Oh, Fiction, How You Torment & Tantalize Me…

I’ve been doing this little online fiction class—it’s only for three weeks, and it is just about over.  The group is small—seven writers and a leader/ moderator and his friend/ assistant.  I don’t know much about the person leading the workshop (I know he has an MFA and a TT job and he’s published a great deal). But all of the things he’s shared about writing and about the individual stories that the group have submitted seem pretty on target to me, and (once I finally understood the interface—it took me several days) I’ve been enjoying it… but more from a teacherly perspective, than a writerly one.

Were I a fiction writer by vocation, I would probably find the prompts and writing discussions more applicable to my own writing process—I want to try them out, of course, I just haven’t… yet.  I’ve said before that I’m interested in writing fiction—I just really can’t seem to do it.  But perhaps like anything, it just takes practice.  And, a few of his prompts could very well apply to creative nonfiction, and I know that I’ll definitely try his “life through artifacts” prompt.

Anyway, as I said, the class interests me from a teacherly perspective.  I like to see good teachers in action.  He draws from a lot of different backgrounds in fiction, and, since the theme of the class is about genre bending/ blending, and being experimental (two things I’m especially poor at), he has a vast knowledge of texts that he uses as examples to illustrate his suggestions about individual pieces and in his discussion about writing in general.  Since I’m not that educated about fiction (from a writing it kind of standpoint), his commentary is especially useful and interesting.

While he seems to have a particular affinity for SFF (as do the rest of the students in the workshop), he doesn’t look down his nose at other genres of fiction, and I admire that, because many academics in general dismiss genre fiction as being aliterary at best and no damn good at worst.  This tension seems to pervade the aesthetics of many writing programs; I’ve seen a few genre-writing MFA programs advertised in Poets & Writers, but that’s in no way typical.  (I never took a fiction writing class at Nebraska, but my sense of the fiction writers they had on faculty back then was that they were literary fiction writers exclusively.)

I suppose writing programs still want to turn out John Steinbecks and Margaret Atwoods (though she’s a bit of a fence sitter) rather than Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings and Kerry Greenwoods… The argument always comes back to high art vs. popular culture, particularly in the hallowed grounds of the Ivory Tower, doesn’t it?  (I also suspect, though I can’t be sure, that academics have a deep-seated fear of debasing themselves to write for money.  Like writing popular fiction is the dark side or something.  I have no such fear.  If I had the talent to do it, you better believe I’d be turning out romance novels or mysteries or Game of Thrones clones or horror stories, or hell, even porn.  I’m not proud.  I’m just not talented that way–I have no attention span to write anything longer than six pages, tops.)

As a reader and lover of genre fiction (although my interest tends to run toward mysteries… and Christmas romance novels, when it’s Christmastime), I’m glad the  workshop leader doesn’t have an arbitrary bias against genre fiction.  Anyway, all this is by way of saying, I ordered three books from Amazon on his suggestion—two were by Kelly Link, a writer I didn’t know about at all, but whom I’m liking. (I’m reading stories from her Magic for Beginners in between more chapters of Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and in between stories from Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (which was a suggestion from BFWF**).  It’s important to have good material to aspire too… or to be motivated by.

Imitation being the highest form of flattery, I try putting absurdity like Bender’s or Link’s into my stories, but generally it just comes out wrong. Or pretentious.  Or just like I’m trying too hard to be too cool and winding up being that doofus in the corner.  So then I try writing a conventional story, which I gravitate towards naturally anyhow.  (I know, I know, they tell you to write the thing you’re frightened off… but mainly I’m frightened of writing things that suck, so that advice doesn’t work too well for me.) I worked on a story the other day—it was based on an upcoming theme from Duotrope’s upcoming theme list—a Christmas-ish story, to be submitted by Sept. 25th.  (So, not a lot of time to dick around with it.)  I don’t know if I will finish it, though.  It’s lacking something… maybe, more words.  It’s supposed to be flash though—ideally, the journal wants 700 words.  I’ve written 1000, and it’s not finished.

