the thesis? We want students to struggle on their own. Without struggle, what do they learn? It’s not our job to mother them.”
“True,” my female colleague consents, and they continue to troubleshoot for another fifteen minutes or so. But I’m stuck on his use of “mother,” how easily it slipped from his mouth, and with such ready reception: Oh no, we don’t want that, you’re absolutely right. Because mother equals woman, and woman equals feminine, soft, powerless. To listen to our students—to allow them voice—is to somehow give in to them, ruin them, a mother coddling her spoiled children.
But that can’t be right, I think. Mothering, for me, means willpower, fortitude, grit. It is the transcendent power to multiply oneself, succeeded by the supreme humility to serve that second self. Listening is an extension of that humility, a tribute to the fact that none of us are alone. We are multitudes, mothered again and again in rhythm with time.
As a professor of color, I’d “mothered” my writers since jump, taking on the extra, invisible labor of serving as mentor, inspiration, guide, and confidant to my workshop participants of color, while simultaneously attending to my white students’ volatile grappling with race and racism, often for the first time in their lives. A good deal of my day was dedicated to listening.
Why must listening and learning be posed as antithetical when we know they are symbiotic?
Why does emotional care undermine intellectual growth in my colleagues’ minds?
And why are white faculty seemingly exempt from this emotional labor?
Because I cannot articulate these questions on cue, I stay silent; the meeting adjourns, and I reclaim my post at home. Still, “mother” troubles me.
The problem is perspective. In order for my colleagues to understand my viewpoint, they would have to step from product to process.
A product-based mentality supports academic experts as independent egos, gendered masculine, hard, and powerful. They do the talking, and students do the listening. They want students to struggle on their own, at which point they tear the work down to make it stronger, driving students toward the “right” way, the “true” knowledge.
This is what Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire calls the “banking system of education,” in which “students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.” Rather than engage in real dialogue with students—an act of love and humility that subverts the teacher’s authority and elevates students to critical co-investigators—the teacher’s task is to talk at students, “issu[ing] communiques and mak[ing] deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.”1 The ultimate goal of the banking system is to groom students’ passivity so as to better indoctrinate them into the dominant (white) culture. “Translated into practice,” Freire writes, “this concept is well suited to the purposes of the oppressors, whose tranquility rests on how well people fit the world the oppressors have created, and how little they question it.”2 Shut down dialogue, and you shut down authentic thinking, liberation, and freedom.
The banking model best serves privileged white males, whose easy access to voice is secure, whose legacy of supremacy is safe. They see themselves mirrored in their college professors: autonomous, authoritative, revered. To “struggle on their own” means drawing on their extensive systemic resources. Institutionalized power positions them well to compete in the classroom. They’re better prepared to prove themselves on the page because they’re not overstretched proving themselves damn near everywhere else. A banking system of education inherently disservices students of color, whose centralized racial identity—a direct influence on voice—is denied as credible currency. It underserves students of color who do not seem themselves mirrored in positions of power in the academy. To “struggle on their own” is yet another attempt at erasure.
“College is hard,” a family friend commented at dinner the other night. He was trying to convince his sixteen-year-old daughter, an aspiring writer, to attend a historically Black college, just as he and his wife did decades previous. “You’ve got these Black kids, top of their class, best at everything in high school. Then they hit college and all of a sudden they’re just mediocre. It really messes with them.”
It was difficult for me not to jump in here, to vocalize my discomfort: “Mediocre compared to whom, white people?!” The fallacy that no matter how prepared people of color are academically, they will fall short when measured against their white peers, really gets at me. But I stopped myself from reacting, and chose to listen instead. What he was getting at, I gathered, was confidence, not assessment; people, not papers. His daughter understood instinctively.
“But I feel like I have a really good sense of myself,” she replied. “I’ve got a strong base.”
“Good,” her dad said, shaking his head. “Because college is hard.”
Here “hard” means something different from the gendered, masculine, product-based mentality favored by my colleagues. This family friend, this dad, was trying to mother his daughter by dialoguing with her about the very real psychological challenges a person of color faces in college.
