Writers of color have felt unsafe or silenced in a group that touts itself as an inclusive community.
Maylin Tu, a personal essayist based in Los Angeles, loved the camaraderie she found at Writers Blok. It’s difficult to be a working writer in LA, but as a paying Writers Blok member, she had a place to attend writing sessions and lecture series featuring accomplished screenwriters and novelists. The peers she wrote with every day eventually became close friends.
In June, Tu published an open letter to current members urging them to ask founder Paul Shirley where he stands in the midst of the ever-growing Black Lives Matter movement. In the post, she addresses how his writing space is unsafe for women of color. Shortly thereafter, Tu received a cease and desist letter from Shirley’s attorney. Should she continue to participate in “false and injurious” speech, Shirley would consider “additional legal escalation.”
When asked about the cease and desist letter and Tu’s Medium post in question, Shirley and Writers Blok declined to comment.
As far as Tu was concerned, she had nothing to lose by publishing her June letter. She was already kicked out of Writers Blok by then. Last October, Tu was removed from the group after she expressed discomfort with the business’ Instagram story of their flyer on a crosswalk post, captioned with a sexist joke about sex workers.
We have included a screenshot of the story below, for context, however we’d also like to provide a content warning to readers who do not wish to be exposed to sexism and misogyny.
CW: Sexism and Misogyny
“I am very sorry that our joke didn’t land for you and that this has caused you such discomfort,” an email from the group read. “To ensure that this doesn’t happen again, I’m refunding your most recent payment and canceling your membership.”
“It just felt so extreme,” Tu said. “But you already know when you don’t have power in a situation. That was very established during my time there. I was the one with the money, but they had all the power.”
Tu took to Twitter and Medium to recount the incident and reflect on her time as a Writers Blok member. “The hardest reality for me to face is that maybe I was never safe [at Writers Blok] at all,” she wrote. “Maybe I just had this illusion of safety that allowed me to write — because to write without a sense of safety feels impossible.”
Tu’s membership termination came as a shock. James Yu, who had used Writers Blok’s sessions to work on his fantasy novel, recalls being in the middle of one when Tu texted him saying she was kicked out. He was surprised; just an hour beforehand he had encouraged her to speak to Shirley because he reasoned that a business owner would take a customer complaint seriously.
“It was a bizarre moment with weird cognitive dissonance,” Yu said. “But after seeing how it went down and how there was so little space in between anything, it was clear that it wasn’t really about the complaint. Someone didn’t like what they heard and then made a decision.”
Tu’s resolve to hold Shirley accountable again in June was based on what the public already can discover about him. He is a former professional basketball player-turned-writer with a history of making ignorant comments on public health crises, coming to the defense of racist statements, or writing violent passages about women’s bodies. Given his past remarks, and the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic where COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown people, Tu wanted answers.
As far as the incident that resulted in Tu’s removal, Shirley believes Tu’s objection to the company’s joke was not in line with his operation’s values.
“We are a writing community and writing is an artistic pursuit,” Shirley explained when first contacted for comment in January. “So [the discomfort] she was expressing is actually antithetical to what Writers Blok stands for.”
Shirley’s justification for Writers Blok’s crude joke — a reflection of its commitment to an artistic pursuit — suggests that any work created within the space is above reprehension, no matter who it hurts.
According to Shirley, Writers Blok members pay anywhere between $60 to $250 per month for between five to an unlimited number of monthly writing sessions. Before the pandemic limited offerings, it welcomed over 1,500 people into the space. In a promotional video, Shirley describes the “community that develops” as members get to know each other and attend sessions regularly as a benefit of the group.
Shirley said that his perception of Tu’s feelings about the group informed his decision to remove her from Writers Blok.
“She seemed unhappy for a really long time, and therefore it seemed to be the very reasonable and logical response to say, ‘It has seemed like you’ve been very unhappy here for a long time and now you’re raising another bit of unhappiness,’” he said. “All of these things are contextual, whether you’re running a gym, a coffee shop, or a writing community.”
Shirley’s observation contradicts Tu’s characterization of Writer’s Blok as a place where she grew as a writer and forged meaningful connections. Nonetheless, she was no longer welcome.
After Tu was kicked out last October, Writers Blok member Rachael started a text chain with other women writers in the group to urge inquiry into Shirley’s one-sided decision. Around this time, she was approaching the final weeks before she had to decide whether she wanted to renew her membership. Rachael leaned toward staying.
“I didn’t want to lose my community, and I also thought that by staying there I could help out the situation more,” she said.
Shortly after expressing interest in renewing, she received an email saying that her membership was suspended until Shirley could have a conversation with her.
