The Midwest Writers Workshop Scandal

When a shameful incident at the tiny arts group’s board meeting leaked to the public, it found itself at the center of a national social media storm. Will the organization be able to revise and move forward?

June 2018Add a comment

The Midwest Writers Workshop is a small but big-hearted arts organization based in Muncie, Indiana. Or at least that’s what it was, or what it seemed to be, before the events of the last few months. For each of the past 44 summers, the MWW has hosted a friendly conference for aspiring writers. “I always described it as the best sleepaway camp you could possibly go to,” says Summer Heacock, a novelist, “but with books and booze.”

Heacock is also a former member of the MWW board of directors, and on September 23, 2017, she and the other unpaid members met in a conference room on the campus of Ball State. The plan was to review that summer’s conference and to start planning the one for 2018. But as their long day neared its end, everyone knew they still had one big topic of business: filling the four empty spots on the board.

With the sun sinking low in the sky, the MWW’s longtime director, Jama Kehoe Bigger, nominated the first name, an author and attendee who was unanimously approved. Bigger suggested a second person who was not as well known; the board agreed to think about it. At that point, Heacock says, she suggested a third possibility, a 27-year-old named Sarah Hollowell.

Hollowell, who lives in Muncie, has a long history with the MWW, having risen from an intern to one of the conference’s most active volunteers, all while becoming an accomplished writer in her own right. The board seemed excited by her nomination, with several members jumping in with praise. But one woman wondered aloud whether Hollowell was right for a position as visible as board member, given what she looked like.

Heacock interrupted. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Looks like what, exactly?”

According to Heacock, the board member replied matter-of-factly: “So fat. It’s disgusting.”

The conference room exploded in anger and cross talk. While Heacock and another member were furious at the comment and its implications, others tried to downplay it or to defend the member. (The MWW declined several interview requests, but Bigger provided a long written statement. The comment, the statement reads in part, “certainly wasn’t the greatly embellished comment that made its way to Twitter.”)

Heacock says that at one point during the meeting she yelled, “Everyone who approves of Sarah, raise your hand.” Everyone voted yes, including both Bigger and the commenter, but it was clear there would be no more nominations that day. “It got very, very uncomfortable,” Heacock says.

Still, everyone left the meeting expecting to see Hollowell and the other approved member on the board—and the sooner the better, given the quickly approaching conference. “I’ll send them an email on Monday,” Bigger texted Heacock, “and let everyone know if they both accept.” Yet Bigger never did email Hollowell, and at the next month’s meeting, the director made it clear that she would not put her on the board, though she never offered a clear explanation as to why. Eventually, the comment itself leaked and became a minor literary scandal, complete with a viral Tweetstorm from Roxane Gay, one of Indiana’s most influential authors; a couple of clumsy apologies from the MWW; and the eventual cancellation of this year’s conference.

Now the organization’s future is unclear—because of the digital backlash, but even more so because the MWW has never seemed interested in wrestling with what happened in that initial meeting. “There are still people who don’t believe that fat oppression is real, that it can affect hiring decisions, that it can affect our lives,” Hollowell says. “But it absolutely can.”

 

The Midwest has fewer bookstores, fewer libraries, and fewer readers than a region like New England, and it’s been that way as long as there’s been a “Midwest.” Back in 1817, Indiana’s governor told an enquiring merchant that he shouldn’t expect much literary demand from Hoosiers. “Bookselling,” the governor admitted, “would not be a good business in this state.”

That doesn’t mean the Midwest has zero readers. It just means the readers it does have need to try harder, to care more, to seek each other out. The Midwest Writers Workshop is an annual example of that. At the conference, which is held at Ball State, a couple hundred attendees get to hang with other would-be writers, to meet agents and editors who have flown in from New York, and to attend panels where best-selling authors give advice. (When Gay appeared at MWW in 2013, she offered a message to those already fretting about marketing strategies: “Calm down. Write a book.”) The MWW is a tiny nonprofit—according to tax documents, it took in just under $90,000 in revenue in 2017—and it puts on a tiny conference. But it’s a place where book nerds can count on having lots of fun and, every once in a while, a life-changing success.