You better trust, eighteen-year-old me believed that I, too, had a good sense of myself; that I, too, had a strong base. In retrospect, I was severely unprepared for the psychic weight of race during my first year at Wellesley College. I thought being good at school was fuel enough to carry me the two thousand miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Wellesley’s Munger Hall. Once on campus, I distorted into a funhouse mirror reflection: poorer and browner and shorter than ever before. The shock of it—East Coast wealth—messed with me, indeed. Rather than merely demonstrate learning in class, I sought to prove my worth: my exhausting “I-belong-here!” performance wrung me of joy. I got all A’s that first semester. Of course, I did; the stakes had never been higher. And yet my sense of inferiority festered. I couldn’t shake my warped reflection.
“You’re such an anomaly,” a white female professor mused, handing back my A+ paper. Hearing the words aloud felt violent.
Because the majority of post-secondary institutions are microcosms of white supremacy, people of color endure relentless affronts to our racial identities from the classroom to the dorm room and everywhere in between. There are ominously few opportunities for relief. Mentorship is scarce because so few of our professors look like us; those who do are often burned out from the exhausting emotional labor of being the on-call POC representative. Compound that by the stressors we internalize (feeling angry, unsupported, alienated, misunderstood, unsafe, devalued, exoticized, and/or invisible), people of color must draw on profound inner strength to cope. Instinct tells us to bolt, go back, give up. Practicing self-care is key to our college success.
This is the first challenge of diversifying your writing workshop: retaining your students of color. In the anti-racist model, white faculty share the burden of intentional cultural self-education so as to actively support every student. Were you to check in with participants about how they’re doing, what they’re thinking, prompting them to vocalize their insights and fears, your classroom might very well serve as one of those rare opportunities for relief, a space in which to feel like a full person again.
“Mothering” our students by listening—allowing space for them to use their voices—is an act of humility, it’s an act of conspiring toward mutual learning. When I first had my son, I thought there’s no way it’s possible, passing down this burden of how to be a person: a good boy, a just man. The responsibility felt overwhelming. It wasn’t until later, when I realized just how much I had changed since giving birth, that it dawned on me: My son is training me in how to be a person, too. Teaching is reciprocal.
It’s what Paulo Freire calls a “humanist” approach to education, a methodology “imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power.”3 Teacher and student are partners, jointly responsible for knowledge construction. For Freire cautions, “Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.”4 Students deserve your commitment to their agency. Let’s model healthy and sustainable learning rooted in communication.
This chapter trains workshop leaders in how to mother their writers, a practice that honors process: who writes, and why, and where, and when, and how? This, so different from what we write, but nonetheless important. Passivity is not an option. Writers must actively address the physical, mental, emotional, and cultural barriers that prevent their full creative realization. They must name their fears and write anyway. No longer objectified as papers, workshop participants evolve in professors’ eyes as multidimensional people, sharing together in a workshop that values engagement, mindfulness, and generosity.
I recently asked a white female friend what her anti-racist workshop approach looked like in action, and she fumbled. “Yeah. Hmmm. I don’t know. I guess I’m a softie. I’m really flexible about deadlines. I mean, the students get me the work eventually.” I single her out not because her response is problematic, necessarily, but because it’s illustrative of a liberal white interpretation of anti-racism: that people of color (typecast as “inner-city kids” to disguise racial animus) are “diverse,” and therefore require policies that accommodate our “special” circumstances (insert scene from any movie featuring young people of color, ever).
As a feminist scholar, I used to think that this sort of adaptive teaching policy was fair, in that it respected the burdensome work/life/school/family balance that I myself managed as an undergraduate. It wasn’t until I began teaching in Chicago public high schools that I learned that deadlines were irrelevant. If a student was truly engaged, they would find the time to write, be it on the subway, during downtime at work, during math class, whatever. The words would materialize, and so would they, again and again. But only if they cared.
How do you make them care? Start by making them accountable.
