I feel it in the air
On vulnerability, responsibility, and privilege
|Colleen Rothman||Jul 16, 2019|
Before I arrived in Portland last week, I suspected the Tin House Summer Workshop would be different from others I’ve attended. First, they’d accepted me, unlike the other two workshops to which I’d applied this year. But as I read my classmates’ manuscripts for our short fiction workshop with Justin Torres, I was blown away. The stories were strong on a craft level and broached their subjects in fresh ways. Each had an element of risk. And unlike the workshops in which I’d participated previously, a majority of the stories were by writers of color.
The one photo I took of Reed’s campus, which is mostly trees
During the welcome reception, director Lance Cleland began his remarks by asking the crowd of two hundred or so, “How many of you are feeling some feelings right now?” As my own hand was among the many raised, I appreciated this gesture. Along with his reassurance about how we all deserved to be there, it served as a bridge—starting not with logistical details, but to say: hey, I see you. It acknowledged emotional vulnerability—you have feelings—and provided validation: it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. Most significantly, these words were spoken by a white guy in a room in which (like my workshop) there weren’t a ton of white guys.
With vulnerability, of course, comes responsibility, which Lance reiterated. A space is not made safe for the personal exchange of ideas merely by saying it is so. We must do the work to make the space safe for those sharing it with us, and to consider their needs alongside our own. When we exchange art in early drafts, we’re not just sharing words on the page, but ourselves. The exchange is intimate and loaded with power. What we choose to do with that is up to us. It is also contextual. When you already occupy a place of privilege (straight, white, male, able-bodied), you bear a greater responsibility in this exchange.
In workshop, this responsibility has many layers. As a reader, it requires you to do the work to look up words or references in a story that are unfamiliar to you, instead of complaining during discussion that you found those elements confusing. You have to understand how silenced many people feel by the traditional workshop model, and how the wrong kind of feedback can gut someone’s confidence. As a writer, this responsibility requires you to think about who’s on the receiving end of your work. We talk all the time about voice and perspective but not enough about audience. We should do that more, not to market the work but to think about for whom we’re creating, other than ourselves.
Bad art is from no one to no one.
– Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments
The novelty of my temporary position in the minority reinforces how central white privilege has been to my other workshop experiences. We’re not often told we need to do the work to understand something we don’t know. We assume we’re writing for white people, because we are white and many readers are white and almost all literary gatekeepers are white. But we spend little time addressing whiteness directly.
Even in majority-white settings, I’ve encountered many straight white male writers who’ve struggled to see the world from another’s point of view. Who couldn’t relate to women’s experiences or found them alienating. Who favored the technically flawless over work with a beating heart. Who tried to write across difference from a marginalized perspective, then leapt into defensiveness when called out on their blind spots. Who sought my input on work that was inappropriate to have shared, that did not consider my humanity as part of their audience. Who were surprised to discover their writing could impart meaning to others that they had not intended.
They did not know. They could not have known. They do not exhaust themselves by constantly processing how others perceive them. They do not spend their days modulating their behavior. They take up space without first seeking permission. They never question whether their story is worth telling. They can sense it’s time to pass the mic, but they remain reluctant to let go.
It became clear that Tin House’s mission is to shift this status quo. It’s not just about setting a tone of vulnerability. It’s in who gets invited to participate. It’s in who gets selected to teach. And it’s in what’s shared in lectures and readings. Throughout the week, audience was front and center: Rebecca Makkai’s lecture on the necessity of clarifying your narrative audience; Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s craft talk on not writing for white people; Garth Greenwell’s expression of uncertainty over sharing new work before moving many in the audience to tears; Natalie Diaz asking us to wear eye masks for part of her reading; even the audience’s palpable elation over karaoke selections with delicious dissonance, like Tommy Pico’s tender rendition of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.”
It’s also in the act of saying explicitly, as Lance did on the last day, that Tin House’s goal is to “de-center whiteness.” It’s on us to make necessary changes to ensure more voices are heard, to make room for new stories, and to change the model for how we share our work with each other. To become—as Robin DiAngelo says in her excellent guide for how white people can be better allies—less fragile. To disabuse ourselves of the notion that it’s all about craft, and not about context—the context in which we create, and that in which readers receive our work. To make ourselves vulnerable, to take creative risks, and to learn from our mistakes.
As my dirty clothes from the week spun in the washing machine this morning, I looked back at the other two workshops to which I’d applied. Both prestigious, both longer than a week away from work and family, which affects who can attend. One’s faculty this year is almost entirely white. (That I’m only now noticing this detail, of course, is another example of my own blind spots.) The other has a more diverse group of instructors, but retains an outdated practice in which work-study recipients attend as service staff and literally wait on conference attendees, reinforcing rather than challenging the entrenched hierarchy. I feel better about these workshops having rejected me after having experienced such an inspiring alternative.
No workshop is perfect. There can be no literary utopia in a society that’s inherently unequal, with structural advantages benefiting people like me. But Tin House is making strides in the right direction. The environment it fostered made me feel supported, comfortable with vulnerability, and open to constructive critique that never felt personal. The feedback I received from my classmates, whom I now consider friends, was more comprehensive and thoughtful than it would have been had my workshop been 100% white. They pushed me to take my story to places I hadn’t considered. I feel lucky to have read their work in its early stages, and I know some of their projects will be part of books I’ll read in full someday.
Now that I’m home, I have new feelings: exhausted, grateful, challenged, inspired. There’s so much more work to be done. I can’t wait to get started.
Thanks to those who’ve signed up for these updates. These newsletters occupy a weird space that I still don’t understand, somewhere between letter and blog and coupon spam. But I enjoy following other writers this way, and enough of you keep reading and responding (which you can do directly to this email) that it still seems worth my time occasionally. I hope it’s still worth yours.
If you’re reading this in your web browser, you can receive future updates via email by smashing the button below.