“On Voice” by Amitava Kumar
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In his craft essay “On Voice,” Amitava Kumar explores voice by taking his readers on a sprawling journey that winds through his home state in India, the words of his literary influences, and the worlds of his novels. Readers will be able to hear Kumar’s own “entertaining and incisive” voice in his forthcoming novel, A Time Outside This Time (Knopf, October 5), which Publishers Weekly has deemed “fake newsworthy.”
Plots are for dead people, but voice—oh, voice is how you know you’re alive.
Mars Blackmon, the Spike Lee character in She’s Gotta Have It saying, “Please baby. Please baby. Please baby, please baby. Please, please. Baby, baby.” I had arrived in the US the same year the movie was released, in 1986; I was a new immigrant, a graduate student, when I watched that movie soon after it came out. The idea of language as excess. Language not just for writing academic papers. Language of desire but also language as desire. This was an early lesson about voice.
Years passed. I was producing academic essays, exercises in critical theory, and my writing had the consistency of freshly mixed cement. But I was dreaming of escape. There is a clipping from a newspaper that I printed out and stuck in a notebook—an exchange between a journalist and the literary agent David Godwin. The journalist asks Godwin what turns him on in a book, and the literary agent replies, “Voice, not so much story.” Godwin says that he has been reading a book about a woman’s childhood in Botswana. The beginning twenty pages are dull, and then there is a wonderful scene. “Her grandfather is sitting on a verandah, surrounded by masks, drinking red wine. Two little red drops hang on his lips. Suddenly the masks come down, sit on his mouth in the half-light, sip, and speed away. You know that’s where the book begins. It’s so arresting, so different.”
Godwin wasn’t my agent yet. But when I began writing something to show him, I thought, that’s what I will do: something “arresting” and “different.” I wasn’t worried that I didn’t really have a plot ready; I’d have voice. What was I hoping to catch? I was hoping to avoid that hushed tone of TV tennis commentators at Wimbledon—public but with a false intimacy—that is adopted a few moments before a difficult second serve: “Venus has appeared frail, but she can summon an inner reserve. Let’s see if she can do it here.” “Seventh double fault. Her task will be uphill now.” This also meant I wouldn’t have green grass or white lines or players in fashionable skirts. No strawberries and cream. I’m from the Hindi heartland in India, and I thought a prison would be rather nice. My first cousin had been arrested and jailed around that time. The state of Bihar, where I’m from, was described then as having only one growth industry, kidnapping. A doctor, or a businessman, or their kid, would be kidnapped and a call would come for a ransom.
A call had been traced to my cousin’s phone. My sister believed that the police had made a mistake. It is true that my cousin had suffered. Unlike my sister, I chose to believe that my cousin had suffered for literature. In that first novel, Home Products, my narrator, Binod, visits his cousin in prison. This cousin, Rabinder, is full of plans. He tells Binod that he would like to sell an idea to some big mobile phone company. It was an idea for a commercial, but Rabinder’s real scheme was to get into filmmaking once he was out of prison.
The commercial would begin with a shot of a blue-green planet afloat in dark space. Then, with instant thousandfold magnification, the camera would digitally zoom into the part of the landmass in the northern hemisphere that lies above the Indian Ocean, the subcontinent flecked closer to the top of the screen by the white crest of a wave representing the Himalayan snow peaks. The camera would veer right, coming closer to the ground to reveal, for one five-hundredth of a second, the muddy expanse of the Ganges, and then fanning above it a city visible only as a dirty wash of miniature rooftops, their color a uniform gray. The camera’s eye would pick out a large yellow building, the state’s prison. There would be a short pan along the length of a tall wall before it paused at a barred room in which sat a solitary man. The film would cut to a shot from above: the top of the man’s head and, pressed to his right ear, a mobile phone.
“What do you think?” Rabinder asks Binod.
Binod says that the idea is a good one but asks why is the prison necessary.
Rabinder says, “Honestly, can you think of any place where a mobile phone would be more needed than in prison?”
My cousin was released from his jail cell; soon, he started building a luxury hotel. And David Godwin didn’t take me on as a client for that book. That would happen later. I think I had mistaken a scene, the masks coming down from the wall to sip wine, as an example of voice. It was just a scene. A surprising scene, no doubt. So, too, the man in the prison cell. Voice is something else. Maybe the next novel I wrote had it, this element of voice, because Godwin decided to represent me and sold Immigrant, Montana. For this novel, I had picked up another lesson in voice.
I had read Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. Nabokov’s writing was for me a wonderful example of a desirable voice for writing because it was alert to the fact that art is always also artifice. When I learned later that he had published parts of Speak, Memory also as fiction in the New Yorker, I felt doubly delighted. I didn’t for a moment think that he was being false or meretricious; instead, he was announcing that the text was fabricated, made up through labor and a love of words. This is the most honest thing a writer can do.
In Chapter 3 of Speak, Memory, Nabokov is telling the reader about his distinguished family tree, his affluent ancestors and their role in history, their eccentricities, etc. At one point he is talking about his Uncle Ruka, Nabokov’s mother’s brother, who at his death at the end of 1916 left his enormous wealth for Nabokov to inherit. Of course, the revolution came and divided Nabokov from his inheritance. A lovely little description of the property follows before Nabokov breaks off and inserts a new section which is no more than ten lines. He directly addresses the reader: “The following passage is not for the general reader, but for the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me. . . .” More than anything else in the memoir, it was this turn that demonstrated to me the writer-as-magician stepping out of the job of pulling rabbits out of hats and revealing to you, the true magic this, how it is all done. I carried this voice in my head for years and then sneaked it into Immigrant, Montana; Nabokov’s sense of command, or maybe it was just his grasp of artistic freedom, also gave me permission to directly address my reader and take them into confidence. This was another lesson in voice. I included commentaries on my writing process and also pictures of clippings from my notebooks.
In a 1997 interview for BRICK magazine, W. G. Sebald told James Wood the following: “I think that fiction writing, which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture and which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing, where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.”
I am of the same view. So the voice of a narrator struggling with truth, indicating with a pointed finger the joints in the scaffolding, is also mine. In a piece of fiction I’m working on right now, an Indian woman who works for CNN in Atlanta has this memory: “I had become conscious that when we were in the company of educated people in Patna, my father would tell them that he was born in the same hospital as Orwell in Motihari. I later found out that Orwell was indeed born in the same sleepy town as my father, close to our ancestral village Khewali, but it is quite likely that his mother had given birth in the small bungalow that served as the Orwell residence. Richard Blair, Orwell’s father, was a sub-deputy opium agent for the British. The bungalow in which they had lived in Motihari, now a dilapidated cow-shed overrun by pigs and stray dogs, was described recently in one Patna newspaper as an ‘animal farm.’” The story that the woman is telling is very close to mine, except that I discovered Orwell when I came to Delhi on a scholarship to finish high school. His essay “Why I Write” was a part of the assigned reading for our class. I’m mentioning Orwell now because the boldness, the freedom, the playfulness I see in Nabokov is at a huge remove from Orwell’s voice that I first associated with the voice of a writer.
Back in my late teens, when I read Orwell’s essay, I didn’t know that this famous writer had been born in Bihar, close to my ancestral village. I identified with him chiefly because in his essay he described a voice in his head, “a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind,” which was “a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw.” Orwell had written:
For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf,’ etc. etc. This habit continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside.