Strategy One: Attendance Accountability
Your workshop participants of color don’t need you to soften your policies for them. Just the opposite. Try demanding more of them: Show up, on time, every time. Well-meaning colleagues have criticized my mandatory attendance policy as unnecessarily harsh and unrealistic. But a lesson I want to impress upon my workshop participants is that life is a series of conspiracies to keep us from exercising voice. To be a writer is to choose to write, to show up every day and do the work. There’s always an excuse not to. My attendance policy posits that choice:
· Miss one day of class, and your final grade will decrease by one half letter
· Arrive late to class four times, and your final grade will decrease by one half
· Miss workshop, and you risk failure.
Read “final grade” as “commitment to your creative power.” Because it takes commitment—not borne out of fear, but out of accountability—I owe it to myself and the workshop to choose writing—in order to truly care.
I email this attendance policy to every participant well in advance of the first day of workshop, only to receive polite requests that I pardon students’ “special” circumstances. At the predominantly white liberal arts college where I work, this means an athlete’s away games, a family vacation abroad, a great aunt’s birthday celebration, a camping trip, a concert. Sometimes it’s acute anxiety or depression. I make it clear to these students that my attendance policy is firm. As artists we evolve season by season, some of which are more conducive to a daily writing commitment than others. If it’s not time, don’t force it, I tell them, because forcing it is missing it. Some of my most successful writers use workshop to process their emotional hardship, but they are unequivocal about showing up and putting in the work. It is up to the student to choose.
Workshop leaders might fear that a firm stance on attendance and deadlines will dissuade writers of color from enrolling, but I’ve observed, again and again, that my participants respect the demand for accountability, as it implies that I will take them, and their work, seriously.
The first lesson of workshop, then, is participants’ honest self-analysis: Are they prepared to embrace accountability and commit to a writing collective?
Strategy Two: Foster Community
“I enter the classroom with the assumption that we must build community in order to create a climate of openness and intellectual rigor,” bell hooks explains in Teaching to Transgress. “I think that a feeling of community creates a sense that there is shared commitment and a common good that binds us.” That common good is participants’ creative power. With time, you can feel it: Every single person is present in their power. To get there, workshop participants must concede that their individual voices matter. “It has been my experience that one way to build community in the classroom is to recognize the value of each individual voice . . . To hear each other (the sound of different voices), to listen to one another, is an exercise in recognition. It also ensures that no student remains invisible in the classroom.”5 The anti-racist writing workshop is a pedagogy of deep listening—to oneself, to one’s workshop leader, and to every member of the collective—ensuring equal access to voice. This is the sort of communication that makes for a successful arts community.
If you visit my classroom, you’ll hear music, low, playing in the background—my song selections at first, until I invite participants to bring in their own music to share. Workshop hasn’t yet begun, but most students are present, seated at tables arranged into a circle. They’re sharing food that a classmate brought in, a snack policy that I institute on the first day of workshop; everyone signs up for one day. I launched this policy ten or so years ago on the grounds that my workshop participants were often hungry and therefore unable to exercise the mental and emotional endurance workshop requires. Back then it was me who provided snack, sensitive not to overburden my low-income students’ budgets. That is, until those students asked if they could cover a day. There’s an uncomplicated joy to food—whether it be homemade bread or a piece of fruit—that feels a lot like creativity. It’s a gift, and participants are proud to share with one another.
We begin class by thanking our snack host by name, followed by a round of applause. Next, we commence check-in, a daily ritual in which I address workshop participants one at a time, by name, asking, “How are you doing?” This, my method of roll call, elicits a lot of embarrassed shrugs on day one. It kills participants to be so visible; they’re “cool,” they’re “fine,” they’ve got nothing else to add. Steadily, over time, they elaborate, and we hear about a break-in, a breakup, an illness, a friend who’s in town, a new job. Sometimes participants use check-in to troubleshoot with the group about their writing. Sometimes they use it to communicate with me that they’re in a bad place that day, period. That’s my official spiel on check-in: it helps me to gauge where each student is that day so that I may tailor my teaching to best respond to them.
