Alison Murphy interviews author Matthew Salesses about his new book, Craft in the Real World. You can learn more about and purchase Craft in the Real World here.
“What we call craft is nothing more or less than a set of expectations,” Matthew Salesses writes in the opening of Craft in the Real World. “Those expectations are shaped by workshop, by reading, by awards and gatekeepers, by biases about whose stories matter and how they should be told. How we engage with craft expectations is what we can control as writers. The more we know about the context of those expectations, the more consciously we can engage with them.”
Throughout the book, he methodically takes apart, contextualizes, and occasionally upends the set of cultural expectations that most of us were taught as the norm in creative writing. But the real gift of this book isn’t just its deconstruction of craft as we’ve been taught it, but its reconstruction of a new and liberating framework for how to engage with those expectations in our work and how to build our craft by considering its context.
Matthew’s previous writing on craft, pedagogy, and the necessity of placing both into cultural context, has been enormously influential in GrubStreet’s work. Craft in the Real World represents a culmination of his work and is an invaluable tool to any writer who wants to become a better writer.
“To become a better writer is to make conscious what starts out as unconscious,” he says in the opening of the book. We spoke with Matt about his own process of making the unconscious conscious and becoming a better writer and teacher through the writing of this book.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Alison Murphy: One of the things I loved about this book is how it focuses so much on the process of writing, as opposed to the end product. With that in mind, can you talk about the process of writing this book?
Matthew Salesses: The process of writing the book was really the process of teaching. When I started teaching at GrubStreet in 2010, I was doing the workshops the way I had at college, with the silent model, and it just didn’t seem to work out well. Some students got a lot out of it, but I remember one student, in particular, was gifted, and his stories just did not fit the workshop model at all. I thought after teaching my first GrubStreet class, Oh, this whole model is just not going to work for me, and I need to find a different way of doing it.
So I asked a bunch of people what they were doing. Almost everybody said that they were doing exactly what I was doing. But Nami Mun said, “Oh, I just teach every worship differently because every story is different.” And I thought, I can’t believe we’ve been doing it the other way! It made so much sense. So I started doing that at GrubStreet – just teaching some of the workshops differently at first. Then doing it more and more after judging reactions from students and trying to get their feedback. And people were saying it was much more helpful. So I was just trying to be a better teacher, really. That was the very first step.
So I was trying to teach better and also trying to write better. That’s where most of it came from. I was teaching more diverse students and many more students of color – I ended up having a class at the University of Houston that was all students of color for the first time and it was mind-blowing how different it was – and I was trying to approach their work on its own terms.
I was then working on Disappear, Doppelganger, Disappear [Matthew’s most recent novel, which came out in August 2020]. I was trying to figure out why I even was writing it and who I was writing it for. At the same time, I was having so much trouble figuring out what the purpose was of writing at all – because I had a strong belief that writing can actually do something in the world, but I just didn’t know what it was.
AM: [Laughs] I relate to that!
MS: [Laughs] You know what I mean? So I was working through my own difficulties writing and my classroom strategies. And then, when the MFA versus POC thing came out, I started writing about how my workshops work. I felt like it could be helpful, because I didn’t see a lot of writing about the workshop in general. And because I was going to get a job one day and it seemed like that would be useful for me in getting a job. So, it was on some level practical for me, but also an attempt to do something for the literary community.
I had so much material from doing that all over the place that we were able to put a proposal together. I spent a year reading every craft book I could get my hands on and things that weren’t really craft books but were actually talking about the stuff that I really needed to read about. Then I spent the summer putting everything together and trying to make it into one continuous, consistent book.
AM: One of the things I appreciated about your book is that it doesn’t separate craft from content. It’s an argument against this idea that there’s what you call pure craft and then there’s what the story is about and that these are two different things that we shouldn’t talk about in the same breath. This seemed ridiculous to me as a beginning writer and still seems pretty ridiculous to me now. How did that idea of thinking about craft more holistically evolve for you?
MS: I feel like most writers probably go into their first workshop thinking a lot about what they want to write about as part of what they’re doing as a writer. And we just get taught that that’s not writing, which is a very strange thing. We get drilled out of what we already know to be true through the way that workshops and creative writing programs have been set up. A lot of this book is about that: that we’re being pushed into this tradition that doesn’t even feel very natural to many of us. Watching my kids, they’re constantly playing out the real world all the time in their imaginations. And we get taught to move our stories into a different landscape that is like, artistic or whatever, and that for some reason is cut off from the lives we’re living, or the lives that most of us live.