It is possible we all do this as children or adolescents and then grow out of the habit, unless you are a writer. In my case, I had become conscious of this activity after I began reading literary texts. Orwell was a part of that early education. I could be in a Delhi Transport bus in Daryaganj, and a voice running in my head would name the objects I saw being sold on the street, their colors, the look in the eyes of the sellers.
I also read Orwell’s essay about the politics of the English language; he wanted to promote writing that was unfussy and modest, never calling attention to itself. He was, of course, giving voice to an ideology, postwar socialist, I imagine. When I first encountered that language, I wanted to make it my voice. It was also a part of my desire, as a postcolonial, to escape the colonial inheritance that dictated that our use of English ought to be, as Lord Macaulay had intended it, the language of the clerks. My father wrote his letters to us in a stiff, bureaucratic language. My fondness for the Orwellian diction was challenged in the American graduate programs in critical theory where I found myself writing sentences suffocated with defensive subordinate clauses. In my time since, especially in the writing of Immigrant, Montana, I tried to embrace a voice that was not just loud, exaggerated, sexual, but also exuberant. In interviews, I would say that English had been taught to us as a language in which we had to do our homework; to write fiction or imaginative nonfiction was to sense a liberation in language.
The voice you own, or adopt, is to a large extent based on your education. Orwell was a part of my education. But that was long ago. When I think of voice now, pure voice in nonfiction, the richest most enduring fabrication, the first thing that comes to mind are the interviews collected and shaped by Svetlana Alexievich. I also like that the voices collected in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen came in response to a questionnaire shared on some listserv. What were the questions, I’ve always wanted to know. I admire Rankine’s collaboration with sculptor Kate Clark to access what is uncanny and disturbing in our racialized existence. Or think of Janet Malcolm’s “Forty-One False Starts.” I have used that piece in my journalism classes a few times, but my main desire was to learn from it myself. How to have a voice that is provisional and probing, fragmentary and precise? I think my friend Teju Cole’s essay on the “Black Panther” attains that ideal in a satisfactory way.
It is often easy, as in this essay, to slip into memoir. I have a mild distrust of this voice: it is a distrust of the comfort that an easy access to the past offers. It is possible that I have on occasion tried to overcorrect this tendency. If you have ever read my essay “Where is your White Literature Section?” you will know what I mean. At a friend’s suggestion, I walked up to the counter at different bookshops in New York City one fine spring day and asked the salesperson there, “Excuse me, where is your white literature section?” Over and over again, I posed this question to helpful sales staff who—bewildered, patient, clueless, condescending, and in one case, angry—tried to tell me what to buy. At McNally Jackson, the nice sales guy said, “Who are the great white authors?” Immediately to his right was the seeming answer. Withdrawing a copy of Freedom half an inch from its place on the shelf, he gently intoned, “Franzen.” He also introduced me to other names, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth. In my essay, I talk of how wearying I found the exercise, not just what people said but the pretense I had to maintain throughout, this voice I had adopted as the Sacha Baron Cohen of American letters. I remember thinking to myself that I had dissembled, I had lied, and I would never be allowed to be on This American Life. But that unstable place, where earnestness gives way to exploration, and you have found a voice that is unsettling and maybe even disturbing and exhausting, is a place I want to visit again. I hope an enterprising and fun editor comes up with a compelling idea, or that inspiration strikes me at the right moment. I’d love to find out how English is spoken there and the voice in which I’d report from that place.
Amitava Kumar is a writer and a journalist. His latest book is A Time Outside This Time (Knopf, forthcoming in October 2021). Kumar’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, Harper’s, and many other publications. He is the Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College.
Five Ways For Writers To Avoid Oversharing
Today’s blog post comes from author Erika Dreifus
Not long ago, another writer paid me what I considered to be a supreme compliment. Essentially, she said that I write well on personal subjects without “oversharing.”
The comment pleased me, but it puzzled me, too. That’s because I’ve received plenty of criticism for being—well, let’s just say a bit too forthright with my words. And no small amount of that disapprobation has come in response to words on the page (or screen), rather than those flowing from my vocal chords.
But I do try to disclose judiciously. Therein rests the pleasure; the comment suggested that I’ve been at least somewhat successful in meeting that aim. When I considered it more carefully, I discerned some patterns that may have helped me earn my fellow writer’s praise. If “oversharing” concerns you, too—I’m well aware that not everyone experiences this particular anxiety—these five tips may be helpful.
1. Try the second-person point of view.
I know. You’ve heard that some editors detest the second-person point of view. You’ve heard correctly. But sometimes, it’s a technique that works. And sometimes, editors agree.
Some of my most autobiographical writing, in poetry and prose, has succeeded (I think) because it employs a mediating, distancing “you” to create what might be best described as a “safe space.” A space in which I’ve waded though some difficult material a little less fearfully. A space in which readers, for their part, might be a little less overwhelmed with the insistent thrum of what Joan Didion termed an “aggressive,” albeit admittedly sonoric
Case in point: the four-essay sequence I call the “Sunday in the City series,” a quartet that stemmed from an assault I experienced in early 2009. Initially, and instinctively, I drafted all four essays using the second-person perspective. (One, later published in a column featuring first-person work only, was adapted for that venue.)
As I worked, I came to see these deeply “personal” essays as being at least as much “about” the people they cited and alluded to as they were about me. And I didn’t think that was a bad thing. In fact, again recalling Didion, I perceived a benefit: an easing of the pressure embedded in the first-person entreaty to “listen to me, see it my way….” A chance—for both the readers and for me—to breathe.
Still not convinced? Will you perhaps try the third-person point of view instead? At the very least, it may get you started working on difficult material.
The third-person perspective sure seems to have helped the pseudonymous Anna Lyndsey, author of the new, buzzed-about memoir Girl in Dark. According to this New York Times T Magazine piece, when Lyndsey began writing about the strange illness at the heart of her story, “even the act of writing ‘I’ was enough to make her wretched. So she wrote in the third person instead. ‘The girl in the dark did this, she did that . . . it was a bit like a fairy tale.’” Notably, “[i]t was only after an agent, who had heard about her situation, asked to read her work and requested she change voice that Lyndsey entered her own story.”
I can’t help wishing the agent hadn’t made that request. I’d love to see the original—and to know if Lyndsey might, in fact, still prefer it.
2. Move beyond memoir.
Pro tip: “Personal” isn’t always a synonym for “autobiographical.” I write about many subjects that matter to me deeply, that I probably wouldn’t write about at all had they no links to my own experiences or viewpoints. But I’m not, primarily, a memoirist. Nor do I aspire to that title.
In fiction, I’ve sometimes transferred to characters the role of dealing with subjects that, for various reasons, I haven’t addressed in print in my own voice. Take, for instance, how lingering distress over an incident that I witnessed many years ago emerged some time later in the history belonging to one of my characters (a character who happened to be different from me in innumerable ways—male, a Baby Boomer, a spouse and parent, etc.).
But fiction isn’t the only alternative. Which issues matter to you? Which ideas get your blood going? What would you love to read more about? Maybe—just maybe—others may have addressed those topics, too, in ways you can analyze and discuss in writing. Maybe you needn’t re-invent the wheel.
For example, last year, rather than writing all about my own status as a woman who hasn’t had children, I pitched a review-essay on books relating to that topic. Yes, I wove into the final piece some of my autobiographical thoughts and circumstances. But the essay wasn’t about me. And that, I suspect, considerably reduced any risk of “oversharing.”
3. Take your time.
No more thought pieces. That’s it. Let’s keep our thoughts inside, think on them, our thoughts, let them become ideas even. Then write. Ok?