Unofficially, check-in is about community.
We learn each other’s names, without even meaning to.
We embrace vulnerability by sharing our individual experiences.
We listen to one another, recognize one another, root for one another.
We evolve into a collective, an arts community to which we feel responsible. It matters if we are not present.
The key to check-in is that the workshop leader participates, too. Once, a student e-mailed me a note of encouragement when I, bleary eyed, informed the class that today was an “ostrich day.” My toddler was sick for the third time that month and all I wanted to do was bury my head in the sand, preferably forever. “You’re a role model to us girls,” she wrote. “You keep it real. You don’t hide the fact that you have a lot to balance, but trust that you do everything really, really well.” I’ve used check-in to discuss fears about my writing, about motherhood, about our country and my place in it, alongside frivolous anecdotes, like the time I loaded a shopping cart’s worth of groceries into a stranger’s unlocked car. Communication, and by extension, community, renders us all human. It’s this human-to-human connection that enables us to see, hear, and support one another in an anti-racist workshop model.
Strategy Three: Make Writing Relevant
The third and final strategy for engaging students is to make writing relevant. This means building on accountability and vulnerability in order to engender trust.
I top load my workshops with highly personal writing exercises, beginning with a first day freewrite: Declare why you are good at writing. Participants must own the language, meaning they can’t parrot another’s words (My third-grade teacher once said . . .). After they’ve generated a short list, I ask that they choose one, stand up, and say it aloud (My name is . . ., and I’m good at writing because . . .). At this point, we cheer annoyingly loud so as to disrupt every other class in the building. My students’ voices shake when they share, because it’s scary to stake a claim: I am worthy of words on the page. The physical act of standing, understandably enough, is most contentious here.[i] Participants will beg to shrink themselves. Don’t let them.
The more direct and ambitious those initial freewriting exercises, the better. This means prompting participants to write about themselves—why they write—their motivation, their unspoken desires—and then push them to share that writing out loud, daily, with the workshop. These early, intimate confessionals command trust. They also set high stakes for what’s to come: when participants later attempt a poem, or a play, or an essay, it's imbued with significance beyond the task itself. That poem, that play, that essay is a triumph over all of the reasons not to write. How trivial showmanship and competition become when you make writing personal to the author.
Gloria Anzaldúa, in “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” speaks of the psychological and cultural barriers that prevent so many writers of color from putting words on the page:
The voice recurs in me: Who am I, a poor Chicanita from the sticks, to think I could
write? How dare I even consider becoming a writer as I stooped over the tomato
fields bending, bending under the hot sun, hands broadened and calloused, not fit to
hold the quill, numbed into an animal stupor by the heat . . .
How hard it is for us to think we can choose to become writers, much less feel and
believe that we can. What have we to contribute, to give? Our own expectations
condition us. Does not our class, our culture as well as the white man tell us writing is
not for women such as us? 6
That voice is in all of us, sneering ridicule that ricochets in the mind every time we attempt to liberate ourselves. And yet Anzaldúa pushes beyond the barriers, urging herself and others to write:
I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have
miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To
discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To
convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit. To
show that I can and that I will write, never mind their admonitions to the contrary. And
I will write about the unmentionables, never mind the outraged gasp of the censor
and the audience. Finally I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of
How rare, the opportunity to hear from writers of color about why they write, despite a lifetime’s insistence to the contrary. It makes art take on a higher purpose. The collective stands in witness to this transformation.
As a former student states in her end-of-term course evaluation:
I felt I had no choice but to give it my all because I would not only be cheating the
class, but myself. It was not a superficial class. It got to the dirt of who we are, why
we must write. Felicia did an amazing job of allowing us to be open because then we
could see our fears and inhibitions reflected in the words of other people. After that,
it was obvious I had to write and be honest.
To engage your workshop participants, you must make them accountable to their purpose as writers. A writer listens. A writer is vulnerable. A writer trusts that they are worthy of words on the page, despite the voices that say otherwise. This is creative power. Help them claim it.