A real experience prompted the story, and so as I’ve written it, it lies somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. (Liminal spaces suck, by the way.) The problem is, it doesn’t work as fiction OR nonfiction.  I like the idea of it—it focuses on an interaction with a neighbor I had one time when I made a snowman in the front yard.  I could make it totally creative nonfiction, but then it will be considerably longer—and it already lacks that CNF aesthetic—that real attention to beautiful language that CNF is known for, that expectation of a transformative moment that we rely on in creative nonfiction to drive the story forward.  And yet, it is there, a flash of a moment where the woman building the snowman relents, at least a little bit, in her annoyance at her neighbor’s intervention.  So the draft has that going for it.

Still, the journal wants fiction.  If I make it shorter, and more fiction-y, I don’t know that its point will be clear.  Honestly, I’m not sure anyone would care either way.  If I made it more fiction-oriented, I wonder what I could do to “fix” the story?  I can’t make it about a snowman that comes to life because I believe we ALL have heard that one before.  What I’m really interested in is the relationship between the two neighbors.  But I just don’t know if it’s compelling enough.  Maybe the story just needs to be a little anecdote I share with friends—maybe it’s really not meant to be shared in a large sense (with a public audience, I mean).

But maybe I’ve just persuaded myself that I could try harder and make this story work.  It doesn’t hurt to try and a hundred other motivational platitudes, blah, blah, blah.  I can see what happens if I try.  At the very least, it will be practice, and all writing practice is good, even the failures.  I know it will wind up longer, so I guess I’ll go the CNF route and forget about sending it to that particular journal.  That’s ok.

But I’ve digressed…  Back to the writing workshop:  I have a story to read and respond to for the online group.  I printed it out and left it on the table and now it has cat vomit on it.  But the first page seems pretty good, despite the stain, so I think I’ll go read the rest now.  And then maybe another Kelly Link story.

**Brilliant Fiction Writer Friend™

My Philosophy on Writing, As Explained on My Creative Writing Class Syllabus

On my creative writing syllabus this term, I’ve included the following …well… essay explaining my philosophy on writing.  I thought it would be useful to my students to see what I think about the writing process going in.

Of course, everyone knows, the longer your syllabus is, the less students read it.  So I’m sharing this with you, my beloved five readers, because maybe you will appreciate it.  🙂

(P.S… I will make a Wednesday Post tomorrow… I just wanted to share this since I think it’s pretty good.)


This class is as much about process as product—more so, actually.  What we end up with is important—but how we get there is more important.  It is extremely rare that the first draft we write is the final polished version—the person who can do that either is a literary genius or has made a deal with a devil.  If you’re a literary genius:  go home, you have no need for this class.  If you’ve made a deal with the devil:  congratulations on your masterpiece and future literary career, but too bad about your soul.

For the rest of us, we have to see a piece mature from a little clot of words and ideas to something that has possibilities to something that vaguely resembles a story or a play to something that becomes like a story or play to a revision and another revision to a detour to a revision of the detour to a rumination to a final polished version of a story or play.  Because experimentation is a key (and expected) part of the writing process, it’s not a linear process… it’s all ways at once, not a single path from start to finish.  (This may be scary to some  students, for whom linearity is a way of life.)  Creative writing is about approaching an idea from a lot of different ways, and sometimes that means we scrap what we started with.  Or we only save a line or two.  Or we change characters.  Or we change who’s telling the story.  Or we smash things together (or break them apart).  But the point is, you can’t be married to the first (or even second or third) version, because for most people, the first few versions are not fleshed out in terms of their vision and their form.