— Jennifer Gilmore (@jenwgilmore) January 27, 2015
Some writers seem to have an instant opinion on every single event (or pseudo-event) that makes the news. They consider themselves thought leaders and cultural commentators. In some select cases, they may merit such titles.
But too many insta-pieces suggest that, above all else, their authors simply love the sounds of their strident voices (or maybe the sounds of their equally strident computer keys, clicking away). Subject-matter expertise, reflective prose, critical reading and examination of other sources—sadly, too much insta-punditry lacks these staples.
I can be as susceptible to clickbait as the next person. But I’m getting better. These days, when I see certain headlines and bylines, I don’t think, There’s something I want to read. There’s something that might make me think about an issue in all of its complexity. No. I think, What is this person spilling from her guts/preaching about this time? And then I move on to the next item. Because sometimes, less really is more. Sometimes, it really is a matter of quality, not quantity. Sometimes, readers really don’t need to hear your every thought on every subject. Certainly not immediately.
I’m not saying one should never write a timely, self-inflected opinion piece. We all know that editors look favorably on work with a current “hook.” (As it happens, being child-free/childless also energized this pegged-to-the-news commentary.) But I do think that, for many of us, there is value to the notion of “everything in moderation.” And in taking one’s time.
4. Check (with) your sources.
A great deal of my published writing has connected, in some way, with my family history. Much of this has to do with the history of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, met and married in New York, and became the parents of an only child (my dad).
My paternal grandmother, who passed away in 2002, loved to talk and share stories. These days, she might be considered “an oversharer” (I cringed whenever she regaled companions with tales of my toddlerhood toilet-training triumphs). I believe in my bones, as the saying goes, that she would bless my telling her stories. Moreover, much of what rests behind this material is historical—and it’s “public” history, about persecution and war and immigration.
But that’s not the case with everything I write that may be inspired by family background or circumstances. Which is why, whether it’s a short story rooted in my maternal grandparents’ not-so-amicable divorce, or a poem written the morning after my young niece’s lead performance in her school’s winter musical, I share my work. With my mother. With my niece’s mother. (In that vein, if you write about her own offspring, you might pause and review Andrea Jarrell’s recent Washington Post piece titled “Why I’ve Quit Writing About My Children.”; at this point, not even receiving her children’s blessing is necessarily enough for Jarrell to proceed toward publication.)
In some cases, I’m asked for a simple change. In others, there may be a request that I not to attempt to publish the piece. Not now, anyway. Although I may sometimes wish they’d opine differently, having others “vet” my work this way helps avoid the sort of overshare whose impact may go beyond me to cause trouble or pain for those I care about most.
5. Confide in (trusted) others.
To an extent, this point overlaps with #3 and #4 above. So I’ll keep it brief:
Sometimes, we write to exorcise demons, large and small, acute or chronic, direct or intergenerational. But sometimes, sharing what’s obsessing us—over coffee with a close friend or in a 50-minute therapy hour—alleviates the pain sufficiently. Sometimes, when we hear ourselves articulate aloud what the problem is, we don’t need to take the story any further. We have shared it sufficiently—taking it further may indeed risk an overshare.
Ultimately, I can’t help suspecting that any tendencies I have to avoid oversharing may be due in part to some nature/nurture circumstances. In my case, for instance, having been born to parents who put a premium on privacy—you will never, ever find my parents on Facebook—likely has something to do with the lingering lure of discretion.
Then, I recall the cautionary lesson imprinted in my first after-college job, in which I worked for a government agency in Washington. We were routinely advised to think carefully before we spoke: “Imagine what you’re saying repeated on the front-page of the Washington Post.” That something dire might result was implicit.
Which raises a related point: I held that job during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. In other words, I’m a Gen Xer who came of age before email, before the Internet, before texting and blogging, and so on. Some Gen Xers have obviously embraced “viral” culture more freely than others; I’ve always been a bit of a “late adopter.”
Finally, there’s the fact that before I entered an MFA program, I’d already earned a PhD in history, which means that I’d spent a lot of time immersed in lives and worlds other than my own; I’d already learned how to read, think, and write beyond my own life and times.
But as the points above suggest, you don’t need nature, nurture, or six years of doctoral study in history to avoid oversharing in your writing. That capacity rests within every writer’s grasp. We all can reach for it. If we wish.
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories (Last Light Studio) which was named an ALA/Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. She writes poetry and prose in New York, where she also works as Media Editor for Fig Tree Books. Visit her online at www.erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter (@ErikaDreifus), where she tweets on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.”
Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good
By Michael Nye
Every Tuesday, the Missouri Review holds its weekly production meeting. This meeting keeps everyone up to date on all facets of the magazine’s production so that all, from editor-in-chief to the interns, know where we stand with the current and forthcoming issues of the magazine. After this production meeting, we break into genre groups – cleverly labeled “poetry” and “prose” – and discuss the manuscripts that will ultimately be passed for a second or third read.
Last week, a story was pitched that sparked a brief discussion on perseverance.
The author in question had sent us many stories over the years, dating back to before my time with TMR and, if I’m remembering the author’s biography correctly, dating back decades. The author has been sending work so frequently that our current intern staff, who only work for us for two semesters, recognized the author’s name. The stories are always good but have never been accepted for publication, and one of the interns wondered aloud about this writer’s constant effort to get into TMR. How does someone keep sending work to a magazine that keeps rejecting the work?
Assistant editor Evelyn Somers spoke up at this point, explaining that getting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, she said, when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never hear get the chance to read the writer’s work again. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.
But I’m familiar with this from the writer’s side, too. Since 2003, I have sent my fiction to One Story. According to their Submission Manager, way back on September 5, 2003, I sent them “The Third Child,” a story that they declined and which was never published anywhere (for, I assure you, good reason). Recently they turned down attempt number sixteen. That’s right: sixteen. I keep track of my stories on my laptop by number – I’m at story #83 now – and the majority of those stories are not good, or feel incomplete, or read like fragments of a fully realized story. Of those eighty three, sixteen of my stories have been sent to One Story. Every single one has been turned down. Sometimes, the editors say something encouraging. Other times, it’s a standard form rejection.
One Story is not alone: there are several fine journals that have been receiving my work since 2003, when I started graduate school, when I immediately decided that my fiction would be published everywhere, when I decided to send work out pretty much nonstop. Most of the stories I sent during graduate school were never published, but a few of them were. Of the stories I have sent One Story over the years, two were never published, and two are so new that they have yet to be picked up elsewhere. If publication is a measurement of the quality of your writing (arguable, to be sure), then I’ve only sent One Story my best (at that time) work. They always said, Thanks but we’re good.
I’m not picking on One Story: I could insert Tin House or New England Review in its place and the story would be exactly the same. No, no, no, no, nice try, thanks but no thanks, etc. I would love to tell you that back in 2003, I understood how the editorial decisions of a literary magazine were made, but, of course, I didn’t. I was just stubborn. And while being stubborn and egotistical and confident and (insert your own synonym here) may not be the best thing for a young writer unless those qualities are mixed with humility and a willingness to learn, I’m sure that being persistent with my story submissions has helped me to get my work published.
I submit my stories less often now; I write them slower, I’m more selective about where I send my work, and I’m not nearly as impatient to published as I used to be. But the persistent writer, the one who keeps trying us again and again, is a good thing. A new story to us once every six months, or year, or two years, whatever the pace might be that suits you, is good. Not just for us, but for other literary magazines as well. And, good for the writer.
You can quit anytime. Why quit now?