Mindfulness is an energy of awareness, meaning that you are both physically and psychologically planted in the present moment. When you write, you write with your whole body, not rushing or multitasking or compartmentalizing the assignment but rather relinquishing control, surrendering to the creative impulse. When you read, you read with perspective and open intention, harnessing a wandering mind. When you listen, you receive another’s words without judgment or defensiveness, that egoistic impulse that mistakes the sound of your own voice with being smart or right. And when you rest, you aim for outward and inward attunement so that you may return to the work revitalized.
Mindfulness is openness, a certain state of mind that comes about when we get out of the damn way.
This might sound a bit ambitious for a workshop. But writing is so much more than a technical skillset, marks on a page made right or wrong. That’s product. We’re people, and as such, we need to address writing as process, a psychological habit that we’ve cultivated for years without much, if any, consideration.
“In daily life we’re disconnected from ourselves,” teaches Thích Nhất Hạnh in The Art of Communicating. “We’re alive, but we don’t know that we’re alive. Throughout the day, we lose ourselves. To stop and communicate with yourself is a revolutionary act.”8 In learning to listen to ourselves, we’re more fully aware of our creative energy, better able to understand and listen to others.
To begin, I ask that my workshop participants reflect on when, where, and how they write. The similarities are startling: late at night, in their rooms, by computer, prone to interruption by roommates or family members, a vibrating cell phone, a chiming inbox, a cache of social media on the screen. The goal is to get the work done and then move on to the next thing. When I ask participants to bring in three samples of their past writing in order to examine paragraph length, sentence structure, and word choice, it becomes very clear very fast that in getting the work done, they unconsciously employ a set of go-to strategies: writing habits. This is true even of participants who agonize, word by word, over their text, who do not rush but rather suffer through the task. With time, participants start to conflate their writing habits with their identity as writers; their voice, their style. Challenge the habit and you condemn the writer. This is the very opposite of mindfulness. Closed off to their own creative potential, participants are stuck on autopilot.
To kick off my workshop, then, I inform participants that a goal of the class is to nurture mindfulness. To be physically present is one thing, but to be wholly present, to tune into their work, themselves, and the writing collective, is another.
Writing by Hand
As a daily practice, students power down and stow their cell phones and laptops in favor of writing by pen, on paper (with accommodations to allow for alternative methods). This does not go over well, predictably so. Because really, who wants to change? Our habits are comfortable to us. Still, participants persist in writing by hand in an effort to purge the conduit—the keyboard, the screen—and tap directly into the energy of their moving minds.
In Syllabus, Lynda Barry reflects on the power of hand to page:
I began keeping a notebook in a serious way when I met my teacher Marilyn Frasca
in 1975 at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She showed me
ways of using these simple things—our hands, a pen, and some paper—as both a
navigation and expedition device, one that could carry me into my past, deeper into
my present, or farther into a place I have called “the image world”—a place we all
know, even if we don’t notice this knowing until someone reminds us of its ever-
present existence. . . . This practice can result in what I’ve come to consider a
wonderful side effect: a visual or written image we call “a work of art,” although a
work of art is not what I’m after when I’m practicing this activity. What am I after? I’m
after what Marilyn Frasca called “being present and seeing what’s there.”9
Instead of training your workshop participants in how to get the work done, why not train them in how to slow down and see what’s there? The notebook is an entry point, the writing a journey, a process of discovery that reveals itself over time. The goal is to be present, patient, to both give and receive the words.
Writing by hand certainly takes the pressure off getting it “right,” the perfectionism that petrifies so many talented writers. Our bright white screens make it neat and easy to erase any evidence of an attempt. The physical, forward momentum of the pen compels us to write now and edit later. And so, to the great relief of workshop participants’ overburdened brains, they exercise mindfulness by separating the writing task into stages: create in the moment, edit later, revise last. I talk more specifically about daily writing rituals in chapter three, but the point is that putting hand to page jolts students out of autopilot, opening up new possibilities in their writing.
