One of my former Gotham Writers’ Workshop students got in touch with me recently about a problem she was having. She’d just started an MFA program, and was having problems right off the bat. When she was my student I had given her input on my experiences with MFA programs (I was in one bad one, which I left, then one excellent one). I knew she had gotten into a couple, and was weighing which one to go to.
The story she had worked on in class was about a girl who had been held captive in a basement, who then escapes. She is picked up by a truck driver, who realizes something is wrong. The truck driver takes the girl home with her to keep an eye on her, and during a discussion it’s mentioned that the truck driver is Navajo. In my class, we didn’t get too much farther than this, which is always the problem with my classes. I get invested in the story, and then class is over, and I never see how the story ends. But when she got back in touch with me, I remembered it. It was well-written and an interesting premise, so it stood out, even after months of having taught other classes. It also was what she submitted to get into the MFA programs, so the admissions people obviously thought highly of it too.
She chose her program, and began workshops. This is where the trouble began. When her teacher read the story, he refused to let her work on it. His reasoning was that since one character was Navajo, and the writer was not, she would never be able to transcend stereotypes, would be branded a racist, and the book would never get published. This is all based on the portion I had seen in my class, where the Navajo aspect is really mentioned in passing. I agree that there is reason to treat cautiously when dealing with cultures that aren’t your own, and she is aware of this also, doing extensive research, as well as pairing up with a professor who is a Navajo expert to help her get things right. My issue with this is telling someone that they can’t write a story no matter what. If there is a concern that the story may go in a bad direction, I feel you should address that when you see the story going in that direction, and then you address the aspect of it that goes bad. I don’t think it’s a writing teacher’s place to forbid someone to write a story. How is someone to grow as a writer if they don’t experiment, take chances, and maybe even fail? Say the story did end up dealing in stereotypes and coming off as racist. That’s when you say, “I really think you need to fix this,” and if it seems unfixable, then it’s the writer’s role to decide if the story should be abandoned. I would never tell a student they could not work on something. I’d tell them that I thought a story had major flaws that needed to be addressed, but they are free to work on what they want to work on. My job is to help them make it as good as it can be.
She had a meeting with the professor and the director of the program, but the professor wouldn’t argue anything beyond his initial points, and so it faltered. The irony is that another teacher in the program is a white woman who recently published a book about a Native American tribe, which basically sinks all of his points, but here we are.
I do understand the idea to “write what you know,” but if you’re doing research into a culture, doesn’t that help as knowing? (There’s also the “Brian Wilson didn’t surf” argument, which I feel sometimes comes off as glib, in spite of being a good point). But the larger question I have is, should a teacher ever forbid a student to not write a story? Particularly the story they hoped to finish by enrolling in the program? I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts, and I hope I’m missing something.