Complicated Ideas About Love [Free]

Many years back, I attended a one-day writing workshop with a then-newly-famous writer. Her first book, a novel, had become a best seller and for good reasons. It was stunning and gorgeous and devastating all at the same time. I loved it.

When she came to the city where I was living and offered a reading and the workshop, I signed up quickly, knowing it would quickly fill. It did. I felt lucky to have gotten a slot. I attended her reading the evening before the workshop and discovered she was as amazing a reader as she was a writer. She brought her words alive in her reading. Breathtaking. She was also gracious and generous during the Q&A after – meeting each person tenderly, cracking jokes. I could hardly wait for the workshop, the next morning.

When I arrived, I found my usual seat at the back of the room. It is what I did back then [well, sometimes still do]. I was nervous about being seen. The workshop was to be a generative one, with some feedback. When the writer came in, I was flush.

And then she started speaking about the creative process. She said that to really dive into the depths of creativity, one would have to be somewhat mad. A scary thing to do, she said. Okay, I thought. That feels kinda true.

But then she spoke about one of her mentors. A mentor who struck the fear of god into her. She told us that she was more afraid of her mentor’s anger and reaction to not writing than she was to go into the depths. She told us that this kind of mentoring was necessary.

“I am not here,” she told us, “for you to like me.” She continued, “I am here to scare you into writing.” And then, she was mean for the rest of the morning. Giving writing prompts, having us read, then tearing us apart. One by one.

I left at the lunch break.

For the writer, she believed it to be a kind of love. She thought she was creating a space for us to do what we would not do. Love, for her, was brutal. Creativity, for her, meant that to love a student was to be ruthless. Brutal so that the student would not back down from scary material.

It is a thing, isn’t it? I have had other teachers like this. My dreamwork teacher, especially. He offered the same argument. Telling me [among other things] that the brutality, the cruelty was not brutal or cruel. That it was love, it was “truth” telling. A necessary gauntlet.

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This myth about this “cruel to be kind” way of loving another is deep in the consciousness of most cultures. In cultures rooted in western culture, this myth runs through most structures – from education to work environments to military realities to religion. Even in family structures.

I think of hazing in education realities where students are brutal to each other and the “adults” do not correct it. I think of teachers using students in classrooms as examples of “how not to do things”. I think of students pitted against each other, competing for all sorts of things.

Workshops, in the creative writing world, like the one above, can be places where teachers and students use “honesty” to tear apart other students.

And no, not all workshops are set up to have a Hunger Games mentality, but many have ended up with that mentality. The “workshop” format was “invented” at Iowa, the first school to offer degrees in creativity writing and the most famous program still. It was notorious for its brutality. One workshop leader, who taught there for decades, used to keep a whip and encouraged the students to be harsh. The idea was to create resiliency. This is where the “workshop” springs from.

That mentality, of course, created hostile environments for women, for people of color, for people of different cultural backgrounds, for people who were not like the originators of the workshop [white and male and straight and mainstream]. It creates justification for many, terrible things.

I have, like other artists who go the academic route, had my own experiences in workshop settings, like the one with the famous novelist.

It never felt like love. It just felt cruel.

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One argument for this kind “teaching” or “loving” is that it teaches “resilience” or that it is “reality” and students, people, need to buck up.

Ironic. Because it is this kind of system and the perpetuation of this kind of system, that one needs to learn to be “resilient” in.

It is important, of course, to be honest. We do not learn by not being told the truth.

I take my lead from dreaming. Dreams do not teach us by being cruel, by beating us up. They may show us ways we are beating ourselves up or being unkind to others. They may show us how we have been hurt, too.

But they always offer love, too. They always offer another way, healing, tenderness. If a dream shows me a way I have been unkind, there is another dream – or even in the same dream – where I am being loved, forgiven. Held.

The dreams offer truth – but also questions, tenderness and ways to be with it all.

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Creative writing workshops are and have been changing. People finding voice and learning to move away from an inherently destructive way of being with other writers and their own work.

I have had many workshops where the teacher met with love and kindness and great teaching each person in the group.

Here’s an example. One time, I got to meet solo with another writer – a poet who has been teaching and writing for a long time, had been, even back then. I was still new to writing at the time. Still scared to even speak in my writing.

She was so kind. Instead of telling me what was wrong with my work – and there was a lot missing – she focused on what was working. She also talked to me about “how to open” my poems, how to speak more. She told me some of her own struggles with speaking, even on the page. She gave me some exercises to try.

Meeting with her changed something in me. I was writing poems that were not yet “good” or even mine, in a way. I was just trying. She showed me ways to find how to make them mine. She never told me they were not good. She said, keep going, and gave me some tricks to try.

I feel our dreams do this, too. Keep going. But not by scaring us into “going”. By loving us, holding us. By letting us know that there will be support each step of the way.