Why Safe Communities for Artists Matter

When I began my homeschooled MFA last fall, I had two reasons. First, chronic migraines limit my functionality to the point that sometimes I can’t work for days, weeks, or even months. Keeping up with graduate-level coursework and meeting weekly deadlines is no longer possible. Second, I can’t afford it. With the struggle to work consistently, I can’t afford more debt.

These reasons are, admittedly, sad reasons. They are about the losses I’ve faced through acquiring a disability in my mid-thirties. And they are about the course corrections I’ve had to make as I’ve confronted physical limitations and the resulting financial setbacks. Plans have had to change, or be thrown out altogether.

What I didn’t expect was that this MFA might, in fact, be better than a “real” MFA. It’s true that it isn’t accredited. I won’t get a diploma at the end of my coursework. And it’s unlikely to help me get jobs or join the faculty of a creative writing program, my longtime dream. But following traditional MFA syllabi and program plans from my living room has benefited me in some surprising ways.

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The last time I stepped foot on a prestigious, internationally renowned university, I was assaulted. It was a terrifying experience I’ve written about here.

Since my post, the Trump Administration—and specifically Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education—has rewritten rules for how campus assaults must be reported, investigated, and penalized. These rules provide additional protections for attackers, not victims, and can require victims to be “cross-examined” by their attacker. This can increase a victim’s risk of PTSD, a mental health disorder that can be disabling and requires immense time and financial cost to recover from, as well as potentially retraumatize them. Tens of thousands of people, including myself, left comments on the Department of Education website. We warned policymakers that new rules would make it harder, not easier, to report, prosecute, and reduce campus assaults.

But DeVos knew exactly what she was doing. She promised universities that under her new rules, they would have fewer investigations and lower costs. Indeed, despite public outcry and protest from survivors like myself, the Department of Education moved ahead with their proposal, and the new rules went into effect in August this year. Even with Biden’s administration hopefully entering office in January, they will be extremely difficult to undo.

For assault survivors, such policy changes aren’t theoretical debates. We can’t get philosophical about it because it is, for us, a matter of life and death. For victims, assaults don’t end when the attacker walks away. They don’t even end when the attacker faces justice. They end, if it can be said that they ever do, when we are healed. Which takes years of hard work, often without much support.

For years, I longed to attend an MFA program, and I watched others who did with envy. I was glad that professors hadn’t sexually harassed them. But I also resented that. Students hadn’t strangled and assaulted them. Family hadn’t abused them from childhood on, making it difficult to focus on anything but survival. And because of all this, they had a kind of innocent optimism. They thought colleges were places of possibility.

But I knew they could also be places of treachery, betrayal, and predation, particularly for women as well as disabled, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ students. At night, I dreamed of my someday-MFA program, and the dreams always went horribly askew. I ended up locked out of buildings, mocked by men in my classes, taunted, beaten. One dream after another turned to nightmare, and I woke shivering with terror, dreading what had once been my dearest wish, second only to publishing a book.

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Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

It wasn’t until an episode of She’s Gotta Have It that I really got it, though. In Season 2 Episode 4, #NationTime, written by Radha Blank (check out her brilliant, hilarious, and hopeful film The Forty-Year-Old Version on Netflix), Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) is awarded a residency at a prestigious artists’ retreat.

(Quick side note: The episode is packed with cameos of some of America’s most dynamic artists working today. Here’s a wonderful overview of the artists and their work.)

The plot reflects on the environment artists are often given, as opposed to the environment artists need, especially Black women. Nola, who has been sexually assaulted only a year earlier, is also wrestling with how much, if at all, she wants to engage with white artists, critics, and communities. Throughout the episode, she expresses a desire to immerse herself in Blackness, to celebrate her gender and queer sexuality as well as her race—and to do so without having to contend with the white gaze.