An added bonus, writing can now take place anywhere, unplugged. We revisit our survey of when, where, and how participants write, and then pointedly mix it up: write in the early morning, with music; write in the afternoon, outside, somewhere green; write at night, in a diner; integrate a walk into the middle of your writing session. Sometimes it’s as simple as turning off their cell phones. Participants often discover a surprising consequence of a change in routine: the words come easier.
Tuning inward—the revolutionary act of defying autopilot to more deeply communicate with ourselves—achieves a certain mindset, described here by a former student:
I remember hearing that the objective was not a product, but a “state of mind.” I
found this to be true, yet I wasn’t sure just what it meant at the start. In many
academic classes, doing the bare minimum, or only what is required of you, is
enough to get a good grade and to learn something. This class is different. It stayed
with me all the time—on walks, before going to sleep, in showers, in conversations
with friends, etc. I didn’t even need to put in effort to be working, which just goes to
show how relevant and personal this course was to me, and to all of us.
Mindfulness does more than push students to break with old writing habits and unlock their creative power. It also helps achieve an anti-racist workshop agenda. White institutional customs of control and domination are ingrained in participants’ psyches. To disrupt these habits, workshop participants must engage in ongoing self-awareness. The goal is twofold: students’ mindfulness of their nonverbal and verbal communication.
Any workshop leader knows the power of body language. Students slumped at their desks is the obvious example, but there’s also that jiggling knee, those tapping fingers, the sigh, the eye roll, the refusal to make eye contact, all nonverbal tactics of silencing one another. Tuning students in to how their bodies speak helps ease workshop relations—we are all responsible for checking ourselves so that our egos do not overtake the room. In the midst of workshop, I pause to remind students to tune into their bodies. We’ll take a breath, sit upright, and continue. “Why don’t you take a moment?” I’ll prompt individual participants, should their nonverbal contributions become oppressively loud. A trip to the bathroom, a sip of water, and then they’re present again, more fully engaged in the art of listening.
Of course it comes down to listening. Humility, at the heart of connection.
Talking, too, is a lesson in listening. Thích Nhất Hạnh calls mindful speech “Right Speech,” a conscious choice to replace violent words—“speech that lacks openness”—with words of compassion and tolerance.10 The goal of Right Speech is to truly hear and understand the other person, not to judge them against ourselves. For the purposes of workshop, this means asking questions of the artist so that we may better understand their goals for the work (something I discuss in depth in chapter six). Ego urges us to manipulate others’ writing so that it more closely adheres to our own aesthetic preferences—Let me tell you how to make it better—an act of aggression against writers of color who seek to claim their own voice on the page. Mindfulness necessitates an inversion of power: “Why don’t you tell me what you want to achieve, and together we can work toward your goal?” Over time, workshop participants succeed in nurturing openness and awareness in themselves and their writing. Creativity becomes an emergent process rather than a static skill, evidenced here in another end-of-term reflection: “After this course, I am looking at everything differently; I’m examining the world in a new light. It’s like I’m looking at the world through a pair of lenses that are a Venn diagram of logic, creativity, and potentiality. It’s incredible.”
Generosity is a study in who writes, a concept which startles my workshop participants: Who else would it be, if not me?
Well, fear, of course.
Facebook fed me a meme recently, something along the lines of, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life (unless you become a writer, in which case you’ll toil tirelessly and suffer a lifetime of self-doubt).” As a culture, we normalize a writer’s neuroses; anxiety, insecurity, doubt, indecision, and procrastination are synonymous with art-making. To write is to embody negativity. We unconsciously surrender our creativity to fear.
A product-based mentality only exacerbates this suffering, due to its emphasis on a polished final outcome. With that mentality, a blank page conjures fear of failure and rejection; a first draft is imperfect and therefore bad; a final draft is poorly reviewed by a professor or agent and therefore of no value. Fear wants to exercise control, strangling the life energy from our words until they are flawless. But real writing, the pursuit of authentic voice through process, not product, is a release of control.