Summer Heacock has experienced both at MWW. She writes contemporary women’s fiction—“like an Anna Kendrick movie on paper,” the Hoosier native says. At her first conference, in 2012, she attended a panel where an agent read anonymous manuscripts out loud and gave tough feedback. When the agent started Heacock’s submission, she got tripped up by a phrase she couldn’t pronounce: “douche canoe.” The agent continued to struggle until Heacock finally stage-whispered how to say it—and sacrificed her anonymity in the process. But that was fine, since the crowd loved the sample. By the conference’s end, many of the agents had asked Heacock to send more pages, and it wasn’t long until she signed with one. “Sometimes, I think my entire career is based on someone having to pronounce ‘douche canoe’ in public,” Heacock says. “My mom is so proud.”

Stories like that show the MWW at its best, and in recent years, the conference has become more popular, more youthful, more digital, and more diverse. Sarah Hollowell embodies each of those trends. She self-identifies as a “fat writer” and puts fat characters in her fiction—like the YA novel she has nearly finished, where the goal isn’t to show what it’s like to be fat so much as it is to show fat characters having adventures. Since 2013, her first year at the conference, Hollowell has spent hundreds of hours coordinating the MWW’s many schedules, wrangling interns and professionals alike. It’s important and exhausting work, but Hollowell says her role at MWW offered something in return: “It made me feel more confident,” she says. “I found out that all I had to do was be myself.”

 

Hollowell and Heacock first met at MWW when they both showed up with black hair and turquoise bangs. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, we’re hair twins,’” Hollowell remembers, and they’ve maintained a deep friendship ever since. Well before the infamous September meeting, Heacock had hinted to Hollowell that the board had openings and that she should keep an eye out for an email from Bigger, the director. “I was trying to be suave,” Heacock says, “but I was not suave. I was excited for my friend!”

When Hollowell never got that email, she assumed the board was just busy. But Heacock was angry and confused. In the days after the vote, Bigger and her allies offered several reasons for not adding Hollowell—like protecting the feelings of another 20-something volunteer, and avoiding a rush to fill all four spots at once, though that had been the board’s original plan. “They kept coming up with excuses,” Heacock says. In her statement, Bigger writes that the uncertainty stemmed from the MWW’s recent reorganization as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. “The delay in adding Sarah,” the statement reads in part, “had nothing to do with the insensitive comment and nothing to do with her qualifications.”

At the MWW’s next meeting in October, Bigger introduced the first new member they had voted on, but still not Hollowell. Bigger announced that Hollowell was no longer eligible for a spot on the board, though she could continue in her behind-the-scenes role. Then the director proposed a new policy for future elections: According to a copy of the meeting’s minutes, Bigger said she would recommend using “secret ballots.”

Heacock and Hollowell talked on Facebook Messenger almost every day, and occasionally, Hollowell asked about the potential board position. Heacock always dodged the question, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the comment and everything that had followed. She didn’t want to hurt her friend. But she also didn’t want Hollowell throwing herself into yet another conference without knowing the truth. “I would want to know if someone had been saying those degrading things about me,” Heacock says. “I wouldn’t want to give them my time and effort.”

In January—the day after Hollowell had finished a job interview in which she had talked about the MWW and how proud she was of her contributions—Heacock decided to tell her everything. “I am so sorry I am even typing this,” she wrote in a message before relaying the comment.

The first thing Hollowell did was cry. The second was get angry. “It made me go, How long were you thinking these things? Were you saying these things before now?” she says. “It made me look back on all my interactions. It made me paranoid.”

Hollowell didn’t know how to respond, so she emailed Roxane Gay, whom she’d met at a previous MWW. “I said there was no reason for her to keep silent when the MWW treated her so poorly,” Gay says. The author even offered to tweet about it on Hollowell’s behalf.

On January 9, Gay sent a flurry of tweets to her 421,000 followers, blasting the MWW for its “fatphobia.” She revealed the comment publicly for the first time—“fat,” “disgusting”—and ended by telling the organization to stop using her name for promotional purposes. After all, she wrote, “I’m too fat and disgusting to be associated with you.”

