On sexual harassment in creative writing programs.

wheel

When I was a young writer, learning how to finish my first short stories, I registered for a week-long creative writing workshop. I was excited about this class, because a fiction author I admired was teaching it. I wanted to write books and publish them, which meant (I thought) that I needed an MFA in Creative Writing. That meant that I needed a portfolio, and letters of reference from writers I’d studied with. These are the time-honoured initiations that writers must complete before they are admitted into the world of contemporary literature. (I thought.)

That week-long writing workshop went like this: class every morning, with the other writers. In the afternoon, every student got a one-on-one session with the author. He’d have read your story closely, and would give you feedback on your writing. I thought he was a good teacher — funny, smart, engaging — and I was looking forward to my critique session.

When I entered the classroom on the afternoon of my one-on-one, the author was sitting down and waiting for me. My story lay neatly in front of him. The pages were clean, and without marks. My first thought was so hopeful: “It must be great as-is! He doesn’t even have any suggestions!”

That hope only lasted a fraction of a second. I sat down beside him. He leaned over, his head cupped in his hands, and murmured in my ear, “So what are you doing for fun this weekend?”

He hadn’t even read my story.

We sat in the room for about 30 minutes — honestly, I can’t remember how long I was there or what was said. Before I entered that room, I felt like a writer about to talk to my editor. I knew my writing had potential, and I was ready to learn, to work, to study. But after the session, I felt empty, stunned, and small.

That’s not entirely true. The writer in me felt empty and small. But I also felt — well, if not respected, then at least lucky to be noticed as cute. I know. It makes my gut sear when I think about it. In retrospect, I see how desperately I wanted to be taken seriously, to be liked, to be accepted, and to be thought of as good.

I thought: Okay, so maybe he doesn’t think I’m a good writer. But maybe he think’s I’m pretty?

And then: If I can flirt back in just the right way, so he’s not offended that I’m not into him, maybe he’ll still write me a reference letter.

Oh my god.

Remember Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay, On Pandering? That was published two years ago, now. Then there was the noxious harassment case (and complicated, extra-poisonous fallout) at the University of British Columbia creative writing program in 2016. Now, as the discussion around sexual harassment in Concordia's creative writing program continues in Canadian media, I feel sick for all of the writers, especially young women, who enter an institution hoping to connect and develop their creative life, and instead are disregarded, made to feel invisible, disrespected, and harassed.

And yes — in case it’s not abundantly clear already, this is why I started my own creative writing school.

If you want to see challenges to power in action, look to the women. We’ve been here, in spite of efforts to invisiblize us and in spite of the climate of male toxicity that can exhaust and wound us. 
Julie McIsaac, from her blog And Then a Man Said It.

There are so many ways to live as a writer. You don’t have to go through the initiation that serves the institutions that are (let’s face it) crumbling now, anyway. There are safe places to write, where you can feel the magic that hums when people write together, and tap into the unknowable, sparkly mystery.

Hedgebrook, for instance, a woman-only writing residency, doesn’t even accept reference letters in their application process.

And by the way, tapping into sparkly mystery does not mean that you aren’t a serious writer. Enjoying your work and feeling safe and excited and curious at the same time doesn’t mean that you aren’t also writing sophisticated, intelligent, meaningful stories.

What if rather than power, prestige, and command over a subject our creative communities held up collaboration, vision, and art that works toward a deep compassionate attention to the world? What if we stopped giving a fu*k about awards or magazines or publishing contracts and instead cared about making good work? Would Universities as they are now crumble? Would that be the worst thing?
Heather Jessup, author of The Lightning Field.

I love our school. I love what we do here. I am grateful for all of you, and what we do together as a writing community. I am fortunate to work with writers who genuinely care about connecting with the mystery and truth of the world. Thank you for continually finding joy in making art, more than you care about getting power and false prestige. 

These are the programs you can sign up for right now. These are safe places to learn and take risks, where I promise you that you will be respected as the intelligent and courageous writer you are.

The Story Course (ongoing)

Centered (ongoing)

The Story Intensive (September)

Book Coaching  (ongoing)

21 Days of Writing (ongoing)

If you’re already familiar with the above offerings and you want to go further, or if there’s something special that you’d like to work on and you wish we offered it, please get in touch. We’re here to help you thrive as a writer, now more than ever.

Love,

Sarah Selecky



Best books of 2017.
Who are you writing for? Women’s fiction and the Inner Critic.

12 comments

Dear Linda, yes, of course -- please do share. And welcome to our community! xo S
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Linda Pannell

Sarah, I love your article, and would love to join your community, even if I'm not taking courses. I published my first book myself, frustrated by being patronizing told that I had to work within a genre. Now, with even less money available, I'm simply publishing my second on Facebook, and will probably do the same with my third. Would you be okay with me sharing your article on Facebook and Twitter? I really believe that it needs to reach as many writers as possible.
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Stephen D. Forman

What a ghastly experience, Sarah. It's commendable how you mined it as a wellspring, and invested tangible energy into a writing school that multiplies you. There is no shortage of sin and disillusion in the world, but your story reminds us that rank manure can spring forth a verdant garden.
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So disappointing that you had that experience Sarah, it must have been crushing. And thank you for creating THIS safe space with such care. I hope that more creatives spirits get a teacher like you, you have certainly awakened the writer in me. x0x0
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Thank you for sharing your experience. The twined sexual and intellectual harassment happens all too often. Call it bullying, intimidation or harassment—it’s wrong and criminal. Thank you, too, for providing a space to discuss this and other forms of harassment under the guise of mentorship. I and many other women encountered this form of harassment as undergrads and graduate students. While most men on the faculty did not engage in such behavior, other men did and they managed to keep their jobs (some went so far as to keep other women out who knew of their behaviors!). Thank you to all the women and men for bravely speaking out, then and now.
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Thank you Mary, and thank you for bringing your creative spirit here!
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All too often, indeed. This year, it is my challenge to create even more of this creative culture -- I want it to feel safe, inspired, and REAL, not just a small and special annex. Let's galvanize this container, so studying creative writing in an enviornment of respect, kindness, compassion, and openness to mystery isn't a rare way to learn, but something women can expect.
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Thank you, Elle! Exactly so. Here's to living creative lives we enjoy rather than endure. (I love the way you put that.)
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THANK YOU, Sharon! I'm so glad you're here.
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Thank you so much, Stephen.
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Elle Flythe

Sarah, I am so sorry you had that horrible experience in your writing program. You deserved much better treatment! It took me a long time to learn that having "thick skin" never means accepting disrespectful, unkind, unnecessary behavior; it means refusing all those things. I remember grad school well. Often the people telling me I was too sensitive were the people with the quickest tempers, the fewest friends, the lamest work ethic, and the least talent! Still, as a desperate newbie, I mistook their posturing for importance. No more. I'm so glad to see the needle moving toward writers striving for financial independence, respectful conditions, and creative lives we enjoy rather than endure. I hope we can work as a true community -- for all types of abuse (race-, religion-, gender-based, et cetera) spring from the same well of inhumanity.
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"If you want to see challenges to power in action, look to the women." "There are so many ways to live as a writer. You don’t have to go through the initiation that serves the institutions that are (let’s face it) crumbling now, anyway." YES. As a writer without an MFA who has benefitted immensely from teachers and supporters who were women, I AM HERE FOR (and because of) both these truths.
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