Excited to begin work, she settles into her new studio with a broad smile. And then she steps outside for a social mixer only to catch a glimpse of a white street artist who has ruined things for her before. When she learns that she’s here on his dime, as the patron of this sanctuary, she’s thrown. No longer a sanctuary, the retreat becomes overshadowed by his domineering, offensive claims to community with Black artists. Although he is more caricature than character, the threat he poses to Black creativity is real. In the shadow of a white man eager to appropriate Black art and culture, she can’t create. The art she came to make doesn’t happen. And when she does speak up about the way he shatters the safety of this community, he penalizes her financially.

But it was at the end of the episode, seeing Nola begin to paint only after she returns home, away from the white man wanting to claim her art as his achievement, that I finally got it.

I’ve always understood that BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists need safe spaces. If someone says no white people, please, no cishet people, thanks, they mean it. They’re asking for that because they need it. My absence from such spaces is the best way to support those artists. It’s exactly like the curtain choreographers draw over doors and windows before beginning to work in their dance studio. Creativity deserves safety. It thrives in spaces of trust and understanding.

I hadn’t understood that I needed that, too.

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Colleges are not inherently safe spaces. Some professors harbor predatory ideas about what sorts of relationships are acceptable with students, and students, too, can bring unreasonable expectations to campus—about what sort of conduct is tolerated or even “normal.” Colleges are often associated with sex and experimentation, and men especially tend to assume women’s sexual availability.

It’s stressful to be eyed as a sexual object. It’s distracting to have a classmate or peer flirting, no matter how mutual the attraction might be. And in my case, it can be panic-inducing. Still in treatment for PTSD, I have a long ways to go. And I deserve workplaces and classrooms where I won’t constantly feel unsafe, attention from a man flipping a switch and shutting down my brain as fear takes over.

Of course I have had wonderful experiences in classrooms with adult men as both teachers and peers. From Russian classes to Toastmasters to writing and dance communities, I have discovered that many men do understand consent and value respectful and collegial atmospheres. After all, they benefit from that, too. Healthy, supportive, enriching classrooms for all participants are completely possible, and many want this every bit as much as I do.

But I have also had exchanges with men who believe women are simply inferior writers, men who write pornographic short stories that objectify women and pretend we enjoy humiliation, men who don’t understand there’s a difference between erotica and pornography, men who are told their stories are deeply sexist but simply don’t give a fuck, and men who take everything I say as an invitation to prove I’m wrong. It’s draining. At best.

At worst, it’s triggering. And it can lead to sleepless nights, fits of rage, and blocked creativity.

It just isn’t worth it.

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Radha Blank’s script for that episode of She’s Gotta Have It empowered me to recognize my own need for safe spaces. I, too, deserve freedom from harassment and assault while I’m creating art.

And while MFA programs overall have better gender parity than many other graduate programs, they still have a long way to go. This comes as no surprise, as their very origins are not exactly brimful of hope for women and BIPOC students. Maggie Doherty writes scathingly of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first creative writing program in the U.S. that granted its graduates a degree. Reviewing David O. Dowling’s book, A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she writes that the program’s “institutional sexism involves more than just discrete incidents of sexual harassment: It permeates a program’s culture and expectations.”

Some of the stories are downright horrifying. Kurt Vonnegut, by his own admission, “interfere[d] with a student’s clothing” and slept with women in order to help his art, comparing such transactional sex to buying “new cars.” The poet John Berryman sexually assaulted a student, then tried to shame her for being a prude when she fought him off. The poet Paul Engle, program director and renowned for garnering sponsors for students, presumed sexual inexperience of Flannery O’Connor and terrorized her so much that she’d ask male classmates to read her work for her. When Engle did know she’d written a passage from her novel Wiseblood, he claimed it revealed her sexual innocence (more likely, he had simply never imagined sex from a woman’s point of view). He then invited her to his car in order to disclose her sexual history to him (as if that would help?). She wisely declined and kept the passage as it was.

