September 28, 2011

The Dangerous Idea of Your Story

This semester, I’m teaching an introduction to fiction writing class, the first time I’ve taught an intro class in four years. Thanks to the popularity of creative writing classes, several sections of intro to writing fiction (or poetry or nonfiction) are made available, and this keeps the classes small: my enrollment is limited to fifteen, which I’m very lucky to have – I’ve heard of creative writing classes with an enrollment as high as thirty-two students. Yikes.

After several weeks of discussion about craft and close readings of short stories and a series of increasingly bizarre short writing assignments, we’ve started workshopping stories. Before workshops began, I gave my students a handout, guidelines for both the writers and the readers. These guidelines explain how to approach giving and receiving criticism, manuscript handling and formatting, how long their written critiques should be (one page, single-spaced), and so forth.

As we closed in on the first day of workshop, several students would linger after class and ask to speak to me. They wanted to talk about their story. The story they haven’t written yet and the story I have not seen.

Usually, the question is about the plot, and whether or not this particular plot – which I’m only hearing about right then and there – will work. Now, at this point, there isn’t really much I can say. In the past, I have given restrictions. Once, I said simply “No guns.” Another time I suggested they avoid dramatic albeit often cliched situations, such as abortion. But over a couple of years of teaching fiction writing, I’ve found that this is unnecessary. Ultimately, the problems with stories that end in guns a-blazin’ are discussed in workshop by the students, not me, which does a better job of reinforcing the idea that violence needs careful and deliberate consideration than any finger-wagging that I can do. And, now, I can just give them the article that Ben Percy and Aaron Gwyn wrote in Poets and Writers this summer (sadly, this link doesn’t give you the article but if you haven’t read it, you should know it exists and find it).

How, though, to discuss an idea? Could it be a good idea? Sure. Could it be a bad idea? Sure. Asking me “Does that sound like a good idea?” is always going to get “Well, it could be a good story …” followed by several caveats, and that doesn’t seem like a very useful answer. Telling a student “Write the story and see what happens” is probably the best of bad advice I could give, but doesn’t leave me feeling like I’ve done a very good job.

Where does this anxiety about an idea come from? Thinking back to when I was an undergraduate, I don’t remember worrying so much about an idea. Mostly, I worried that my stories were boring. I worried that the emotions didn’t come out, that people wouldn’t get how much my characters (read: the author) are suffering. But I don’t remember fretting about whether the story ideas were good or bad.

My best guess is that new writers don’t trust their own experiences, and feel that if there is An Idea that holds it altogether, everything falls into place. From somewhere deep in my memories of Things Writers Told Me, there is this: to write fiction, we have all the experiences we need by the end of our childhood. It’s one of those phrases that if you think about it to hard, it seems false or incomplete (sex, marriage, divorce?), and if you don’t think about it too much, it seems true (all the emotions that come out in sex, marriage, and divorce). Of course, like any pithy one-liner, it’s a bit cute and simplistic. Easy to remember, though.

Perhaps, then, the worry my students have isn’t about the actual writing. It’s about themselves. It’s the fear that they aren’t good enough, that they don’t have anything to say through the story, that there isn’t anything unique or interesting about their own lives. And, this too, gets answered with a simple answer: When first starting out, every writer – under all that enthusiasm and late-night writing and wordplay and happiness at writing the climactic scene just perfectly – feels that he or she is not good enough to write. It doesn’t stop us from writing our stories.

Here’s the rub. The fear never goes away.

Really. Even the author with ten books has that gnawing anxiety that the next project can’t be tackled, that the scene doesn’t work, that the characters aren’t right. And, just like the beginning writer, that’s a fear of self, a fear that we aren’t smart enough or sensitive enough. Being a little bit afraid, always, is good. Being a little bit afraid creates risk. Literature that doesn’t take risks, whether they are emotional ones within the characters or experimentation in the form of the writing (or the thousands of other risks writing can take), isn’t literature. Writing that doesn’t take any risks is the kind of writing we very quickly forget about.

My class has several goals that are factored into their grade because, hey, it’s a class and grading needs a criteria. There are stories to read and stories to write, writing exercises, participation, criticism, and so forth. But I also remember that despite everything stated on the syllabus, my goal for my students is simple. Keep writing. That’s it. I say more than that on my syllabus, but in the end, that’s all I really want them to do. And that will always be a scary thing, no matter how far down the literary road my students travel. Don’t worry about ideas. Be scared. Be afraid. Because that fear is what gets every writer to take the risk of writing the story that will be read, admired, and remembered.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Kenyon Review, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com

5 Responses to The Dangerous Idea of Your Story

  1. Esther says:

    I recently read Stephen King’s “On Writing” and believe it should be required reading for anyone in a creative writing class. His brutal honesty, unique life story, and unpretentious advice will subdue the ever-present fear of inadequacy for the most timid among us.

  2. Michael says:

    @Esther: I’ve read parts of King’s book, and you’re right, it is a good book on what it takes to write fiction. I also think really highly of Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” and Baxter’s “Burning Down The House.” Thanks for reading!

  3. Alex says:

    I think the problem–at least from what you described–is that you don’t have many determined writers in your classes. They don’t seem to be worried about risks they are taking, instead they seem skittish about castles they haven’t built yet. I don’t know, perhaps it is part of their dabbling in an intro class. But any talented and determined writer has many emotions going on, but fear isn’t one if them…If so, we’d never have one word published of greats like Wallace or Kierkegaard…

  4. Michael says:

    @Alex: Oh, I don’t think I have writers that aren’t determined. It’s early in the semester. And we all start somewhere. When we start out, we don’t know how much we don’t know, and there’s a tremendous amount of worry about writing stories. They’ll get there!

  5. Sara says:

    Perhaps, then, the worry my students have isn’t about the actual writing. It’s about themselves. It’s the fear that they aren’t good enough, that they don’t have anything to say through the story, that there isn’t anything unique or interesting about their own lives.

    Michael, this paragraph reminded me of a post at The Rumpus a while back on the conflation of author with protagonist and the precedence sometimes given to an author’s life over his/her writing: http://therumpus.net/2011/10/what-is-already-living-author-autobiography-and-fiction-in-the-age-of-social-networking/