Fixing Bad Writing in Creative Nonfiction is Not Politically Correct, it’s Essential

January 4, 2021 § 19 Comments


By Kristin Gallagher

I recently completed a memoir writing workshop with a well-known urban writing center. During our multi-week class, we did the things writers do—we provided feedback on one another’s work and discussed the craft of writing.

As with people in real life, the characters that appeared in our drafts were complicated. They made mistakes. They failed at some endeavors and excelled at others. Some committed crimes, told lies, broke bonds with loved ones. They said terrible things. This is the raw material that makes for great stories.

How readers imagine the characters in a piece of writing is dependent on the writer’s portrayal and there is no writer who can separate completely his/her/their experience from the writing itself. How we as writers experience the world seeps into our work at the granular level. Sometimes, this means repeating messages that have been absorbed and internalized that are not healthy or accurate, including stereotypes based on race, sexuality, and gender. These are the overdone tropes that often appear in popular culture and mass media. Oftentimes, privilege prevents us from even realizing our level of participation in perpetuating these messages.

So what happens when we see our fellow writers falling back on these racist and sexist depictions to describe people in their works? We must provide the constructive critiques necessary, not because we believe it to be the politically correct thing to do, but because it is our responsibility to prompt one another to become better writers, not writers who rely on tired and lazy tropes when attempting to bring characters to life on the page.

In this workshop, we had discussions about the use of a pejorative to describe a person with an intellectual disability, how equating Blackness to evil is racist, and how to write about characters’ sexuality in ways that are not exploitative. On these occasions, it was not the character’s actions or words that were in question—many great works of nonfiction contain terrible characters who are based off of terrible people-—but rather, the focus was on the writer’s inability to write past blind spots to develop the characters. This type of feedback is important work that all writers in workshop must engage in so that we can all grow as storytellers by digging deeper and creating authentic characters that go beyond stereotypes.

After the class finished, the student receiving this feedback used the writing center’s email list to defend her language choices, most curiously by sending a photo of a person she wrote about, presumably to wave about like a flag to proclaim her innocence. We’ve all seen this by now: “I am excused from all racist language because I once ate dinner with a Black person.” “I am not homophobic because I have a gay cousin.” “I am not ableist even though I will continue to call people retarded when they make mistakes.” The student also let it be known that it was a pleasure working with some of us. Presumably excluded from that list were the people who pointed out the shortcomings in her writing.

The silence of the instructor implicitly legitimized this student’s actions. The inaction of the writing center-—a center that does not even have community guidelines to deal with this type of situation and that lacks diversity in its leadership and instructors—is a failure to the entire student body. Students who provide valid critiques that challenge their peers to become better writers must be protected from retaliation for such critiques. Otherwise, we have all failed.

It may feel that we are being asked to do more during a time when many of us do not feel we have more to give, but we are really only being called upon to do what writers in workshop have always been asked to do: to provide feedback to make the writing better. This includes having conversations about the ways in which we fail one another when we write stereotypical characters into our work.

On the business end, slapping a Black Lives Matter page up on a business website is not enough. Writing centers must exhibit a real commitment to eliminating the structural barriers that traditionally have excluded marginalized voices and must have clear community guidelines that are enforced and that do not tolerate bullies who attempt to silence those in the writing community who are doing the necessary work to stop this form of bad writing.
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Kristin Gallagher is a Miami-based writer and the assistant managing editor of Gulf Stream. Her personal essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Qu, The Real Story, and Anti-Heroin Chic.

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§ 19 Responses to Fixing Bad Writing in Creative Nonfiction is Not Politically Correct, it’s Essential

  • sonjabonin says:

    I agree. Thanks for your piece, Kristin!

  • Thanks for speaking out. I agree.

  • Michael Lewis says:

    Thanks for this piece, Kristin. It’s powerful and true and I am with you all the way.

  • Morgan Baker says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for writing.

  • stacyeholden says:

    These are such hard conversations to have, and I am heartened that writers in your program engaged with the intent to help a writer be a better writer (as opposed to finger-pointing). We need more conversations about how to write about our lives and each other so as to encourage “having conversations about the ways in which we fail one another when we write stereotypical characters into our work.”

