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Writer, Editor, Designer

Posts tagged writing

Regarding portrayals of women in fiction, Junot Diaz said, “Unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations.” If you’re not actively subverting the sexist/racist/homophobic status quo of our culture, you’re likely reinforcing it. And it’s the duty of any writer worth their salt to do so. Subvert, transform, transmute the shit of our culture into gold. And it’s hard work and it’s not easy. There’s a fine line between accurately representing a racist culture and reinforcing that racism. Just ask Dave Chappelle. One of the advantages of a workshop-centric MFA program is that you have the opportunity to learn these lessons before you start putting your sexist/racist/etc stories out into the world.

A few weeks ago, a to-remain-nameless writer in our program wrote a story in which there was a borderline racist portrayal of a character. (The only black character in the story is the one with all of the problems; everyone else in the story are white saviors. Oh, and her skin is described using food terms.)

So we spend—at the most—five minutes saying that yeah, that’s problematic, when you write about marginalized groups, you have to be careful not to stereotype, do your research, avoid racist tropes, maybe read Writing the Other, et cetera. You know, general helpful things that any aspiring writer should know before sticking their uneducated, privileged, white foot in their mouth.

Fast forward to aforementioned writer’s next story. Universally panned as a terrible: the plot is incoherent and illogical and there is no arc nor character development. There are no physical descriptions of people, nor are there any gender pronouns (which could have been a great experiment but hang on—), because all of the characters are only described as food items and their behavior never stretched beyond their food moniker. (For instance, a nice and sweet character would be named after a candy bar, that sort of shortcut.) We are baffled by the story and the writer’s general incompetence.

The writer informs us later, after we’d workshopped it, trying our damnedest to find something constructive to say, something to salvage in this trainwreck of a story, that the whole thing was basically a fuck-you to our workshop for “wasting twenty minutes harping on” their black character in the previous story. A childish “Oh you don’t like that I described someone as food . . . I’ll describe everyone as food!” retaliation. Needless to say, everyone was pissed that this writer would waste our time in such a way, wasting a precious workshop opportunity on what’s basically a 101-level, getting-called-out-on-your-racism, temper-tantrum.

Want to piss off your entire workshop, the community of writers whose support, advice, insight, et cetera, et cetera, you’re paying an ungodly amount of money for? Want to take a big steaming dump on an opportunity to learn, to grow, to avoid filling the world with more racist bullshit? This is how you do it.

This fall I’m going to be teaching an undergraduate class, an introduction to fiction writing. Which is a whole new level of badassery I can barely understand nor contain. There’s a tiny part of me that still squeaks, “Who the hell are you to teach anyone anything about writing!” I don’t listen to that voice much. Mostly because it’s like the one guy who says something sarcastic when the room is the loudest because he doesn’t think anyone else can hear him. I should know. I’m that guy.

The rest of me is ridiculously excited and has been planning a syllabus in my head since I got the news. It is amazing how night-and-day my attitude to teaching fiction is compared to teaching composition. I realize I give zero shits about composition and rhetoric. Maybe I don’t appreciate it because it’s something I’ve always been pretty good at, whereas with fiction, it’s something I love that I’ve had to work spine-crushingly hard at to get where I am. Maybe it’s ego, maybe it’s love, maybe it’s Maybelline.

But yeah. I’m going to be teaching fiction writing. I’m going to be constructing my own canon. I get to decide what to teach, what stories get read, showcase what I think is important about literature and storytelling.

Shit, I just scared myself.

If I understand this correctly, for some writers, the revision process is like a dog eating its own poop.  Because there’s still nutrients in it. So then they poop out an even more refined poop.  And the dog will keep doing it until there’s nothing left to get out of the poop or until its master tells it to stop. That master is publication. That’s when you stop eating the poop.

This also sheds an interesting light on literary critics, who would then be likened to scientists who use the microscopes and mass spectrometers of literary theory to figure out what the poop is made of.

Gross.

I have captured the much-glimpsed but rarely-photographed mythic beast, that cryptozoological unicorn of the MFA program—FUNDING.

Which means no more loans, I’ll have a stipend, but I have to teach writing (essays/papers, not fiction, sadly) to undergraduates. I am crazy nervous about that, but I’ve heard my program does a good job of preparing you.

Welcome to the Land of Teaching Assistantship. Let’s see you get writing done now, punk.

Anyone have words of wisdom?

Have you played BANG!? It’s a great game. Get it, play it.

The point of this post isn’t to advertise BANG!  In the game, there’s a Dynamite card. When you play it, it circles from player to player until it explodes and yes, there is the possibility that it will explode on you.  There is a danger in playing the card. It’s gambling.

And as I sent out five submissions last week, I realized sending out a submission is like playing the Dynamite card. If it explodes on another player, you win. Your submission gets accepted. But there’s a chance it will explode on you, and that’s the rejection. Submissions are like little bombs you send yourself. We’re very very likely, especially early in our careers to blow ourselves up.  We’re shitty bombmakers.

But if we’re lucky…

Rejection, rejection rejection rejection. Rejection! Rejection rejection—rejection rejection rejection—rejection rejection.

Submit, submit. Submit submit submit. Submit.

TRANSLATION: I just had another major rejection. I was told I did a great job of avoiding clichés in what could be a clichéd situation, but it just wasn’t for them, a little too heavy on backstory, too light on present action. But the editors would like to see other work from me, so there’s the silver lining.

So, I spent the afternoon submitting the story to the next four venues on my list. Anywhere from five weeks to ninety days before I hear back from them.

And the cycle continues.

I’ve come to realize that I have a hard time writing stories past the epiphany. Once the epiphany is there, I don’t care anymore; I don’t want a couple paragraphs of denouement. That feels more forced and writerly than anything. I’ve been told my stories end abruptly. And often they do.

I tend to write stories that are puzzles, stories where there are things to be figured out, problems to solve, mysteries hidden, under the surface stuff. Punchline things. The thing you lost is always in the last place you looked, because you found it. Why would you keep looking afterward?

I was told that for a while, in the 80’s, writing the perfect last epiphanic line was the soup de jour. Too bad I wasn’t writing short stories when I was six.

In my latest workshop, my story got probably the best compliment to date. One of my cohort said that if I were an established author and people read my work with more weight, then it would be great. And it is great, but that without the gravitas of being a published writer, people might mistake what I did as amateurish or inauthentic characterization.

Which is both awesome and depressing. I do write as if people are reading me with the proper weight and attention. What do I do? Change the way I write until I have gravitas and respect and then write what I want? Open all my stories with “Ok, kids, put away your phone and pay attention. I’m not fucking around here”? Wait for some middling slushpile reader who’s bored to death skimming shitty stories to accidentally pay attention to what I’m doing, to what’s going on in the story?

So on one hand, I’m apparently doing some really great work. On the other, I’m being told that no one’s going to notice because I’m too early in my career. Big present, small package. Lightweight getting dismissed at the heavyweight bout.

85% should be below the surface in an iceberg story.

Did Hemingway have to write some straight-forward, non-iceberg stories to get some respect and recognition before he could pull off the feat of “Hills Like White Elephants”?

It’s frustrating, y’all. Is it a failure of my writing or my audience? Of course I tend to lean toward it being the writing. Carl Jung said something along the lines that the value of a message isn’t in the message itself but in the ability to communicate it clearly. It doesn’t matter how profound something is if you can’t communicate it to someone else. So in that, am I failing?

Probably.