In their meeting, Shirley informed Rachael that he was aware of the messages she had been sending other women about Tu. With mentions of “doxxing,” he warned that she mishandled the situation by not coming to him first.
Put off by his threatening language, Rachael decided then that she would not be returning. During their talk, she also persistently requested an explanation for her suspension. Though he never provided one, to her the reason was clear.
“He didn’t like the way I was acting, so he withheld my membership.”
Shirley has exhibited a pattern of mishandling community growth as it pertains to his organization.
Before June 2019 when Writers Blok moved into its Culver City building, UCLA librarian and memoirist Nisha Mody was attending its writing sessions at a church space that Shirley secured through a friend. When she joined in December 2017, she was paying $30 a month to attend a few nights a week. One year later, Mody received an update about a price increase of $50 a month, with the option to be grandfathered in at her $30 payment until June 2019.
Then, just three months before Writing Blok’s move into its location, Mody received a new email: the price would now increase to $155 a month unless all existing members committed to a monthly $50 payment right then and there.
To Mody, it was a clear bait and switch.
“It felt manipulative,” she said. “I hear why there were price increases […] but I feel it’s become pretty elitist. Writers are not rich.”
The steep increase in membership fees was a pain point for those caught in Writers Blok’s shaky expansion. Paying participants had found value in the writing sessions that were offered a few nights a week at the price that they paid. A new increase of $155 a month was difficult to justify, whether or not it did come with larger space, more session times, and events with guest speakers.
Mody left last fall after almost two years with Writers Blok. The membership increase did not bother her as much as Shirley’s treatment of Tu did.
“It was very ego-driven. [Tu’s incident] was about someone who is paying him, so he should care. I still don’t think he sees what was wrong with it. So if he wants something that’s exclusive, then that’s that.”
When Mody left, she accepted she was no longer a writer that matched Shirley’s vision for his space.
Writers Blok’s emphasis on community put young and emerging LA-based writers in compromising positions: if you don’t follow Shirley’s rules, you will be removed.
According to Rachael, there were a few rules enforced at Writers Blok. “We were never allowed to talk about politics,” she said. “I just thought that was strange to implement amongst a group of writers whose whole thing is to express our point of view.”
Tu remembers a few other guidelines. “The main rule that we follow is that this is a community,” she said. “And then there’s a list of rules posted on the front desk about wearing your name tag, or if you need to leave early to let someone know.” For Tu, these rules were an extension of Shirley’s controlling behavior.
When any guidelines were broken or challenged, members were typically confronted by Shirley himself. Rachael remembers Shirley drawing attention to her tardiness on three separate occasions in front of the group. Another time, she had forgotten her name tag. “He approached me saying, ‘You’re the reason we’re going to start charging 10 dollars for name tags.’ I didn’t know why I was still going there,” she recalled.
After Tu’s exit, Shirley implemented a new rule.
Although there is a Director of Operations and other staff members on the team, historically it had been Shirley who would receive those correspondences then schedule meetings with the members to arbitrate. As founder, he exercised authority over how to handle conflicts — especially those that involved him.
“When you’re in a position as a leader, you have to take a different posture,” said Rachael. “If something happens involving you, you don’t take offense.”
Shirley’s decision to unilaterally terminate Tu’s membership did not take into account the impact she had on her peers. According to former members of Writers Blok who exited in solidarity, Tu was a positive, respectful participant of writing sessions. They, too, felt a sense of loss. As Shirley upheld arbitrary policies about how to treat members, the emerging power differences hurt the community.
“It was a really great space, and the writers kept me so disciplined in my writing,” one screenwriter who left Writers Blok said.
But after Tu’s abrupt termination and Rachael’s suspension, she noted that it was no longer the community she had built as soon as it felt like a “power play.”
“[Writers Blok] did everything right, except for creating a safe place for creatives,” she said, “which sounds so counterintuitive, but that’s what it is.”
Tu, Yu, and several other ex-Writers Blok writers now meet via Zoom to run their own writing sessions. With or without Shirley, they’ve found that the encouragement and discipline they sought can be found in each other, with or without a space that told them how to behave as writers.
With the transparency and accountability that she sought at Writers Blok, Tu got to address the infeasibility and irresponsibility of the writing community Shirley was selling. In the end, she knew that her power was not in her money, but her writing.
“I wrote about what happened because after Rachael left, that changed things for me because it wasn’t just about me,” said Tu in reference to seeing her fellow community members leave. “You know how you don’t really fight for yourself but you fight for your friends? After all that, it made me want to write.”
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