    • Dominique Davis says:

      Im glad to read an article that speaks out about stereotypes. As a black writer of non-fiction, I pride myself on creating characters my reader can relate to, I humanize each character so the reader can form their own opinion. Thats what we do as writers, we paint a picture and allow the reader to gain perception. Writers of non fiction in my opinion are not writing to persuade the reader, but to help them explore unfamiliar territory. Writer need to be aware when they are subconsciously opposing their views through characters.

  • I have been in a workshop where the instructor courteously and in very specific detail explained that a writer needed to know more about the people she was writing about. The instructor was nonjudgemental but firm.

    And I have been in a workshop where leaders simply side-stepped and avoided addressing a huge issue. It was embarrassing. And would have been worse if the writer was not made aware of his missteps.

    When workshop leaders avoid addressing the hard things, they fail to provide writers with necessary overview and leave people who may have made an “honest” mistake to wander out into the world in ignorance and foolishness.

    For years, when students asked me about why I gave such specific and insistent feedback about racial pejoratives and other issues, I explained: “How many of you plan on living in our small, mostly-white community all your lives? [Mostly, they did not.] The world is bigger and more diverse than you know. My fear is that you will get on a bus and say something stupid in all ignorance and without meaning any harm, and you will hurt someone’s feeling or get yourself stabbed in the heart.”

    And then, a former student (not one of mine) said something stupid and was stabbed in the heart.

    He didn’t die, but I stopped using that particular example.

    • I meant to say how much I appreciated this essay—insightful and necessary, the workshop leader and the organization failed to do their job, and that sad person who defended bad choices failed to learn the obvious.

  • bethfinke says:

    You are so right. Repeating the “tired and lazy tropes” you mention in this essay does little to bring characters to life on the page. When leading a writing class, I use the old saw “show, don’t tell.” Showing your readers who your characters are by describing what they do, what they say, how they react, what they believe speaks volumes.

  • lindawis says:

    Thank you for writing this important essay. We need to talk about these things, to acknowledge our own imperfections/prejudices/blind spots and learn better ways of writing about people different from ourselves. It’s on us, the white and privileged, to keep working on this, probably for the rest of our natural lives.

  • kperrymn says:

    I just want to add my thanks. I am currently in a class where some of us wrestle regularly with our privilege and others generously and patiently help us see when we are tone-deaf or make other missteps. We are all becoming better writers as we go!

  • Hannah says:

    Politically correct writing isn’t “good” writing and fiction that doesn’t follow the arbitrary and constantly changing rules of what we are and aren’t allowed to put in our fiction isn’t “bad” writing. Most of these things are matters of personal opinion. Just because one white person finds something inappropriate doesn’t mean it is objectively so. Using the word “good” instead of “politically correct” obfuscates what you’re really trying to do, which is control what other writers are and aren’t allowed to write.

    • “Politically correct” is a term first introduced as a joke by the left and then co-opted by the right as a pejorative. Use of the term is a strategy designed to shut up those who ask for simple courtesy, accuracy, and fairness. It aims to stifle voices. In other words, I think you are wrong.

    • Louise says:

      Lazy writing isn’t good writing. The author here isn’t trying to control what other writers are and aren’t allowed to write. She is giving valid feedback that points out lazy writing, which is what writers in workshop are supposed to do. And the consequences of leaving this kind lazy writing unchecked are much more damaging than say, using clichés, which any good critique partner would also point out.

  • debrakva says:

    Thank you for addressing this issue. I have been fortunate to be in a writing community where not only the instructor but the participants in a memoir class helped me on this very topic. In first drafts of writing about my gay father, I used words, phrases and impressions my mother provided to me as a young teen. It was the 1960’s. She was bitter and uneducated and separated us from our father. I grew with the times, eventually in relationship with my father. But my writing half a century later has to explain those early years of misinformation, confusion and prejudice. I struggle over the correct words for today, to get it right for a reader, always aware that I must take care in the words I choose. A writing community is essential if we are to write about these difficult topics and help others move forward.

  • Andrew Wongh says:

    Very good job in calling a spade a spade. Performative social justice must end.

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