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™

3 thoughts on “Oh, Fiction, How You Torment & Tantalize Me…

  1. If you’re having trouble with fiction then I’d suggest reading as much as you can of it. I’m sure you hear that all the time, but I would also suggest diving into some YA novels. Yes, they’re very poorly written and sometimes a little infuriating, but they’ll at least spark your imagination a little 🙂 Best of luck, you’ve got a lovely blog!

  2. It’s wonderful to hear you’re reading Kelly Link! She’s fantastic. She towers over the fabulist and magical realist genres, at least in terms of contemporary American authors of the form. I know several writers, extremely talented ones, who wish they could write like Link. And Magic for Beginners is totes the best.

    I’ll be very excited to hear your thoughts about the Bender collection. The difference, in my mind, between Bender and Link is that the former is instructive. I can read Bender and see what she’s doing and how she’s doing it. I can appreciate it and enjoy it as a reader, but I can also analyze and study it as a writer, and both approaches satisfy me. As regards Link, she just knocks my socks off. Wait until you get to the cheerleader and The Devil locked in a closet together! I love her stuff, but then the difficulty comes from trying to understand and articulate how she accomplishes what she does in prose. It really is like magic to me. Wonderful to read, difficult to learn from. That second story, “The Hortlak,” is my go-to example: I’m a big title guy. Titles make the story more often than writers would like to admit. Barry Hannah’s titles confound and vex me. Katherine Anne Porter has some of the best short story titles I’ve ever read (Flannery O’Connor is a close second). So “The Hortlak” had absolutely no connection to anything in the story, and yet somehow, on a visual or auditory level, it’s the perfect title for a story about zombies that wander into a convenience store from a hell pit in the earth and pull complete pajama outfits out of their mouths. What does it mean? How does she do it? It’s a mystery. And so if there is anything to learn here it may be this: sometimes we write something, and we don’t know what it is or where it came from, but once it’s hear it can change things. The writer, the reader, the world, it can all be different because now here is this story that didn’t exist before. I think Kelly Link has built a very successful writing stories exactly like that. So why not one of us?

  3. I’ve read a few books by Kelly Link, and I absolutely enjoyed them. Weird occurrences, like homunculi living alongside “normal” people. Someone who lives inside a purse. Have you ever written paragraph poems/short stories? I’m reading A Postcard Memoir by Lawrence Sutin. He collected a bunch of vintage postcards and then wrote to them, but about his own life. Very poetic, but definitely in the CNF category. But all his entries are no longer than a page.

    Honestly, all the shoulds and should nots get on my nerves when it comes to art. I know many MFA programs (GSU for one), don’t want their students to write genre fiction. Ho hum.

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