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Lessons in Failure and Writing a Novel
By Michael Nye
This week, I decided to (finally) start spring cleaning my house. I’m a fairly neat person, so my idea of “messy” is very different from your idea of messy. But there were a couple of spots in my house that definitely needed to be cleaned up. There is one room in particular in my house that could have been called an office, could have been called a spare bedroom, but instead has become The Room I Don’t Go Into That Has All These Extra Boxes of Who Knows What.
This particular room had all the trappings of unnecessary accumulation: cardboard boxes still taped from three or four moves ago; scattered piles of boxes that had never been read; stacks of papers with Post-It notes that read “To Keep”; Christmas wrapping paper; a spare mattress; still wrapped mementos from my grandfather’s house. There was a layer of dust over all of it, and the majority of these things ended up curbside for trash pickup.
In this room are several bookshelves (of course!) and on one of these shelves are the literary journals that my fiction has appeared in. These go back a few years now, way back to Sou’wester and Timber Creek Review. Along with my two contributor copies, I found something else. My graduate program gave us the option of having our thesis to not only be stored in its library archives, but also to have it bound so we could keep a copy of our work. It sorta looks likes a school textbooks from the 1950s. So among all these literary journals was my graduate thesis: “Oscillations: A Novel.”
Let’s set aside the fact that “Oscillations” is a terrible title for any novel. Here was the idea. The novel is about two men, a father and a son, and about their relationship over the course of, oh, fifteen years or so. The novel goes linearly backwards, beginning with the father’s death and ending with the son as a young boy. Writing this paragraph, I think “Oh, that doesn’t sound so horrible.”
But, from rereading it – or, at least, rereading as much as I could stand, and then starting to flip through the chapters (I made it through chapter 3) – I assure you, it is a really terrible novel. Maybe that’s harsh. Rereading my old work usually fills me with a sort of wry detachment, recognizing the guy who wrote these words, and thinking about how far removed (I hope) my writing now is from him.
In eleven years, I’ve written four books: three novels and one story collection. Only the story collection has ever seen the light of day; the first two novels, including my thesis, were never published and the third novel is making the rounds with agents right now. I’d like to believe I’ve learned a few things about how fiction works over this time, but perhaps it is more accurate to write that I have learned how my fiction does – or in many cases, does not – work. Here are four things I keep in my mind with my novel writing:
–Time Is The Enemy. All of my novels have struggled with the question of spatial and temporal distance. Or, in non-vocabulary words, time. Novel #1 was a terrible rip off of Charles Baxter’s novel “First, Light” and was a hard lesson that novels need forward momentum (even if it is nonlinear) in order to be compelling. My second novel focused on one summer. My third novel is told in two parts, with a fifteen year gap. All of these decisions about time were very conscious in order to eliminate questions I don’t want readers to think about and highlight elements I do want readers to think about. Whether or not it works that way, who knows?
–Skip the Boring Stuff. Seems obvious, right? But one of the things that I thought, incorrectly, that novels do was allow the writer to digress. Perhaps it is more accurate to say “expand” rather than digress, but even expansions are still written in benefit to the main narrative of a novel. And what might be interesting to me as a writer could be unnecessary or even dull to a reader. There are many writers who can digress or expand in a way that is compelling, but thus far, I’m not able to do that. I like there to be a little less conversation and a little more action.
Which leads rather directly to …
–Let’s Plot! Flannery O’Connor has an essay about writing short stories called, you guessed it, “Writing Short Stories.” Most of the advice on writing that she had read or heard was absurdly bad, and O’Connor cites an example of a friend of hers who was taking a correspondence course in writing, and the course had chapter headings such as “The Story Formula for Writers,” “How to Create Characters,” and my personal favorite, “Let’s Plot!” Many famous or influential (and so forth) contemporary writers who are classified as “literary” are dismissive of plot as being too restrictive of their work, arguing that plot gets in the way of what is really compelling to their writing. Graduate programs, with their focus on the short story, tend to shorten the writer’s attention span, and in fifteen to twenty pages, often a story does not need a plot, per se.
For me, though, that’s wrong. That leads to some really boring novels and stories, even one’s that are highly praised and win awards. Reading fifty to seventy five pages where nothing really happens leads me to chucking the book across the room (as you know, I’m serious about my book throwing). At the most basic level, we read or watch narratives to answer one question: What happens next? Oh, you can make it more complicated if you want to, and a good writer probably should, but I’ve written enough pages to know that you need something to happen, events that force decisions, characters in trouble, something to balance out all that interiority. And I argue this as a person who my friends and writers and students know has a bit of an elitist streak when it comes to fiction: yup, I need some good ol’ plot development. Hooray for good writing and style and all that, but I need to make sure Things Happen to keep my interest in my own work.
–On To The Next One. I can probably tinker with a story or novel until the end of days. However, there comes a point when the novel feels as complete or as finished as I’m going to make it. I certainly didn’t recognize the weaknesses in each novel when it was completed, but I see them now, and I see that I moved onto the next project at the right time. Or, at least, I’m pretty sure I did. It’s very difficult to go back to old stories or old novels and salvage the bones: the person who wrote those pieces is long gone, and the work feels haunted by him. There is a point where I just have to let go. Recognizing the difference between “move on” and “try again” is not an easy distinction, but I think I’m much better at clearly seeing my work than I used to be.
Besides, the worst that can happen? I’m just going to write the next thing. And, really, what’s so terrible about that?
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Death of a Mentor
By Angie Netro
A little over a year ago, my writing mentor – Lester Goran – passed away. I learned about his death by accident. While sifting through mail sent to my childhood home, I found an Arts and Sciences magazine from my alma mater, the University of Miami. Flipping through the magazine’s pages, I saw Professor Goran’s picture, then the year of this birth (1928), then the hyphen, then the year of his death (2014).
The last time I’d corresponded with Professor Goran was a year before, when I’d e-mailed him news of my Creative Writing PhD acceptance. The last time I’d heard his voice was via phone a few months before that: when I’d asked him for a recommendation letter. And the last time I’d seen him was ten years ago. Before my MFA graduation, I sat in his office, crying, thanking him for everything he’d done for me and promising him that, one day, I would make him proud.
When Professor Goran taught me, he was already in his seventies: a tall, sturdy man, but his soft shuffle through the English Department announced his age. I knew a sad truth; I might not have a lot of time to make him proud. And, back then, making Professor Goran proud meant one thing: publication. Making Professor Goran proud meant getting my stories out there in the world.
But then I graduated, moved home to Baltimore, began teaching composition full-time, disengaged from my first love, became engaged with someone else, nursed my grandmother through an aneurysm, stood alongside my mother while cancer took her life…and in all that time, about ten years, the only thing I published was a short piece of non-fiction, one featured in a now-defunct Baltimore magazine, a piece I didn’t even publish under my own name. The pen name I chose: a pairing of my first name with Professor Goran’s.
But Lester, too, was a pen name. I believe Professor Goran’s real first name was Sylvester. I’d told him once how much I wanted to shed my last name and start anew, but Professor Goran insisted I keep my name as is: Angie Netro. He never articulated his reasoning, but he often referred to me as a fusion of my first and last names: Angienetro. He’d begun this habit when, as a University of Miami undergraduate, I’d taken his autobiography course. Professor Goran had a reputation for being tough, for telling it like it is, for giving very little instruction. Our first assignment in that class consisted of a few words: Write about your secret self. And, after he’d read our pieces, he sat in front of the class, our essays in his hand. From what I remember, he went through the essays, commenting on each one out loud.
“This is not so good,” he might say.
“Eh,” he might say about another.
