Cinelle Barnes Doesn’t Care If You Think She’s Soft
10 questions about teaching writing with the author of "Malaya: Essays on Freedom"
In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?” we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This month we’re featuring Cinelle Barnes, author of Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir and Malaya: Essays on Freedom. Barnes is a regular instructor at Catapult, teaching seminars on various aspects of memoir and nonfiction writing; check out her profile to see her upcoming classes. She talked to us about cheese boards, “soft” writing, and why all the go-to advice is so condescending.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
Writer friends who read my work and let me read their work, and who are practicing their craft in ways that have informed and inspired mine.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
In an MFA workshop with a guest editor from a literary magazine, I was told by said editor that my writing was “soft.” This person was a cisgender, straight, white male who I can only guess was more interested in seeing imprints of his perceived self in the works he was reviewing than he was about assisting someone in their craft. He didn’t say what could be done, why “soft” was apparently bad, or what he even meant by the word. Not even when I asked for him to expound. I learned from that experience who or what I did NOT want to be as an editor or teacher.
What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
I tell writers all the time, as I do with my child and myself, “Practice does not make perfect; practice makes practice.”
Does everyone “have a novel in them”?
I’ll get back to you when I actually finish mine, ha.
Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?
If it’s harmful to them or others, yes. And “harmful” can be many different things. Luckily, I’ve never had to say this to anyone.
What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
We all need praise and encouragement, so I lavish people in my classes with these. I don’t really give criticism as much as I ask questions, offer solutions or alternatives (sometimes in a visual or animated way!), or suggest that someone let the work and their mind rest prior to revisions. I want to be helpful as much as my bandwidth, schedule, and boundaries will allow, and I think whether it’s one-sentence or one-page feedback that I give, I give it AFTER I’ve established trust. Just with any relationship, the basis of it are attunement (verbal and non-verbal understanding of motives and feelings), containment (respecting, making room for, and carefully holding someone’s ideas and personhood), and repair (assisting someone as they reconstruct or deconstruct however necessary).
Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
I think that depends on who the person is, where they are in life and in their career, and what energizes them. I am very entrepreneurial, so it’s energizing for me to imagine where I could place an essay and who might read my work. I guess, for me, publication isn’t so much about the byline but knowing and examining who my audience is. That’s maybe the only reason why I would tell someone to imagine publishing their work somewhere—ask yourself who you are writing to and why.
In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?
- Kill your darlings: I’ve never killed anyone or anything, except a few plants… so I can’t recommend the killing method.
- Show don’t tell: I show AND I tell now, which I wasn’t taught to do early on at school… I wish I was more explicit in my earlier writing.
- Write what you know: Writing is a discovery for me and I’m a very impatient and easily bored person, so the unknown is so much more interesting to me.
- Character is plot: Character can be plot but it doesn’t have to be… the world is so big. The imagination is too.
All these maxims have been used as tools for oppression, so no wonder they all sound so condescending and limiting. They’re all about elimination.
What’s the best hobby for writers?
It’s not really a hobby, but I highly recommend breathwork. Walking, too.
What’s the best workshop snack?
IRL, anything that has no allergens and that can be consumed by all. But in my perfect world, a cheeseboard…preferably one created by the poet Tiana Clark, who has a knack for them. 😉