Drafting/ experimenting is NOT editing.  If you look at your first draft and “fix” a few comma errors or spelling mistakes, but generally keep the majority of the draft the same in terms of language and structure, that’s a cosmetic change (in other words, editing).  Drafting/ experimenting is an act of resistance… resisting the easy route, resisting the belief that the first try will be golden, resisting the status quo.  It’s about risk and about transformation.  It’s about making something new every time until the most perfect form reveals itself.  It’s about negative space.  About what’s not there—and about what could be there when we stumble on it.  But you won’t find out what could be there until you resist the urge to stick with your first attempt.  So, resist!  Resist mediocrity!  Resist the humdrum!  Because if you’re the kind of person who’s (even mildly) ambitious and curious and ready to aspire to something unique in writing, you’ll do just fine in this class.

Know this:  I’d rather see a flawed final draft that’s undergone some pretty substantial drafting/ experimenting as it emerged into its final polished form than a piece that hasn’t changed much at all because it was too satisfied with its original version or too fearful/ protective to let it become something more (in other words, a chrysalis that never becomes a butterfly).

I will help you realize the polished form and vision of your work through extensive comments on drafts and suggestions for revision.  I might not have the answer on how to “fix” your story or play, but I have a lot of experience in creative writing—it’s my field—so you can be sure that we’ll work together to make dynamic writing happen. Your classmates will also have ideas about your work.  This is a collaborative class—we learn from each other, and that’s as it’s meant to be.

A final word about this:  just because we experiment with our writing doesn’t mean that there aren’t “rules” that won’t need to be observed—we’ll talk about them in class, we’ll read about them in our text.  This is not an Outback restaurant.  It’s not “no rules, just right” (or “no rules, just write” as the case may be).  I do not believe in the idea of “anything goes because it’s creative!”  No.  There are real, aesthetic rules and conventions (practices or principles, if you prefer) that have emerged over the course of literary history that continue to be observed by contemporary writers for a reason—because they generally work.

When emerging writers understand these rules in writing and follow them, they acknowledge their forebears’ contributions to craft, and demonstrate that they, too, can be adept at using the conventions that have helped define (Western) literary and cultural tradition.  And then, through maturity, and only then, with deep, considered appreciation of aesthetics, may they consciously and judiciously break the rules and explore new territory.  Think of this in terms of an analogy:  Picasso, before he was a Cubist and could create something like Guernica, drew and painted realistic figures and scenes such as Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.  As he gained in experience and artistic power, Picasso threw over realism-as-convention and became a pioneer.

In works the same in writing:  demonstrate first that you can follow convention, that you can do it the “right” way (at least in terms of form and style), before you earn the right to defy it.  It’s absolutely important to create something new… but not at the expense of alienating your audience or making something that is incomprehensible and labeling it “art” just because you can.

A note about form, while we’re at it:  think of form as a lens.  The beauty of form is that it should be invisible; if we wear contacts or glasses, we don’t see the lens, because the lens itself is clear, and therefore we can see everything in front of us clearly, without blur.  The form of a piece of writing works the same way:  it should make the words and their meaning clear—it should not obscure words and meaning.  If you hand in a play that’s not in correct play script format, can you even call it a play?  No, and you’ll alienate your audience because they will be expecting to read a play, and instead will struggle to see your characters and understand their actions through the wrong lens.  Form and convention are important, and you should be mindful of them.

Of course, let me also include a quote from the famous fiction writer Flannery O’ Connor about just this subject:  “It’s always wrong of course to say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that in [creative writing].  You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.”

For a Writer Friend Who Isn’t Writing (This Is Still About Me Though, Let’s Be Clear)

A lot of my thinking has to do about why I write, and this blog looks at my writing process and elaborates on that thinking (as my five faithful readers are well aware). Everyone knows that writers write. And everyone also knows that sometimes writers don’t write—because they’re bored or they’re tired or they’ve just reached some kind of impasse.

