On sexual harassment in creative writing programs.
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)
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.