Hybrid Interview: Matthew Salesses
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Matthew Salesses and Candace Eros Diaz, who also essays about Salesses’s Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping. —CRAFT
Essay by Candace Eros Diaz •
The first sentence of Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World reads, “[T]his book is a challenge to accepted models of craft and workshop, to everything from a character-driven plot to the ‘cone of silence,’ or ‘gag rule,’ that in a creative writing workshop silences the manuscript’s author.” The book is an analytic investigation into the racialized history of craft and the ways BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and other underrepresented voices are erased in creative writing workshops, which can lead to a “kind of colonization” resulting in “work that is no longer its author’s.”
The book’s structure is straightforward: Part I: Fiction in the Real World and Part II: Workshop in the Real World. Craft in the Real World is part history lesson, part craft lecture, and part pedagogical methodology. And although its focus is on fiction and the MFA fiction workshop, it is an essential read to any writer or creative writing instructor, regardless of genre.
Craft in the Real World feels like a literary microcosm for the current global state of affairs. There is the sensation that readers are at once learning and unlearning, doing and undoing. It offers an extensive list of writing prompts, syllabus examples, revision exercises, and alternative workshop suggestions. Salesses’s generous spirit invites people to lean in and listen. Once he has our attention, and because he’s established trust with the reader, we are prepared to bravely engage with the ways racism has colonized nearly every aspect of our lives, including our creativity.
After scrutinizing the history of workshop and its creation, by and for white men, in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Salesses defines the ways craft and culture are inextricably linked; writers are taught, vis-à-vis the fiction workshop, that to master craft is to manage the cultural expectations of an assumed white audience. These expectations are invisible and found in nearly every aspect of craft: structure, plot, characterization, and even in the ways we pace our stories. In other words, to write a “successful” story, writers of color have historically learned to manage the craft expectations of a white, cis, middle-class, straight, able-bodied, male audience.
Like the publishing industry, MFA workshop instruction often assumes that white readers are a student’s default audience. Many programs believe recruiting historically underrepresented students is the final step, or only necessary step, in their diversity plans, rather than acknowledging that admitting writers of color is only one step toward inclusion. While visibility and representation are important, diversity unto itself does not equal inclusion. As an MFA graduate who worked for an MFA program, I know from experience that when institutions, writers, and readers buy “unreflexively into conventions” of craft that in no way represent BIPOC, queer, or other marginalized writers they reinforce the exclusion of these voices and their experiences. How do creative writing instructors and MFA programs support and cultivate the literary traditions of writers of color? How do they challenge the assumptions of cis-heteronormativity in their pedagogy and curriculums? Where do they begin? Craft in the Real World offers concrete and practical answers to these questions.
In Part I: Fiction in the Real World, Salesses offers twenty-five succinct ways to crack open craft and dismantle its assumptions. Chapters such as “What is Craft? 25 Thoughts,” “Audience, Theme, and Purpose,” and “Redefining Craft Terms” serve as entry points to the gatekeeping of craft. The chapters are expertly researched and include examples of literary traditions from around the world in order to “pull back the curtain on what craft is and does” and, moreover, what craft is capable of doing when writers confront “norms.” Salesses redefines the basics, including tone, plot, setting, and conflict by carefully deconstructing each and infusing new meanings. In some instances, he rejects definitions altogether. For instance, he defines “relatability” as the way readers use their personal experiences to relate to characters, and finds this totally “useless to craft.” He goes on to suggest that “one of the most distracting conversations in workshop occurs in the name of believability.” Throughout, he strikes a difficult balance between speaking uncomfortable truths about the ways racism pervades the classroom and concepts of craft while assuring writers of color that writing to the white gaze isn’t the only way.
Salesses closes the first half of the book with the chapter titled, “An Example from East Asian and Asian American Literature,” in which he explores one alternative in detail. His scholarship on the subject is expansive and central to all his work, and his particular interest is in the counter narrative and resistance stories that challenge stereotypes of Asian American writers and writing: “In the tradition of Asian American literature, resistance is part of the canon…” The chapter gives an overview of this canon, from its origin to its contemporary expressions, and lays the foundation for a new set of rules specific to “a distinctly Chinese narratological tradition.” By looking closely at the literary expectations specific to Chinese writers, he expounds our understanding of craft and points Western writers toward new ways of telling their stories.