AM: Another idea you talk about in the book is the false dichotomy between “traditional” writing and “experimental” writing. And how this false dichotomy ignores the fact that what we call traditional is a very specific cultural form of writing and the fact that what we call experimental is actually a bunch of different literary traditions, many of which aren’t all that experimental at all – they’re just not Western realism.
MS: One of the fun discoveries for me was in the Chinese narratology book and discovering that the oldest Chinese fiction was full of postmodernist moves, or what we assume to be postmodernist writing. Things like making the author and reader part of the text. And this constant awareness that it’s a text and that everything is part of the text. That was part of the very first literary tradition in China that dates way, way, way back. The way that we teach it makes it seem as if it’s a mind-blowing new idea that started in the 1980s. But it’s been there for thousands of years. So we say it’s experimental or we say it’s traditional, but what we’re really saying is if it fits into this white, Euro-American literature or it doesn’t.
AM: It’s such a shame because it really deprives us as writers of making our work richer – because there are all these traditions that we could be pulling from.
AM: Let’s talk about the chapter on redefining craft terms, which I think came out of your essay for Pleiades of the same name. How did you find the distance from what you’ve learned about those craft concepts to be able to reconceptualize and redefine them?
MS: A lot of that came from writing Disappear, Doppelganger, Disappear. And from my students. The undergrads, especially, are always asking, “but why is it like this?” So you have to think about the why, right? My wife and I, when we had our first child, we made a pact to always answer the question and never say, “because we said so,” and to always try to figure out what the reason might be to give her something to hold on to. So I try to do that in the classroom, too. One of my classroom rules is that my students can call bullshit on anything, anytime. And then we have to reckon with that.
With craft terms specifically, as I was writing Disappear, Doppelganger, Disappear, I was running up a lot against this idea that a person can choose everything that happens to them and that a character makes stuff happen. As if that’s the way that life works. And it just has never been like that for me. I don’t know if I even know anybody who it has been like that for. It just takes so much privilege in order for that to actually be true. But I’ve read so many books in which that actually is what happens. The books I grew up with always had the child who finds another world that’s completely made for them and everything is perfect. It’s very empowering, I think, for a child to read that and think maybe there’s a world out there like that. But I wonder if it might also be good for kids to have their own actual experience of little power as a child reflected back to them sometimes. You know, you have so little power as a child, and you’re constantly angry about it, or my kids are, at least. They’re like, why do we have no power? Who can we talk to about this? [Laughs]
So I was trying to think: how can I write this story under the terms that I’ve understood to be plot or conflict, and I realized that I couldn’t do that. And yet, I still think a book has plot. Even if it is what we call a “plotless” book, there’s some form of plot going on. I wanted to figure out what that was, and if we could extend these terms to actually encompass many different ways of telling a story. What’s the operative thing in a plot, or what’s the operative thing in conflict, characterization, or story arc? I was just trying to find definitions that could actually tell the truth about what was going on to give us some common ground for these terms that could be real common ground.
AM: Certainly for me, and from my informal survey of writers I know who’ve also read this book, it’s very validating to read if your work does not fit into the cultural norms and traditions of what is usually taught in the creative writing workshop. You’ve given a language and a validation to that experience, and you’ve also gone a step further in reshaping the conversation to serve writers who are in that position.
MS: Thank you so much. That makes me feel very nice. I’m really glad I can validate people at all.
AM: On that note, there’s a part in the book where you talk about how persuasive workshops can be and the effect that this has had on your work. Quoting from the book: “I remember being a student in a novel workshop that seemed to change every manuscript for the worse, because the writer listened too much to too many suggestions, and telling myself I would never make that same mistake. But two years later, I had to throw out an entire manuscript and start over.” You go on to say that it took many years to find your center again as a writer. Can you talk a little bit about times in your writing life where you’ve lost your center, in part due to workshop feedback, and how you went about refinding it?