I was going through a lot of crap in my office, preparing for the AC guys to come in and work on my AC unit (by the way, they still haven’t come, and my office is a disaster, though that’s beside the point), and in the process I was throwing out a lot of paper and other useless bits of detritus from my years teaching, and I came across a freewrite I scrawled on July 16, 2008. The topic was “Why Do I Write” and this is what I said:

I write sometimes it seems not because I love it like I used to, when writing was about loving words and not about worrying about a CV. I haven’t written like this [in other words, a freewrite—I was taking a continuing ed class at Emory on memoir writing] in a long time—I buy writing books but lack the discipline to doing it on my own. Actually, I lack the discipline in so many ways—

I was thinking earlier today that I should work on those poems for June and July [this was during the period our writing group, the DYPS, was working on the poems that would eventually become On Occasion: Four Poets, One Year]—it seems more fun to write when I have my friends to write for. But Karen and Bob are out of town, and again, their being gone is like a license for me not to write. And I need to write—after all, I want to be famous some day—that’s a really terrible reason, I know [well, come on, it’s a freewrite after all—you can say anything you want in a freewrite, even something ridiculous like that]—but I want to have something to pass on, something that matters. I probably will never have children, so my legacy needs to be another kind of creation. That’s why I write. Or, that’s why I want to write.

(Blah blah.  Oh, JC from 2008, you are so tedious.  But, on the other hand, if you need a reason to write, and the hope for fame is it, well, keep on hoping, and keep on writing.  Whatever works, right?)

The fact is, I do write. Well, now I do.  Maybe not with the frequency I should, but I’m at an ok point with my writing and my diligence and my publishing. What got me thinking about not writing was a recent email I got from my Brilliant Fiction Writer Friend™, the one who gave such amazing and useful advice on the two pieces of prose I brought him. I asked him whether he was still writing stories frequently, and he replied that since he defended his dissertation, he hadn’t written anything, that he was burnt out. (I can totally understand this—he also has a very time-consuming, draining job helping students work on their writing and communication.  When you’re giving so much of your energy to helping others write, well, maybe you don’t have a lot left for yourself…which is why I feel greedy and guilty and burdensome and needy asking his advice…but whatever, that’s my pathology.) What he said resonates in a big way with me:

I’ve tried a couple of times in the past three years, but I forced it and nothing came of it. I’m waiting for inspiration to strike.

Damn that inspiration—it’s so flighty and capricious. Of course we want to write something that is meaningful, “something that matters,” as I said in 2008—and inspiration does give us that energy and excitement that we need, especially when we’re in a writing rut.  After all, if we’re not writing something that matters, what’s the point? We’re just making the written equivalent of noise. (Wouldn’t it be great to feel inspired all the time? If I could figure out how to do that, I’d bottle inspiration and make my fortune.  Ah, pipe dreams.)

I can’t make BFWF™ want to write, but I wish he would, because he’s wonderful and I know that his stories (even if they’re hiding in his subconscious right now) will be wonderful too, once he digs them out.

At the same time, as writers know, if you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it, and forcing yourself to write when you don’t feel like it is pretty much a one-way ticket to hell because you’re a) setting yourself up for failure, and b) tossing yourself deeper into the “I hate to write” abyss, which makes you less inclined to pick up a pen (or keyboard) later on, and c) basically pissing yourself (and probably anyone around you) off.

I know this from personal experience. When you’re at a dry spell in your writing life—if you’re a writer—it’s probably because lots of other things in your life are in a dry spell too. In those “I hate writing” times of my life—when the writing ennui is really incapacitating and insurmountable—it’s generally because my life is out-of-whack. (Everyday life and living can be such a bitch sometimes.)

I’m a weird point. In some ways, I have a completely out-of-whack life right now—I’m feeling extremely morose and demoralized about a number of things (I won’t bore you with details) but I guess I feel like I can retreat into my writing—and if I’m not writing, well, at least I’m sending things out so they’re being seen in the world.

Anyway, I’m glad and grateful that I’m not not writing—sometimes, writing is the only thing in my life that makes sense. I hope that continues to be the case. And I hope inspiration strikes soon for BFWF™, I really do.  The world needs his words.