Defensive Masculinity in the Creative Writing Workshop
Rachel Lyon | April 2018
It’s a cold winter evening and I’m hosting a creative writing class in my Brooklyn apartment. The Christmas tree glows by the window and my cats are making themselves comfortable on students’ laps. It is the perfect cozy environment to discuss the work of eight adults who have put aside several hundred of their own dollars to take a creative writing class for the very first time.
Just because they are adults doesn’t mean they’re not nervous. The women in particular tend to be timid and self-effacing. When they share their work, they offer multiple apologies and excuses. I wrote this really quickly. It’s not done yet. I’m sorry it’s so long / short / messy / unfinished. I’m sorry to take up so much of your time. I pride myself on my ability to break through my students’ self-consciousness. This kind of work takes guts, I tell them. We’re all vulnerable. We’re all going to write what Anne Lamott famously calls “shitty first drafts.” You have all enrolled this class in order to take up your own and each other’s time.
In a way, my class functions like an eight-week-long permission slip. It gives beginning writers a green light on the road toward the literary world, that mysterious Emerald City where people confidently self-identify not as aspiring writers but as writers, full stop. But in nearly every class I have at least one student who, though he signed up for my class, turns in stories for workshop, and actively participates in many a discussion, seems to want not my encouragement nor my instruction nor my insight—who, in fact, seems not to want much from me at all. This student is always a man.
Before I go on let me quote Rebecca Solnit, whose viral 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me” was reprinted in Guernica in 2012 with an introduction that noted: “I hasten to add that the essay makes it clear mansplaining is not a universal flaw of the gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.” Lest anyone accuse me of misandry, let me echo Solnit’s sentiment and make one thing clear: I have no problem with men. I like a lot of them, and love a few of them. Many of the male students who have troubled me over the years are also predominantly engaged and enthusiastic in class discussion. Often their work shows promise. Often they are perfectly nice. I’ve taught wonderful students who were men, and difficult students who were women.
I’ve even had one or two womansplainers. But the vast majority of ’splainers have been male. See, for example, the retired man who interrupted his many younger female classmates to tell them what he assumed would be my answers to their questions before I could speak. And mansplaining is just one of many gendered problems; there is also, for instance, a kind of naïve ego. See the young guy who compared his own work to Tolstoy’s. There is also the common problem of male defensiveness. I’ve had countless male students who, after listening to the class discuss their stories, rather than thanking the class for its feedback and perhaps asking a follow-up question or two, launch into a long justification for their creative choices, assuring all of us that they were aware of the flaws in their work before we were.
I teach to learn. Many of my students have taught me to be not just a better teacher, but also a better writer. Still, I have not yet learned this: as a woman teacher, how do you deal with this very male workshop behavior?
It might be different if I were (or at least looked) older than my students. I’m older than many of them, but I’m younger than many of them, too, and I look younger still. Because I do not have the automatic authority that comes with age, I have to use what tools I do have. One of these tools is expertise. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but as a woman sometimes I have to remind myself that I am the expert. That I can interrupt someone when he is heading down a fruitless path. That I can correct him when he’s wrong. (In fact, that’s literally what he signed up for.)
Another tool I use is a sense of humor. If a male student insists on taking on the role of teacher, I might give him a little smile and ask him if he’d like to take over. To tease a man gently can be an effective way to make him aware of his behavior. This tool must be used gently, though, and only as a last resort. One must not embarrass him. A man who is embarrassed, particularly in front of women, is liable to get sulky and reticent, and even to lash out more aggressively later on.
Sometimes, particularly when the power dynamics in the room are too subtle to address directly, my tool kit proves insufficient. This winter evening in my apartment, we are discussing some element of craft. There are six women in this class—seven, including myself—and two men. One, in his late twenties, has the smart, wry manner of a beat poet who got unstuck in time. The other, in his forties, I’d guess, is a fey and neurotic stay-at-home dad. The two of them are not friends. They would never be friends. They are very different types.
Yet as we talk I notice a familiar pattern. It’s happened before in other classes; in fact it’s commonplace. When I ask a question of the group, the women in the class overwhelmingly respond by addressing me directly. If they’re replying to another student, they’ll make brief eye contact with that student before turning to me, and if they’re really extroverted, they might make eye contact with other students, too, but without fail they look primarily at me, particularly as they finish their statements. The men look at me more rarely. Often they make no eye contact at all with their female classmates. Sometimes they look at me not at all. They look chiefly, even exclusively, at each other.
I do not have a tool at once subtle and powerful enough to tweak the strange and restrictive dynamic that develops in workshop when I ask a question and a man responds, nominally to me, by addressing the other man in the room. It is a symptom of a much deeper and more entrenched problem: men do not like to seem less powerful than women. Not intellectually, not socially, not artistically, not sexually, not in any way at all. Even when they’re literally paying a woman instructor.
How does a woman teacher get her male students to approach her class and its subject matter with humility and openness? The problem is multifaceted, and must be solved with a multifaceted approach. Take the issue of male defensiveness. I tend to try to address that one by working on gaining the trust of my male students. I try to show them that I respect their work and their opinions; that I won’t embarrass them in front of the rest of the class (or at all!); that if I tease them a little, it’s all in good, affectionate, respectful fun. That helps, though it does not necessarily solve the problem.
Then there is the issue of their lack of respect for women writers and instructors. I address this one by routinely assigning plenty of brilliant women writers to read, and making sure not to back down when I am corrected, interrupted, or otherwise undermined. (Still, in such situations I often feel trapped in a kind of Catch-22. If these men had more respect for me in the first place, they’d respect me more when I stood my ground.)
There is also the issue of male students who cross the student-teacher boundary by flirting with me, or worse.
Honestly it is exhausting to have to think so hard about how to deal with my male students. I wish I didn’t have to. I wish they simply knew how to behave with the same generosity and respect that their female classmates overwhelmingly do. I don’t want this to be my problem. I want it to be their problem. I want to say: Hey! You’re adults! Learn how to be!
But the truth is that this problem extends far beyond the creative writing workshop. Until boys are brought up to see women as their equals, until men are held to the same expectations of emotional intelligence that women are, and until our institutions regularly require all students to study the work of great women, defensive masculinity will be my problem, and the problem of other women like me.
Rachel Lyon is the author of the novel Self Portrait with Boy (Scribner 2018). Her shorter work has appeared in Joyland, Iowa Review, Saint Ann's Review, Arts & Letters, and other publications. Rachel teaches for Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, the Ditmas Writers Workshop, School of Making Thinking, and Slice. She is cofounder of the reading series Ditmas Lit in her native Brooklyn NY. Visit her at www.rachellyon.work.