Part II: Workshop in the Real World moves away from theory and decentering whiteness to recentering marginalized writers by shifting focus to the workshop environment. It demonstrates dynamic alternatives to traditional workshop structures. While new ways of thinking and speaking about workshop are necessary to move beyond the status quo, they can be difficult concepts to grasp, even for writers of color. Salesses does a wonderful job of deconstructing writing and revision processes in order to look closely at the ways “decentering the author is built into the design of how we teach writing.” Interrogating workshop strategies to rectify this flaw in design meets writers of color and their stories on their own terms, freeing them from outmoded pedagogy—“the writers who face the biggest gap between the expectations of the workshop and the expectations of their actual audience are marginalized writers…”
Craft in the Real World reminds us that “writing is power.” It encourages writers, readers, and teachers to get uncomfortable in order to create more inclusive realities and asks why “we limit our ideas about craft and workshop and how we [can] start changing things.”
Candace Eros Diaz: There is so much I appreciate about Craft in the Real World. I am especially struck by how each chapter is so well researched. Can you talk about what researching the book was like and how you synthesized the information you collected along the way?
Matthew Salesses: I started writing about pedagogy around six or seven years ago. I wrote op-eds because they felt easier to place and publish, [and] I ended up feeling very burned-out after about a year. I was always waiting for something terrible to happen and something terrible would inevitably always happen. I’d write about it and hope it would help people and encourage them to care more about the issue, but I’m not sure my work ever did [help]. Then, a few days later another terrible thing would happen or the exact same terrible thing would happen and everyone would write another op-ed. This cycle ended up making me feel very defeated and as if my work wasn’t doing any good.
I wanted to do something that I felt could actually help people. Writing about craft and pedagogy felt like the thing I could do to make a difference. I wanted to reach people who would then put the lessons into practice. While I was completing my PhD [in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston] I was also studying a lot of the things that ended up in the book. Then, Phong Nguyen at Pleiades asked me to be their web editor and I said I’d take the job if I could write on craft and pedagogy. When Phong agreed, I then had a venue for the essays. I produced a piece a week for Pleiades and worked with some of my mentors and colleagues who also helped to open my mind to new possibilities.
I graduated, started teaching, and then sold the book. Most of the research I had done up until that point was on post-structuralist/postcolonial theory, in both fiction and nonfiction. I had always been averse to craft books. In graduate school I read the craft books that everyone reads, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner and The Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster, but I felt like I was learning nothing from them. They were all super white, prescriptive, and steeped in a tradition that I didn’t want to write in. For a long time I asked myself, why read a craft book when I can just read people’s stories and figure it out for myself?
I spent a year researching Craft in the Real World, reading as many craft books I could get my hands on, and asking Twitter for recommendations.
CED: What did you find?
MS: I found a few really interesting and shocking books I had never heard of. One, called Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature by Rudine Sims Bishop, I thought could be very useful in every classroom. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature by Chinweizu, Onwuchewka Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike was another amazing find that I thought should also be required reading and that could be easily incorporated into classrooms. It is very straightforward and says a lot about both writing and literary theory in a way that’s accessible and steeped in a totally different way of storytelling.
I also researched different literary traditions, especially East Asian traditions. I teach Asian American literature and studies, but I didn’t know much about ancient Asian literature. I was curious to know how ancient Asian literature developed and what kind of influence it had on Asian American writers. I found a really interesting book about ancient Chinese fiction titled Chinese Theories of Fiction written in English by a Chinese American scholar named Ming Dong Gu. It was the only book I could find written in English by someone of Asian descent about Asian literature. Before the author is able to get to his own research, he spends a lot of time explaining how most of the current research on Chinese literature is inaccurate because it is primarily written by white Westerners, which says a lot about the quality of research and theory out there.