Indeed, when women in the Iowa writing program decided to create their own safe space in the 1970s, men scoffed at it, satirized it in their writing, then eventually demanded access to it. All this obsession and male hand-wringing over but-what-are-they-doing-in-there-wait-are-they-talking-about-us? without, apparently, ever once asking themselves why their classmates felt a need for such a space. This invasion in 1978 effectively ended women’s attempts to create safe spaces at Iowa, while conveniently allowing the university to avoid reflecting on what institutional changes might have rendered off-campus men-free spaces unnecessary. Too often, in the history of American literary communities, “women’s creativity is often stifled and sacrificed in the name of men’s success.”

And if we’d like to think this is a thing of the past, dead and gone along with the brawling machismo of Mailer and Bellow, one need only look at the fall of the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis in 2016. Or novelist Bonnie Nadzam’s frightening accounts of the male writing teachers who preyed upon and abused her. Certainly, the abuses aren’t limited to women. Take the notorious case of white novelist Richard Ford spitting on Colson Whitehead, a celebrated Black novelist who’d given one of Ford’s novels an unfavorable review.

But when powerful male writers target younger women trying to build careers, and exploit their students for sex, it’s a very specific shade of depravity. A very particular strain of misogyny. In fact, the accounts we do have are probably the least horrific. Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for 20 years up until 2005, sealed his records until 2024.

Roxane Gay has called this tradition “mentorship by way of seduction.”

Sandra Cisneros puts it more bluntly, saying the professors “seemed to think that free booty was part of their compensation package.”

And as writer and editor John Warner writes, “I did not have to contend with this because I am male and straight…The power structures in academia make the field particularly fertile for this type of abuse. Some of these men really do have to power to initiate careers – placements in fellowships, introductions to agents – and once they amass power in their home departments, the risk of challenging them becomes high.”

The fact of the matter is I have PTSD. And that PTSD is the result of abusers who preyed on me from childhood onward. My PTSD has marked me as a target for other abusers. It would be naïve to imagine I’d get through a writing program unscathed, unnoticed by those men always on the lookout for women who are scarred, susceptible, and easily triggered. I still remember the instant look of recognition a psychology professor gave me the first day I stepped into his classroom. I was 18 years old. At the time, I thought he instantly recognized that I was a gifted, intelligent, serious student. Now I know better. Those who abuse power are eager to find those least likely to report it.

And if the heartlessness of the American public during a pandemic was able to cause my mental breakdown, what damage could yet another predatory mentor do?

I don’t want to find out.

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Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

And I shouldn’t have to.

This is the thing. There is a myth that an MFA is the only way to attain a certain level of success as a writer. It simply isn’t true. Donna Tartt, Miranda July, and Akhil Sharma all never earned an MFA.

There’s also this myth that if you’re “strong enough,” you’ll:

  1. come through it even stronger,
  2. become a better writer thanks to the hardship other people have flung at you, and
  3. fight back (name names, take assailants to the cops, force consequences on people).

These sound alarmingly similar to the excuses those sexist teachers in the early Iowa Writers’ Workshop used to “justify” their abuse of women. And it’s all bullshit. Period.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t fight back. If you can and you want to and it feels like the right thing for your healing process, you absolutely should. I will be cheering for you in the stands. I’m just saying there’s a lot of privilege wrapped up in this idea that everyone should, and that therefore everyone should be unafraid to enter environments—like MFA programs for creative writing—with a demonstrated history of abuse.

For some of us, the risk is not writing at all.

And that just isn’t a risk I’m willing to take.

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So a year into my homeschool MFA in Creative Writing, I’m grateful. Not just because it’s debt free. And not only because it’s accessible with a disabling chronic illness.

But because it gives me agency. My at-home MFA is free of sexual harassment, assault, and psychological abuse. It is free of men dictating the confines of my writing, telling me where the edges of my stories should be. I know the edges of my stories. And I know they land in places most men have no experience with and cannot imagine.

My MFA, unlike so many programs, is a space where I can bring all my rough edges and not come upon men eager to pin me down and file them off. It is a place where I can heal from all that I’ve already survived. A space where I am free to write, free to break my silence.

It is a freedom that every artist deserves.

Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

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