Your workshop participants can reclaim their creativity, release control, and restore confidence in their work by exercising generosity toward themselves.
In Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, Bonnie Friedman states, “Talent is not rare. What’s rare is the devotion and stamina to keep writing. . . . Caring for the writerly self is a decisive component in being able to keep writing, and writing better. For there is only one essential correlation when it comes to writing, and that’s simply between those who write and those who become writers.”11 Caring for the writerly self, while gendered feminine (as opposed to the masculine, manic-depressive’s bravado and alcoholism) is essential to participants’ long-term success, yet rarely is it addressed as a workshop skill.
To rally a new generation of multicultural writers, you must start at the heart: participants’ emotional relationship to writing. The anti-racist writing workshop trains participants in how to release fear’s stranglehold over their work and exercise authentic voice.
At the top of class, I address participants’ fear of risk-taking, for if there are no words, there is no workshop. The blank page cannot win, and so I ask: “What are your excuses for staying immobilized?” Sometimes it’s fear of imperfection. Sometimes it’s fear of sounding stupid, or doing it wrong, or airing out stories better kept private. “Write a list of your writing fears,” I instruct my students. “Don’t hold anything back.” After they freewrite for ten minutes or so, I draw on an exercise from Writing Past Dark. “Review your list,” I instruct, “and organize your fears into two categories.” The first is internal (I’m afraid of betraying my dad if I share this), and the second is external (I’m afraid the class won’t understand my writing). It’s a rare workshop participant with balanced columns; usually the consensus is one of shock: “I’m the one keeping me from writing!” Or, “I never realized I cared so much what other people think!”
After some discussion, participants once more return to their list. Next to each fear, they add, “But I will write anyway.” We stand and share these fears aloud, as many rounds as workshop participants are willing, followed by the mantra, “But I will write anyway.” Not only does this exercise prompt participants to deconstruct patterns of writer’s block, procrastination, and playing it safe (patterns previously normalized as par for the creative course), it also confirms that they are not alone in their fear. We channel poet Tanaya Winder’s acronym: Fiercely Embrace Ancestral Resilience: “I want to reframe fear so that it doesn’t own me. Rather, I want to remember my mother, my grandmother, and all my ancestors whenever I am afraid. I want their strength and ancestral resilience to ground me.”12
As workshop progresses and participants share their writing aloud daily, we address the impulse to compete. Our compulsion to compare ourselves to the group is as spontaneous as breathing, another unexamined norm of creative writing culture. And so we put in the work. I ask participants to reflect on that moment when art-making became less joy and more suffering: How do I measure up? Am I any good, compared to him, compared to her? Or am I just wasting my time? They freewrite scenes from their past that tainted writing from imaginative play into a criterion of self-worth. When did competition kick in, and how has it affected your work? The point is to remind participants that art-making is innate to all of us. It’s when our adult brains interfere that we compromise our confidence.
I go on to ask how competition affects our art collective. When someone reads in workshop, are participants genuinely receptive to their work? Or are they trapped in dualistic judgment: “He is good and I am bad.” Writers rarely speak on it, but duality is toxic. At best, it transforms others’ successes into a personal affront to our own talent (Why did she get published, when I’m better than her?). At worst, it keeps us paralyzed, because “Why even bother to write if I’ll never be as good as so and so?” Instead, we aim for equilibrium: “He is good and I am good.” “We are not the same writer, necessarily so, but I can learn from him.” Confronting the impulse to compete head-on is healthy for workshop participants, as they air out the negativity that stifles so many writing communities.
As we go on to prepare drafts, we tackle our tendency to embody criticism. When I introduce myself as a writer at gatherings, strangers will often confide how they could never put themselves out there like that. “The criticism!” What they don’t realize is that a writer is their worst critic. This internal critic, it takes hold of the best of us. To ignore it is ineffective and results in a heap of stressful and debilitating psychic correspondence. Instead, I encourage my workshop participants to create distance between themselves and their critical thoughts by physically writing out the words their internal critic says.
