Creative writing is for everyone

We tend to think of the math and science fields as being particularly hypermasculine and sexist. A class like creative writing, on the other hand, is seen as something “anyone” can participate in. People love to pretend creative writing allows us to understand “universal” human values that transcend differences of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. But in reality, creating characters, universes and settings is a deeply personal and political act.

This is why I feel uneasy about the fact that everyone in my 12-person creative writing class is white and cisgender. When my professor describes different narrative perspectives, he explains that third person means “he and she.” Every character in the stories we write is white, or their race is unspecified. No one in my class creates characters who use gender-neutral pronouns, perhaps because it would be considered “grammatically incorrect.” Almost everyone in my class writes about straight, white, vaguely “middle-class” suburban America, occasionally throwing a queer character into the mix.

Of course, writers need to write about what they know. It’s probably better for straight, white male writers not to write fictional stories about queer people, people of color or women. if they don’t know how to portray them. As Ava Duvernay, director of “Selma” (2014) said during a talk she gave this summer, representation does not mean having white artists add characters of color to their work in order to fulfill some kind of diversity checklist.

“The diversity problem is not Wes Anderson having only two people of color in his film,” she said, giving an example of a director who casts predominantly white actors. “It’s that that no one is allowed to be the black Wes Anderson.”

In an April 20, 2014 piece for The New Yorker, author Junot Díaz wrote about the unbearable whiteness of creative writing classes, drawing from his own experiences in a creative writing course at Cornell.

[My] workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc.),” he wrote. “In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing — at all.”

Nor are any of these issues addressed in my creative writing class, which is perhaps the reason why my class is so overwhelmingly straight, white and privileged. Furthermore, ALL the creative writing professors at Tufts are white. If these classes are taught by professors with little understanding of experiences different from their own, it is probable that the classes will filter out certain students, regardless of the professors’ intentions. And it’s important for white people to understand that it might not be merely coincidental if no students of color enroll in a specific class.

If Tufts doesn’t actively work to hire professors from different backgrounds and with an understanding of privilege, especially for classes as intimate as creative writing, this problem will only get worse. It’s bad enough that the majority of books students read at public high schools are written by straight, white, American men. Shouldn’t private universities be doing a little better?