MS: You know, I’ve always been a skeptical person. I thought that my skepticism could protect me from it happening to me. I remember that workshop very clearly and watching other people’s novels become more like a standard model of what the instructor was most comfortable with. And I remember thinking, I’m not going to do this. My awareness is going to protect me from making that happen. And then, two years later, I had written so many pages toward this other kind of book. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it if I hadn’t gotten fired from my job in Korea. Suddenly I had all this free time to take a really good, hard look at the manuscript. And I realized very quickly, Oh, I have to throw this all out. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to throw the entire thing out if I hadn’t had the time. I had the privilege of time to think and to actually spend rewriting. I think the people who are most likely to be led down the wrong path are also the most likely to not have the time to be able to restart. Those are the same people. So I do think there’s a strong possibility of danger there.
The workshop is just such a persuasive space. It’s a bunch of people you probably care about in real life, that you’re often friends with, and they mean good things – they are actually trying to help you. They’ve read your work with much more care than anybody outside of the workshop is ever going to read your work. Even though, for me, I’m always at first like, “this is all terrible advice,” and it takes me a while to digest the stuff that I hear. But still, when they tell you these things, it seeps in there because it’s a very powerful space. Even when it’s a hateful space, it’s still kind of a loving space in a way – loving toward the act of making literature. You don’t get a lot of that in real life. And so, I think the danger is amplified by how persuasive it is. And by how little people actually think of how they can lead somebody down the wrong way.
I did this talk at an MFA program once. The night before, I had a reading in another town an hour away in which many of the students lived. And a bunch of them went to the reading, and they were telling me about how bad the program was for writers of color in particular. How when they kept bringing up these issues, they were totally dismissed by the administration and dismissed in most of their workshops. And I had this real sense going in there the next day that this was really affecting people, and feeling this real desire to give them some sense of validation. I never forgot that.
One thing that we often lack in those situations is our sources. People can say, look at all these books that say to do it this way. And you’re saying, but this isn’t the way that I want to do it. There are so few craft books that you can present to the class and say, Look, there is another way. So I really did want to provide a resource for students in workshops where they’re going through difficulty with the majority norm and having nothing to draw on to prove their points. And I feel hopeful that a lot of other books like this will come out in the next five to ten years.
AM: Is there one major thing that changed in the writing of this book about the way you approach workshop?
MS: Definitely – the major shift for me was the thing that Nami Mun said about not doing the same thing for everybody’s work. That was really the big door opening moment for me. A lot of things that I do now are meant to aid that process further. I write a lot about how my workshop goes in the book, but I think what’s almost more important is the lead-up that goes into it before the workshop. For example, in my classes, the writer makes notes on every decision they’re making while they write or revise, so we have an ongoing record of their process. And then, sometimes, the authors will address the class and ask specifically about some of the things they’ve been thinking about so that the class can help them think about those things. Another thing that really helps is that we spend a long time on writing workshop letters as a form and trying to debunk the standard way of doing things. I actually give them a standard way of doing the letters just for our class, in which I ask them to stick strictly to mostly questions and no overt criticisms. And no questions which are actually criticism, like, “Why did you even want to do this?” And then I also ask them, if they’re going to give suggestions, to give bad examples for their suggestions – examples where the writer would not use the exact suggestion, but they can understand the ideas behind it so that they have to generate their own solution. We always try to keep the author as the one who’s figuring out what they want to do, and we’re the ones who are asking them things that will help clarify what they want to do.
AM: I do have one more question that I always like to ask people I interview: is there one question that you always wish someone would ask you about – either about this book, in particular, or your writing, in general? And if so, what is it?
MS: Maybe it’s a question about the exercises from the appendix of the book? I feel like I’ve probably spent the most time on the exercises because I’ve been teaching these exercises for years and then changing them to work better as I go. Nobody ever asks about the exercises. But I don’t know what the question would be – maybe that’s why nobody asks about them.
AM: I will say that the exercises for me as a writer were definitely the most exciting part of the book. I’m so grateful for this book – I think it’s going to be really meaningful and validating for a lot of writers. Also, as a teacher, this is such a helpful resource. I hope it will really shape the conversation of how we talk about teaching.
MS: Thank you! The reaction to the book has been really amazing.
As part of the interview, Matthew also recommended several books from his research that he would particularly recommend to other writers, including:
• Chinese Theories of Fiction: A Non-Western Narrative System, Ming Dong Gu
• Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, by Onwuchekwa Jemie Chinweizu and Ihechukwu Madubuike
• The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, by Thomas King
• Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
• Manga in Theory and in Practice, by Hirohiko Arahi
• Literature Class, Berkeley 1980, by Julio Cortázar