When we’re immersed in a substantial writing task, I’ll ask participants to take a moment and freewrite: “What does your internal critic say about you today? What does it say about your writing?” Participants release these thoughts onto the page, witness the words in print, and then ignore them, acknowledging that the critic is just fear speaking. Because no matter how well I train my workshop participants in giving and receiving feedback, if they only believe their internal critic, they’ll never grow as writers. They must compartmentalize the fear and move on.
Finally, in preparation for workshop and one-on-one conferences, I caution my students not to confuse their writing with the need for approval. We dedicate a freewrite session to untangling participants’ projects from their emotional needs. “What specific feedback do you need on your draft in order to better achieve your writing goals?” I begin, followed by, “Now ask yourself, what do I need right now, on an emotional level?”
Maybe the student is spent from excavating difficult memories; the writing is raw and in need of organization. So why, then, does she cry when provided with guidance? Maybe she’s conflated herself with her work, a common practice among writers. What she needs is rest and confirmation that her courage paid off by seeking out a trusted friend to champion her draft in advance of workshop. Had she confronted her emotional needs early on, she could have exercised the necessary self-care. Thus refreshed, she’d be better able to receive the workshop’s feedback, not confusing it with commentary on herself.
Try as we might, no writing collective or workshop leader can fulfill a writer’s emotional needs. But with practice, participants can learn to exercise generosity toward themselves, a skill worth cultivating for a long-term writing career. Even better, then, when the workshop leader goes on to afford openhanded praise.
A former student reflects:
Felicia supported students in not just class decisions but in life decisions. Not only
did the course allow me to intentionally carve out time to commit fully to my writing,
I learned a lot about my own writing process. I figured out how to cope with slow
work days as well as get the most out of my most productive days. More than
anything, it allowed me to connect with other students sharing in the same sorts of
ups and downs. We each got the chance to share about our work and rejuvenate our
energy, passion, and focus towards our writing.
This is what generosity toward oneself, and one another, does when it is put into action.
I’m afraid that no one will read this book.
I’m afraid that I’ll lose friends over this book.
I’m afraid that white readers will threaten or verbally assault me for writing this book.
I’m afraid that POC readers won’t take my ideas seriously because I’m not Chicana enough.
I’m afraid that educators won’t take my ideas seriously because I’m too young, or at least I look too young.
I’m afraid that white selection committees won’t hire me as a result of writing this book.
I’m afraid that people from my past will accuse me of lying.
I’m afraid that people from my past will hurt because of what I’ve written.
I’m afraid that the responsibilities of motherhood will keep me from finishing this book.
I’m afraid that I won’t be able to afford a book tour.
I’m afraid that this book will not be good enough.
I’m afraid that no one will care and nothing will change.
But I will write anyway.
1 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Bloomsbury, 2000), 72. 2 Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 76. 3 Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 75. 4 Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 92–93. 5 bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 40–41. [i] It’s important to note that the majority of the students that I work with are able-bodied and therefore my language is biased. I recognize this as a personal blind spot and invite you to adapt practices that accommodate your students’ individual needs. 6 Gloria Anzaldúa, “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga (Albany: SUNY Press, 2015), 164. 7 Anzaldúa, “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” 167. 8 Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Art of Communicating (New York: Harper Collins, 2013) 15. 9 Lynda Barry, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor (New York: Drawn and Quarterly, 2014), 4. 10 Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Art of Communicating (New York: Harper Collins, 2013) 51. 11 Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life (New York: Harper Perennial, 2014), preface, Kindle. 12 Tanaya Winder, “Fiercely Embrace Ancestral Resilience,” Facebook, February 13, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/tanaya.winder/posts/10104475968749543.
Felicia Rose Chavez is an award-winning educator with an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa. She is author of The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom and co-editor of The BreakBeat Poets Volume 4: LatiNEXT. Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, she currently serves as the Bronfman Creativity and Innovation Scholar-in-Residence at Colorado College. For more information about The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, and to access a multi-genre compilation of contemporary writers of color and progressive online publishing platforms, visit www.antiracistworkshop.com.