The MWW’s first response, also on Twitter, was quickly deleted: “@sarahhollowell, we are so very sorry for how you feel you have been treated.” The second one was better, but not by much. Bigger admitted there had been “an insensitive comment”—a description that sounded more like a politician’s than a writer’s. While another public apology followed, the MWW never explained why Hollowell had received a unanimous vote yet had not been brought on. Finally, eight days after Gay’s first tweets, the organization fired Heacock. The MWW maintains that the reason was Heacock’s recent move from Indiana to the state of Washington. But the novelist says several board members told her it was because of her “betrayal of trust.”

While all this was happening, thousands of readers and writers from around the country were sharing Gay’s thread and slamming the MWW online. Agents and editors were withdrawing from the 2018 conference, which the MWW eventually had to cancel. And Hollowell was following all of it with conflicting emotions. At least most of the people who reached out—and there were hundreds—had something kind to say. “My inbox has never been that busy,” Hollowell says, “except during each Midwest Writers, when I would get constant emails.”

 

The digital backlash to the MWW incident might seem like the latest instance of social media’s instinct for ruthless shaming—like an internet mob trying to destroy a small outfit that had already admitted it had made a mistake. And maybe in some sense it was. Many of the angriest commenters conceded they’d never heard of MWW, though they were now happy to maul it online. “Do you offer seminars in weasel-wording?” a Facebook user wrote on one of the group’s apologies.

But this interpretation misses two things. First, MWW’s critics were right on the merits: This wasn’t just a mistake, but a truly ugly comment, uttered in an environment where board members felt fine saying it, and followed by a series of suspicious actions. Second, and more importantly, it overlooks Hollowell’s response. The whole affair is less a story about the internet getting something wrong than about the internet getting something right.

After the MWW’s second apology, Hollowell tweeted that it seemed “genuine” and “a good start.” But a few hours later, she logged back on and said something slightly different: “I keep trying to be diplomatic and forgiving and graceful because I don’t want to hurt anyone and I don’t want to hurt people I’ve worked with for so long. But I’m not okay. I’m hurt and betrayed and, honestly, devastated.” Hollowell expanded in further tweets: “I keep consistently playing it down to try and protect them. Because that’s what I do … I keep thinking, ‘It’s not THAT bad. Why should they go down for this?’ I would never ever think that if it happened to someone else. But I’m thinking it for me.”

Calling this a Tweetstorm does not do it justice. It was a generous and nuanced essay, unfolding in real time. A few days later, Hollowell was back on Twitter, revising: “Let me tell you why, actually, I don’t like that apology at all.” She was changing her mind, but that’s what a person sometimes does—especially one who has watched as a gathering of friends, united in their belief that words matter, used hateful words against her; who has watched as a place that had once given her confidence peeled that confidence away; who was sick of the stereotype that if you’re fat, you’re faulty, lazy, undisciplined.

Watching the dismantling of a conference she had loved—and that Summer Heacock had loved, as well—was complicated and hard. But Hollowell’s social media is a record of that complication, as are the messages she received from so many people in similar situations, people who struggled with that same mix of vindication and guilt.

Hollowell has become less conflicted since the MWW fired Heacock—the one thing, for what it’s worth, that she asked the organization not to do. But she still hopes the conference can come back and change. “It’s not just ‘hire more fat people,’” she says, “though, yes, hire more fat people—we’re pretty great!” Hollowell believes the board members need to embrace diversity more broadly, especially where it involves the people who are most different from them.

The MWW is hosting a mini conference next month, and hopes to bring its full conference back next year. Bigger has talked about changes, but only in the vaguest terms. “We now turn our full attention to fixing the governance and structure of our nonprofit status,” her statement reads in part, “strengthening our commitment to diversity, and developing a comprehensive plan to move forward.”

If the last few months have shown anything, though, it’s that the organization doesn’t need to talk—it needs to listen.

Sarah Hollowell’s Twitter feed seems like a good place to start.

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