I remember feeling petrified, dreading the moment he’d announce his thoughts about my work. But then he fused my name for the first time: Angienetro. Then he read my essay out loud. Then he said something complimentary, something I wish I could remember, but everything he said in the years that followed I memorized as best I could:
Angienetro, you should keep writing.
Angienetro, you should take the next class I’m teaching.
Angienetro, you should apply to UM for your MFA.
There’s something magical that happens when someone believes in you. A buoyancy that sustains you even after hard truths are told: Angienetro, this story’s not working. Start over. A kind of persistent, unconditional love, a love you never doubt: Angienetro, even when you screw up, I’ll forgive you.
In the ten years between my graduation and his death, I may have spoken to Professor Goran only three or four times. One of those times was back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published. Back then, I remember thinking: I’m so happy; I can talk to Professor Goran now. Where this mindset came from…that communication with my mentor could only happen if I’d achieved something…I’m still working that out. It certainly didn’t come from Professor Goran himself. I can’t remember a single conversation with him about publishing, about publication. This sentiment (success! then communication!) came from a place deep within myself, a place I still can barely explore. But I will try.
A few months before Professor Goran’s death, my mother died. On her last coherent day, she cupped my face with a bloated hand and said, “Angie, I will be so proud of you.” Then she corrected herself: “I am. I am so proud of you.” My beautiful mother, my tough mother: what she said was an unfortunate slip of the tongue. At that moment, her body was full of Zofran and Fentanyl and all other kinds of drugs, drugs that were helping her leave this life as peacefully as possible. I know my mother was proud of me. Of that I have no doubt. But her last words reminded me of a pressure I had put on myself long, long ago. A pressure that had come about because of my mother, but a pressure that had never come from her: as her only child, I wanted my life to somehow fix everything that had gone wrong with hers. She never got the chance to go to college; I did. She never really fell in love; I did. She worked for years in a corporate job that never truly made her happy…I worked at writing, but was I a writer? I’m still unsure about that. And I guess because Professor Goran was my writing teacher, he became associated with that particular aspect of my life, and because I felt unsuccessful in that area, I only talked to him a few times after I graduated. Back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published, I thought Professor Goran would be proud of me and so I called. After an hour’s conversation, I told him I’d talk to him soon, and he said in a soft voice, “Yeah, yeah.” In other words: Angienetro, don’t say things you don’t mean.
On the phone in 2007, I imagined Professor Goran in his office. I called on a Monday because, for the four years I knew him at Miami, I spent almost every Monday afternoon in his office, listening. Only now do I realize: Professor Goran rarely talked about writing, about the craft of writing. Instead, he’d tell me anecdotes about his life, about growing up in the slums of Pittsburgh. He’d talk about things he’d seen on TV. He adored HBO’s Six Feet Under. He’d recount a scene from that show in precise detail, and then he’d end with a complimentary value judgment, one he’d never explain. Only now do I see the ways he made me participate – analytically – both about the world and about myself. When he bestowed compliments about me or about my writing, he never explained himself, letting me craft my own interpretation. When he criticized, he never explained himself then, either.
Once, Professor Goran said, Angienetro, for such a smart girl, you really are stupid. I honestly can’t remember the context in which he’d said this to me, but I do remember the comment was not intended to be mean; it was intended to instruct. It was an honest statement, one from a generous, kind man who cared about me, who wished me the best, who always was my champion, even when I didn’t deserve it. His comment did not reference intelligence, but character. He was trying to help me; he was trying to warn me. He saw in me something I’d yet to see in myself. He wanted me to figure it out: “stupid” yet another judgment bestowed but never explained.
And on the day I learned of his death, I finally knew how right he’d been, how stupid I’d been. How silly: to think that his friendship, his mentorship, depended on my publishing credits. All those years I could’ve had with him; all those empty hours in which I could’ve called, and I didn’t. All those things I could’ve said to him; all those things he could’ve said to me. One of the great friendships of my life: how easily I discarded it. Because of shame. Because of fear. Because I wasn’t writing. Because I wasn’t being published. How incredibly stupid.
Professor Goran, I get it now. Our friendship wasn’t really about writing at all, was it? The writing was the means through which we recognized each other.
Angienetro, you grew up in a blue collar, run-down neighborhood? Me too.
Angienetro, you love recklessly, completely, with everything you’ve got and then some? Me too.
I imagine my mentor in his office, with its huge Henry James portrait, its stuffed bookshelves. I imagine his voice, its soft tenor. I imagine him saying something he most likely never would’ve said if he were still here:
Angienetro, when I talked about stupidity I was talking about this: this pressure you’ve put on yourself. Stop it. Stop it right now. Do you see what it’s done? Do you? Do you finally see?
Yes, Professor Goran. I do.
How Assumedly White Characters are a Disservice to, well, Everyone
photo via natello-universe.tumblr.com
By Hannah Cuthbertson
I’ve convinced myself that if Buzzfeed was a real, living person, that person would be me. Their posts are funny, they put these sticker like things on their best articles that just say “YASS”, and there’s a plethora of cat memes. I am Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed is me.
But, all humor aside, I came across a post a few weeks ago called, “What a ‘racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents”. Quick disclaimer: I’ve never actually read the series (I know I know, shame on me. I’m getting around to it, don’t worry). But I am a fan of the movies, and of writing in general, and of Buzzfeed. In the article, biracial Buzzfeed community member Alanna Bennet pulls from Tumblr artistry in an effort to imagine Hermione as African American, and even goes on to say: “As I grew up I stopped comparing myself as much to Hollywood actors and tried to train myself out of seeing white as the default for fictional characters.”
At the time, I thought it was just an interesting take on a topic I hadn’t known much about. This was, afterall, my first exposure to “racebent” characterization, and it led me down a winding internet path of all sorts of things- Disney princesses as races other than what had been originally depicted, book characters, movie characters. It was fascinating, interesting, and just kind of neat to think about because, to be honest, I hadn’t thought of it at all before.
It should be known that I spent my childhood in a southern Alaskan suburb where racism and discrimination seemed virtually nonexistent. I was lucky enough to be raised in a safety net of equality, and those values will be with me for the entirety of my life. Of course, I noticed that the African American girl that lived across the street from me, whom I rode bikes with frequently, looked different than me. But do you know who else looked different than me? My tall friend. And my blonde friend. And my friend with blue eyes and my friend with brown eyes and basically every other friend that I’ve ever had because (shocker!) I don’t have a twin. My neighbors’ skin color, while yes, different than mine, was not a trait that differentiated them from me any more than any other physical trait, be it eye color or hair color, would differentiate me from anybody else. People are people. It really is that simple.
So imagine my surprise when we moved to a small(ish) town in Virginia which might as well have been the state’s very own Mason-Dixon line. Go to ten minutes south of my old house and there are cowboy hats and confederate flags. Go ten minutes north and everyone has an Obama-Biden bumper sticker on their car. Calling my experience in the lower-forty-eight a culture shock would be quite the understatement.
Then, at the ripe age of eighteen, I packed my bags and came out to Missouri. For the most part, I went my entire freshman year without discrimination ever really coming up. I was (falsely) under the impression that my generation was smarter, better, and kinder than that of our grandparents and great-grandparents; that the confederate flags waving from the truck beds of high-schoolers in my county had been an abnormality. The rest of the world couldn’t really be that bad, right?
Then, Ferguson happened. And, more recently, the infamous SAE video hit the internet. As a human being, I was appalled. As a member of the Greek community, I was ashamed.
Not long after, two officers were shot in Ferguson. Then, an African American student was arrested and beat outside a bar near UVA.
