My brother has often been described as “the smartest person he’s ever met.” Talking to him usually involves receiving some variety of a lecture—even when you enter into a discussion with the hopes of agreeing with him you always end up in an argument, and you are always wrong. Being that we’ve spent so many years growing up along side one another, we both know where to poke to make it really hurt, and so in order to avoid the personal attacks that would result from even the most innocent of conversations, at a certain age we stopped talking to each other almost entirely, and eventually were no longer friends.
It took me well into college to stop being angry with him and realize what our problem was, to discover that it is not actually unique to us, but is in fact quite pervasive in American society: a lack of space for and comfort with open dialogue.
When I participated in my first creative writing workshop I was terrified, and probably bore some degree of resemblance to a deer in headlights every time I had to open my mouth and comment on something. I was afraid to criticize, to critique, to question, to doubt, to disagree, but above all, to be wrong. The more I became aware of this lack of open dialogue, the more I began to see it in in my daily life, not just in workshops and other academic settings but also on social media, amongst friends, and even with strangers. I noticed people on Facebook mercilessly attacking the grammar or phrasing of each other’s posts rather than engaging with the meaning behind what was being discussed. I realized that at some point in between leaving childhood and entering adulthood, being wrong ceased to be an option, and preserving social harmony became more important than my own unique thoughts.
During that first workshop I remember on several occasions feeling like I wanted to sink away after someone had sparked disagreement with a point I had made—I interpreted this as a personal attack, assumed that the individual who disagreed with my thoughts and I couldn’t be friends now, we wouldn’t get along. One day outside of the workshop, I encountered one of the people who had disagreed with me on the sidewalk, we passed by one another and she smiled genuinely and said hi. It was actions like these from the older, more experienced students in my workshop that eventually led me to a turning point where I realized that I could disagree with someone without rejecting them as a person, that it was okay for myself to say something wrong, to admit this, to change my mind—no one would hold that against me.
This is one of the privileges that a workshop can offer, in particular those that deal with such intimate and personal material such as creative nonfiction: a space for open discussion and the exploration of ideas without fear of personal attack or judgment. Throughout my experiences with workshop style classes, I’ve learned that, depending on the students in a class, workshops can act as a microcosm for the way that society either fosters or neglects open dialogue. I’ve learned to appreciate the kind of growth that can only result from an openness to being wrong, the kind of bonds that form between people who are focused more on the honesty of their discussion than their fear of vulnerability, and the kind of critical knowledge that can be gained when the meaning of someone’s words takes precedence over the person who spoke them.
Creative nonfiction, a genre that hinges largely upon a degree of trust and openness between reader and writer, requires that open dialogue be achieved in order to have productive workshop discussions. Since participating in more workshops I have begun trying to bring the open dialogue that often takes place in class into all other areas of my life, because I think that there is an overlooked importance to constructive disagreement that can get lost outside of the classroom.
-Christy Leigh Agrawal