CED: As in much of your nonfiction, Craft in the Real World leads with candor and courageousness. I also picked up a tone of frustration. Am I misreading this?
MS: No, you’re not misreading it. I think that is definitely there. I do feel really frustrated that I had to be the one to write this book. A book like this should have been written a long time ago, but it wasn’t. I’m trying to bring literary theory into the creative writing classroom, but I think others have much better ideas than mine and will advance these and write better versions of this book. My real hope is that Craft in the Real World will be irrelevant five years from now.
I don’t think I’ll ever write a book like this again.
Korean American adoptees sometimes say that we are trying to make ourselves go extinct because the activism is to stop international Korean adoption. I feel a similar way about this book; I wrote it to try to make the need for it disappear.
CED: Do you think there will be any backlash in response to the book for upsetting the status quo and speaking truth to power?
MS: I do worry about backlash. Creative writing instructors, some of whom are my friends and writers of color, have taught gag-rule, Iowa-style workshops for years and are very good at it. They know how it works and how to get the most out of it, but the truth is writers can get a lot more out of different kinds of workshops. I know instructors who have tried some of the exercises and alternative workshops, but felt they weren’t helpful to their students so they ended up going back to what they know. I worry this may happen because instructors haven’t sufficiently prepared. If they haven’t put in the same amount of years preparing for alternative workshop structures as they have for the traditional ones, no one is going to benefit.
CED: I’m curious about the idea of straddling genre and the fact that your personal self comes through not only in your essays, but in your fiction too. What are your thoughts about writing the self?
MS: I like writing about the self more in fiction. The self is mysterious. I don’t know myself and I doubt that anyone really does, and so it’s always a well of new things; learning new things about yourself and why you feel certain emotions and what they mean to you. There’s enough in one self to make many characters. My kids talk a lot to themselves and it makes me think there is so much mental life there and there’s so much you don’t know about yourself, so much so that you can have a conversation where you’re figuring out what you would say to yourself as you’re saying it. I feel more forced to talk about myself in nonfiction. One, because I always feel like I have to talk about being adopted and what that means at some point in an essay, which kind of annoys me. Editors will often say, “Can you make this more about yourself?” I think this ask is super raced and gendered…it bothers me. I’d rather write an essay on theory and ideas and if myself is relevant then I can bring it in, but I get pushed into it a lot. Usually because you have to make people relate to [what you’re writing], and this annoys me, but I have to complete my assignments.
CED: Your generosity of spirit is visible on the page and so valuable. Did you contend with giving away your secrets? Personally, I am very generous with giving away fellowship essays or personal statements, but some people aren’t. They hold their intellectual property very close to their chest.
MS: No, I didn’t think about that, I guess. I’m sure you’re right that people do that…. In graduate school, as an early MFA student when I was like twenty-five or twenty-six, some people made the choice to keep everything close to the chest and try to succeed on their own, and other people’s success [felt] like an attack on their success. But in my group of friends, one person’s success helps the other people in the group. These [friends] are now very successful writers and I don’t think any of that is them doing it on their own. The way that power is structured, people become successful because we’ve all helped each other out. I don’t really believe in intellectual property. If we didn’t have such a stupid capitalist structure we wouldn’t need intellectual property. If someone wants to read this book for free and can’t afford it, I’m happy for them to read it at all. We learn as teachers, too, from talking to other teachers. We can’t do it on our own. You can’t even do it that well from books. It’s much more helpful to have somebody talk to you about how they’re actually doing it and to see it in action.
CED: How can those of us who grew up in MFA settings motivate ourselves to begin deprogramming the ways we’ve been taught to think about craft and workshop?
MS: One of my PhD professors said to me, “If you think you know something then you’ve killed it; it’s dead to you.” To me, this means that the only way to keep something alive is to know there is no way to know it completely. I try to apply this to every aspect of my life. If I ever feel that I’ve understood something completely then it loses its value to me. When my wife died a few years ago, I found myself needing to manufacture desire because there was nothing else I wanted except to have my wife back. I would buy things on Amazon because it was a quick way to feel desire. I would feel better while I waited for the thing to arrive. Then, after it arrived, I felt nothing again. I think the same kind of principle applies here: as long as something is mysterious to you and you understand the appeal is in the mysteriousness, then there is appeal in trying to figure the thing out, which in turn keeps it alive. It’s the same with workshops. If you believe you know everything there is to know about workshop, to the point where you don’t even have to prepare for it anymore, it’s dead. You can get as much as you can out of a dead thing, but there will always be other things out there that make you feel more alive.