Suddenly, the Buzzfeed post about a “racebent” Hermione seemed less like a fun display of Tumblr art and more like a call to action. I re-read it again, and, as someone who wants to be a writer, I was empowered.
In her Buzzfeed post, Bennet, multiple times, includes quotes from Dominican American writer Junot Diaz. The most powerful, taken from a lengthy passage in her post, is this: “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
So I did some digging, and I found out just how much that reflection is denied thanks to a phenomenon called whitewashing. Turns out, there are a plethora of Caucasian models on the covers of books that actually have racially ambiguous characters. Now, maybe there is a theoretical advantage to writing racially ambiguous characters- if the author never identifies a race, then, in theory, everyone should be able to see themselves as that character, right? But thanks to the cover art, media, film adaptations, and unfortunately, society, racially ambiguous characters are often assumedly white. Which is a problem for so many reasons.
More disturbingly, much of this whitewashing occurs in children’s and young-adult literature. Just last year, The New York Times published an article about this very issue, and cited research done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that found only 93 children’s books to be about African American characters out of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013.
This got me thinking about my own characters. More often than not, the characters I write about are young and female. Is it because I am young and female? Probably. But I am also white. And while I can’t think of an instance where I’ve explicitly stated the race of one of my characters, it’s fair to say than anyone reading my work could make the assumption that they are Caucasian as well.
So then I asked myself- why don’t I state the race of my characters? And am I doing something wrong by not explicitly including a diverse cast of characters? Could I be doing something better?
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer is this: African Americans, along with every other race and demographic, shouldn’t have to turn to the internet to find “racebent” characters in order to identify with literature. The creators of such literature should be creating characters that are vivid not only in their emotional grit but in their representation of the world and of people. People, who are vivid and beautiful and inspiring no matter the color of the skin or their cultural identity.
So, moving forward, I am making it my mission to diversify my writing. I am saying goodbye to assumedly white and racially ambiguous characters. There will be characters who are vivid and real and who have stories that are vivid and real. Because I do want to be published. I do want to be an author, and it pains me to picture a little girl like Bennet once was, reading my book and not being able to see herself in a character that I created.
And, I hope, I’m not the only one.
How Learning to Write is Like Making Alfredo
By Hannah Cuthbertson
On my laptop, there are approximately one hundred and sixty three poems, three (sort of) finished drafts of manuscripts, six(ish) definitely unfinished manuscripts, and twelve document folders jam-picked with half finished scenes, assorted chapters, and hopeless outlines.
Oh, did I mention that I’m nineteen-going-on-twenty?
My passion for creative writing began as soon as I could read. I have a blue plastic bin in my bedroom closet filled with wide-ruled spiral notebooks full of very awful (but equally adorable, if I do say so myself) stories that I used to write in kindergarten while the other kids were coloring or stealing each others crayons or, much to the dismay of my even then germ-a-phobic self, picking their noses as all kindergartners seem to do. Creating characters and plotlines wasn’t a hobby that my peers seemed to share in.
Now, as I’ve matured (a little bit), persevered through high school, and have almost completed my first two years of college, I can say that writing isn’t a hobby frequently prized amongst most of the teenage demographic, either. Sure, in high school even the “cool kids” were up to date on their cult-fiction titles (mainly the ones that were turned into movies). Yet very few were interested in actually contributing to the content of the bookshelves they found themselves browsing. Then, there was me. I didn’t just read books while I should’ve been taking notes in class, I dreamt up books. The majority of my notebooks were filled halfway with actual notes and halfway with sporadic scenes that I couldn’t get out of my head. I was a regular attendee of my high-school’s creative writing club, and our attendance peaked at ten and bottomed out at three.
Writing, no matter how much people love to read, doesn’t seem to be the “hip” or “in” thing for teens to talk about doing. This may be due, in part, to the public education system (I’m talking k-12 here) and how it seems to place a great emphasis on reading creative works, but not much emphasis on the importance of fostering that creativity in its students. Walk into any high school English class and the first question the teacher will ask is, “Read anything good lately?” when really a more introspective question might be “Written anything good lately?”.
We’re taught English by reading literature, but very rarely taught it by learning how to write it. Whoever decided this was the best way to teach clearly wasn’t a “learn-by-doing” kind of pal. Then, of course, teachers are aggravated when their students’ essays come out all too mechanic and scripted, and claim they need to be more fluid and thoughtful in their writing. But if all they’re taught is to churn out topic sentences and five paragraph essays, what do we really expect them to turn in?
Only in my sophomore year of high school did my then-English teacher encourage us to write creatively and give us a forum on which to discuss our work with other students. This experience stands out to me as a highlight not only because I enjoyed it at the time, but because I can look back on it now and see its value. One of my favorite research papers I’ve ever written, I wrote in her class. I can say with fair certainty that it has to do with how she made writing more than just something we did for a grade. Granted, all good things must come to an end, and by the end of the term we all shuffled back into SOL-taking mode and gone were the days of writers-group-Fridays. But I’m distanced enough from my then-fifteen year old self to appreciate the method behind the madness.
Compare it to cooking. You can either give someone a box noodles and a jar of sauce and tell them to follow the instructions, or you can give them the ingredients and let them figure out how to make it all by themselves. Now, I’m a college student, and I love boxed food just as much as the next girl, but there’s nothing about boiling a pot of water and pouring in some dry noodles that makes me a better cook. What does make me a better cook is when I experiment with different seasonings and flavors and make it up as I go. For example, did you know you could make alfredo sauce with butter, cream cheese, and that grated parmesan that comes in the green tube? Neither did I, until I did it. Granted, I’ve made some pretty horrendous things. But have I made some pretty great things, too? Absolutely.
I was lucky enough in high school to have several teachers who helped foster my passion and creativity, who gave me the ingredients I needed and encouraged me to create, who applauded me when I succeeded and encouraged me when I was struggled. I consider myself to be a continuing beneficiary of such luck now that I am in college and am still surrounded by wonderful people and instructors who are doing the same. My writing is continually being pushed, poked, and prodded by people who see something worthwhile in me, and I’m grateful for those people. But it shouldn’t be up to a select few teachers who want to spice up their lesson plan by adding in some creative flare. I think that if we’re going to change the landscape, if we’re going to get more young people like myself writing quality work and openly talking about it, then we need to encourage not just the people who ask for encouragement but also the people who don’t even know they could use it. I think, also, that this starts with breaking down the barriers of what defines a good writer or reader.
There is no specific box you have to fit yourself into to be writer. You can love reading Cosmopolitan and the New Yorker with equal measure. You can love classic literature and young-adult fiction (Divergent, I’m lookin’ at you). Good writing comes in all shapes and sizes and styles, and the first step in overhauling the way writing is taught in public schools is by changing the perception of who should be encouraged to, well, write. Then, and only then, maybe writing will be a “hip” and “cool” thing for teens to do.
Or, maybe, I’m just too hopeful for my own good.
To My Brothers and Sisters in the Not-Real-Deal Business
Today’s blog post is by writer William Bradley
But if you are a proud, searching “failure” in this society, and we can take ironic comfort that there are hundred of thousands of us, then it is smart and honorable to know what you attempted and why you are now vulnerable to the body blows of those who once saw you robed in the glow of your vision and now only see an unmade bed and a few unwashed cups on the bare wooden table of a gray day. — Seymour Krim
Much has been written already about Ryan Boudinot’s article in The Stranger, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.” The article is written as an insider’s revelation of the uncomfortable truths writing teachers dare not utter for fear of upsetting a lucrative status quo, and to be sure some people (or, to be precise, some of my Facebook friends) seemed to regard it as such. But many more, it seems (again, using the completely scientific sampling of my Facebook friends) found it rather boorish, perhaps even cruel, in Boudinot’s callous dismissal of “the vast majority” of his students’ efforts, and his claims that very few of the students he worked with in this low-residency MFA program were the “Real Deal.”