CED: How do we begin to move toward keeping workshop alive?
MS: This answer will be different for everybody. For me personally, the most productive moment was [at a writer’s conference] when the author Nami Mun explained that she teaches every workshop differently because every writer and every story is different. At the time, this completely blew my mind and I felt ashamed because I thought, Why didn’t I think about this very basic thing? The truth was, I had never been in a workshop where stories were treated differently. We always did the exact same thing in every single workshop for every single story. I realized, of course, that the advantage of a workshop is in its diversity; everybody has a different perspective on things and that is the place where knowledge grows. This basic understanding worked well for me as a starting point. From there, I began to rethink workshop so that I could maximize it for each student’s story. Understanding this changed everything for me.
CED: You mention feeling shame. Do you think shame might motivate some instructors to get on board with making these critical changes to the ways they approach workshop and teaching craft?
MS: It can be hard for instructors to say, “I don’t know. Maybe we should try to learn this together.” We have these roles we’re obligated to fulfill and when we don’t fulfill them we feel shame, but the roles are defined by power and so the shame is the shame of not fitting in. It’s the same kind of shame as being a kid and disappointing your parents—it comes back to us all the time, even in the classroom, as teachers and students who must admit they don’t know it all.
It’s also hard because instructors must have the energy and motivation to make these significant shifts. Every semester I think, I’ll try something new in class because it’ll be more fun. Then I find myself in a mess and think, Why did I do this to myself? This is much more work than I anticipated. It’s been a bad year for me and for most people. [Fall] semester, for example, my students had very little energy because there were so many things sapping them of that energy. It was hard for them to do anything new; it was hard for me to do anything new. Prepping and teaching classes that usually took up a third of my time were taking up my whole day. Teaching requires a lot of privilege, and stressors come from the things we have to deal with because of our place in the world. It’s hard to change anything, and it’s especially hard when the world is putting a lot of pressure on you and things aren’t going very well. It takes a lot of mental investment to make real change.
CED: The book was revolutionary for me, Matthew. Thank you so much for writing it. It has cracked open my creativity on so many different levels—the practical, the philosophical, the personal. The timeliness of Craft in the Real World against the current global state of affairs is undeniable. How do you see it fitting in with the social justice movements for racial equity happening right now in our country?
MS: Thank you so much for saying this. I really wanted the book to be for people like us so I’m glad that it’s touched you in that way. I do feel it is part of the current movement, a movement that has been going on for a long time, but has recently gained new traction and media attention. I can’t go into politics or even contribute to on-the-ground grassroots activism because I have other responsibilities, especially my kids. I think you have to be younger and have a certain level of freedom in order to engage in this way. What I can do in the space I do have is write. I can make the most impact for change with language, which I see as the most basic level of activism. As activists, we are trying to identify the language and symbols that no longer serve us and change or reimagine their meanings to be more inclusive. I hope the book is a part of this movement and will be built upon in order to push this change forward.
MATTHEW SALESSES is the author of three novels, most recently Disappear Doppelganger Disappear, and the craft book, Craft in the Real World. He was adopted from Korea and currently lives in Iowa, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Coe College. You can find him on Twitter at @salesses.
Originally from California’s Central Valley, CANDACE EROS DIAZ is a queer Xicana writer and activist based in Oakland, CA. She’s received fellowships from the San Francisco Writers Grotto, VONA, The Steinbeck Fellows Program, and Lambda Literary where she edited Emerge: Lambda Literary Fellows Anthology. Her work has appeared in Arroyo Literary Review, Under the Gum Tree, Huizache, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California and is a grantmaker at the San Francisco Arts Commission. You can find her on Twitter at @CandaceErosDiaz.