I don’t like to attack other writers online or in public. I used to do that, early in my career, and I’m deeply embarrassed by my own youthful arrogance these days. Good literary citizenship means supporting each other and promoting good work, not establishing our names by complaining about our fellow writers. However, this article has me rather frustrated.
I will say that, given his opinion that the majority of his creative writing students wasted his time, I agree with his decision to get out of teaching—it’s probably for the best for all involved. And I also agree when he says that you can’t be a serious writer without first being a serious reader. I might even go farther than he does and say that it’s not enough to know the “great works”—writers also need to be reading their contemporaries in literary magazines and journals in order to really know the field. I’ve known aspiring writers who couldn’t be bothered to read, and yeah, they were fooling themselves.
But I can’t get behind claims like “Writers are born with talent.” Everything in my experience—as both a writer and a teacher—tells me that this piece of conventional wisdom (which, I hasten to point out, is a cliché as old as the Muses) is wrong. Had I been born with talent, I don’t think it would have taken me three years of drafting, writing, revising, editing, submitting, crying, re-revising, re-submitting, etc. before I finally published that first essay. Of course, I’m probably not the Real Deal, but most of my writer friends—some of whom are very highly-regarded—could tell you similar stories.
I think writing is, largely, a skill one learns through voracious reading and practice. Now, I think there are some people who are naturally curious about the world and who want to use words to understand, explain, and interpret the world and its people. That, I think, is what motivates a lot of writers, and it’s the one thing that I can’t really teach students. But again, I don’t think anyone is born with the ability to write or craft compelling stories. I’m guessing that “talent” is what we mistakenly call habits instilled at a young age, habits that can often look like the creative impulse was somehow divinely-inspired or genetic in nature. For example, my father used to make up stories to entertain us, then– as we got older– he started reading to us. The Adventures of Robin Hood. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Tom Sawyer. Tortilla Flat. I wasn’t born a writer—to my shame, I wasn’t even born a talker– but I’m convinced that those early experiences of learning to respect and love storytelling and literature helped shape me into one.
I’m not sure I can agree with this, either: “If you’re able to continue writing while embracing the assumption that no one will ever read your work, it will reward you in ways you never imagined.” Well, maybe. And we shouldn’t write just to get praise (or Facebook “likes”), of course. But part of the reason I write is because I want someone else to engage with my ideas. Sure, not every idea needs to be let out into the world, but I’m not sure writing without any expectation of having an audience is really, well, writing– much like masturbating isn’t the same as having sex, to use a comparison I made in an essay published recently in The Essay Review. If you don’t think your ideas are worth sharing, why write them down in the first place, where they might be discovered? Why not just be content to amuse yourself with your deep thoughts?
Much has been written about Boudinot’s insensitivity towards those who write memoirs of child abuse and trauma, as he joked “having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” I’ll admit, I flinched when I read that line too—not only because it was cruel towards, presumably, real people who had suffered real abuse, but because I could also see what he was trying to say, and it was painful to see him garble the message so badly. It is true, surviving abuse does not make one a writer, and having a traumatic situation does not necessarily mean that one has the skills to compose a compelling story. Had he said it like that, I think most of us would have to acknowledge the point. But instead, he decided to go with ill-advised dark comedy. He made the joke that some of us might make among close and trusted friends—the people with whom we play Cards Against Humanity, the people who know we wouldn’t really wish more abuse upon victims. It was a gambit, I think, designed to establish intimacy with the reader—a remark meant to be droll, maybe followed by a knowing wink. But instead, it winds up being the most alienating part of an already-alienating squib.
Far worse than the ill-advised attempt at dark humor, though, is this: “For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults.”
I’m sorry, but that’s just bullshit. And it’s the kind of bullshit student essayists and memoirists have been hearing for a long time. I taught creative nonfiction in an MFA program for two years, and I didn’t encounter a single narcissist. I think I have had a single student in my entire career who wrote nonfiction in an attempt to make himself look awesome (he was an undergrad, though). The majority were students who were genuinely committed to creating art out of their experiences and ideas. I directed three amazing MFA theses during that time, and I’m really proud of all three of those students for the amazing work they produced.
They were not, of course, the Real Deal, if I understand Boudinot’s use of the term to mean “born with talent.” I also do not believe that I am the Real Deal—it has taken me about a decade to finish writing my first book, after all. I am comforted somewhat, though, in my belief that most of you reading this would also be reluctant to describe yourselves as Real Deals—I’ve met very few people who were genuinely that arrogant. And I submit to you that, based on the backlash against an article that seemed designed to elicit smiles of familiarity from those “in the know” regarding creative writing programs, Ryan Boudinot is not the Real Deal either—the Real Deal, I suspect, wouldn’t have written (let alone published) such a flawed, divisive, and ultimately poorly-articulated article.
Perhaps Real Deals don’t actually exist? Perhaps those of us trying to get our voices heard through our writing are working hard, falling down, and picking ourselves back up again on a somewhat-regular basis? And maybe—and I know, it can be difficult to find common ground with people who seem really, really obnoxious—maybe, we can acknowledge that Ryan Boudinot is among our ranks?
I think it would be nice if Ryan Boudinot apologized for his article, even if he thinks he has been tragically misunderstood, because any misunderstanding must come, at least in part, from his failure to live up to his own standards when it comes to writing quality. I know some people have demanded an apology, even going so far as to suggest that he may not be the right person for his new job as the director of Seattle City of Literature. As irritated as I am by his article, I think those of us in the Not Real Deal Business ought to resist the urge to grab our (digital) pitchforks and torches or work to harm him personally. He wrote something that didn’t live up to his own ambitions for it—who among us hasn’t failed in such a way? Furthermore, his lousy article revealed its author to be one of us—that is, not the Real Deal. I suspect that for someone like Ryan Boudinot, that is probably punishment enough.
William Bradley’s creative and scholarly work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and Missouri Review. He is a contributing editor/ pop culture columnist for The Normal School and an assistant editor at River Teeth, and he writes about essays for Utne Reader. He lives in Canton, New York, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University. Visit him online at williambradleyessayist.com
The Struggle Is Real; Or, False Author Narratives
By Michael Nye
Recently, writer Ann Bauer published an essay on Salon that caught the attention of the literary world. In her piece, Bauer discussed one of the elements of being a writer that is often underreported: how a writer makes enough money in order to write and, specifically, being a writer who is financially supported by a wealthy spouse, family, or trust fund. Bauer writes about two specific instances where a writer, in front of a wide audience, spouts the oft-told tale that to be a writer one has to work really hard in Dickensian poverty before making it big time through sheer drive and determination.
In my opinion, we do an enormous “let them eat cake” disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed. I can’t claim the wealth of the first author (not even close); nor do I have the connections of the second. I don’t have their fame either. But I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job.
One of my friends who posted this essay on Facebook, the writer Victoria Barrett, asked other writers to post their How in a public forum. She asked a series of questions: “how do you fund your writing life? Do you struggle and make it look easy? Is it fairly easy, financially? Did your parents pay for your Ivy education, your car, the down payment on your house? What’s your writerly money story, crass or not?” She poster her own answer here.
So here goes:
I fund my writing life by working full-time, which, if you’re reading this on the Missouri Review website, you probably already know. My position is nine-to-five, and mostly administrative; I’m in front of a computer most of the day and there is no free time to pull up a Word.doc of my novel and work on it. For the past ten years, I’ve worked in academia, first as an adjunct, earning anywhere from $2500 to $4000 per class at various universities in St. Louis (Lindenwood, Missouri-St. Louis, and Washington University). During this time, I also tended bar and worked twelve (official) hours at River Styx, the latter of which is where I was able to get health insurance. Also, during the summer, I was the director of the Summer Writers Institute at Washington University. All told, this combination of jobs earned me around 35K per year.
I don’t think I give the impression that my life is easy, nor do I think I give the impression that life is overly hard. That’s something that would best be asked of my students, the people that see me day-to-day these last five years since I’ve joined the Missouri Review. I wear a suit to work; I drive a 2002 Civic. Everyone has complaints about their monthly finances, but it’s accurate to say that, no, I don’t have serious money problems. I graduated from a state university through a combination of academic scholarships and my grandfather’s support. I paid my own way through graduate school. I’m unmarried and don’t have children. There is more to it than this, and even writing this paragraph, I have to resist the urge to through in caveats – wait, it was really hard because of This and This and This and That! –but it should be pretty clear: while every individual has a tale of woe somewhere in his/her past, I was a white middle class boy who is now a white middle-class man.
Thinking about Victoria’s post, I think back to a couple of years ago when I ruptured my Achilles. This was 2011. I was on crutches for months, went through rehab, and was unable to run for almost six months. All of it was pretty awful. But, I had health insurance. I paid almost nothing out of pocket for the diagnosis, surgery, and rehabilitation. That’s a privilege most Americans, let alone writers, don’t have.
I am very, very fortunate.
Last weekend, writer Fred Venturini discussed how he got published in an essay on Medium. His response? Luck. But, when he wrote about it in more detail, it was a bit more complicated. He explained how he had been writing for years, and that he found time around his life – Fred works full-time, and he and his wife have a toddler – to get the work done.
I have been asked in interviews before how I find the time to write. I always found that question strange, simply because to me, it sounds like you’re asking someone “How do you find the time to play video games? Or hunt? Or scrapbook? Or shop?” We make time for the things we love to do; we have to find time for the stuff we don’t.
Ann Bauer and Victoria Barrett are right: the story of being up before dawn is the story I prefer to tell. It’s a true story, just as Fred’s story is a true story … but it’s an incomplete story. And when we intentionally misrepresent our writer income, when we buy into this “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative, we end up putting a generation of writers and artists into a spiral of debt and servitude. With transparency, with honesty about who we are and how we work, that is something we should be able to help our students, our readers, and our audience avoid for themselves and understand all the better.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Literature on Lockdown: First Time Inside
My initial experience in a level 4 maximum-security prison was horrifying. I was a first time felon who just arrived at Calipatria State Prison, a world I knew about only by reputation. It is known for high rates of assaults on staff, including when several gang members ran up in the program office aiming high and stabbed up a captain, sergeant, and some other ranking COs. They assigned me to a cell occupied by another inmate. Insider were some bunk beds and him. AS the blue cell door firmly slammed close, it felt like would never open again. I was trapped in there with a man I had never seen before. Meeting him was the scariest experience of my life.
It wasn’t that he had an intimidating presence. He was only about 5-foot-4 inches tall, and 160 pounds. Although he was from a notorious gang, he was over fifty-years-old and retired. Plus we were alone and I had a good size advantage. On that note, I was lucky–most of the time the size advantage belongs to the prisoner who has been down for years working out religiously.
It wasn’t that he was a convicted murderer. I am convicted of second degree murder and attempted voluntary manslaughter and can handle violent people. I also understood them. Usually, don’t start none and be a man, and there won’t be none. I had that covered.
It wasn’t that I was 3200 miles from Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, my place of birth and sphere of influence. In California, anyone who carries himself like a man will be okay.
It was when he told me that he had been incarcerated for over thirty years on a fifteen-to-life sentence. That scared me to death. His words hit me with the realization that I may never ever go home again.
The judge handed me over a sentence of 55 years to life, but it didn’t feel for real. My mind dealt with it by telling itself, we will get out on appeal–that everything would be okay. However, my cellie was living proof that they don’t ever have to let you go. Forever-ever was a reality that I became sober to.
Imagine being trapped in the middle of a war zone indefinitely. Racial tension fills the air. Inmates are only housed with those of the same race. Those of multiple races have to pick a side. When a person of one race gets into a physical combat with another, it causes an instant chain reaction–a riot happens between those racial groups. Shanks come out. Correctional Officers fire live ammunition from a min-14 rifle, as well as tear gas, wooden blocks and beanbags at those , supposedly armed, with warning. In the mist of chaos and fast moving hands, they aim to stop the violence and protect unarmed victims. However, often hit are those defending themselves. I’d rather take my odds against a shank than a gun, but that choice isn’t up to me.
Everyone is punished for the conduct, even if they were in their cells when the violence happened. The prison is locked down. All visits are cancelled. The family member or girlfriend you need to see to keep you sane and human is told “No visiting today.” Their time, money and efforts on making the trip to some small town near nowhere are wasted.
During the lockdown, no packages, or canteen are allowed for up to 90 days.
Once you run out of food, you will be dependent on the state to feed you. They don’t always do a good job. The food is often cold on lockdowns because Correction Officers have to do the serving and it takes them a long time to deliver each tray to each individual cell. Dinner is served at 5:30 pm. The next meal isn’t until 6:00 am … eleven and a half hours later. A growling stomach hampers positive thoughts.
The state doesn’t provide deodorant, lotion, or decent toothpaste. (Sometimes they have tooth powder.) Running out of those items means your cellie has to smell your breath and underarm odor in addition to smelling each other take a crap. This makes living with another human being in the small bathroom space rough on the nose and mind.
Other important mental needs aren’t met. They have a counselor, but they don’t do any counseling. The traumatic experiences you’ve been through aren’t addressed, as groups often aren’t available due to lockdowns, lack of funding, and being to far from a major city for volunteers to regularly make it. More traumatic experiences happen and go untreated. Instead of rehabilitation, you are more likely to become worse.
You are cut off from calling your family. Lockdowns mean no phone calls. Even when there is no lockdown, phone usage is restricted to once a month for new inmates until they are assigned a job. Lifers are the last on the waiting list to get hired, so it may take years. Meanwhile, you get one chance at a fifteen minute call that your family has to accept the collect charges for per month.
You try to maintain a certain level of dignity, but it’s hard with all the searches. Everywhere you go, you have to clear a metal detector and be frisked. Often there are cell searches where they degradingly strip-search you.
You become uselsss to your family. You are helpless to provide for the children you love with all your heart. You become useless to help your mother as she ages and needs you. Inside of being the breadwinner, you have become the burden.
My life in prison is a physical, mental, and emotional torture that may never end and that scares the hell out of me.
Rahsaan Thomas is the sports editor for San Quentin News. He is also the co-author of Uncaged Stories. He was freatued on the Missouri Review’s “Literature on Lockdown” series for his essay “I Write from a Cell.” The 44-year-old native New Yorker is a member of San Quentin’s Journalism Guild, and the William James Arts in Corrections creative writing class under teacher Zoe Mullery. His story “One Bad Apple” was published in the class anthology Brothers in Pen: Storiees From The Annual Public Reading at San Quentin in 2014.