Monthly Archives: June 2015

You Learn to Write With Integrity

Niah Caves, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Niah Caves, Sarawak, Malaysia.

You are an undergraduate Creative Writer without quite knowing the meaning of the term, but that’s okay, because it’s fun — fun to read innovative contemporary fiction, fun to speak with professors who have Published Things, fun to sit and write a story for homework. It’s fun except when it’s not, and then you really have to grit your teeth when workshops run terribly or when you know your story blows but you waited until the last minute because you hated it or, worst of all, when the hot-shot professor casually states that he’s not even sure Creative Writing can be taught to undergraduates and that comment stays with you for a while. You question it but keep the question to yourself, head down, words attempting to be loud. You see your friends start talking about MFAs and you know, deeply, that you are not ready for a graduate program — not mentally, not professionally (whatever that means).

You can’t even call yourself a writer without sneering the word across your tongue.

You graduate with honors because your degree was academically straightforward and you’ve always worked hard in school — you were told that was what you had to do to succeed. As you cross the graduation stage, you are handed a roll of paper meant to represent your diploma, and the empty symbolism of your reward feels somehow significant. You get a series of jobs — freelance copywriter, barista, tutor — that pay the bills if all three jobs are pursued concurrently, and you are always tired. Too tired to write, of course, or experience any of the things you should be experiencing on your gap year. That’s what this is — a gap between now and the ultimate goal, grad school. The MFA. Legitimacy. And yet you write nothing beyond some idle, half-serious bullshit that you immediately delete because it feels so grossly pointless, all of it, your waste of a degree and waste of brain-space that thinks you can make up stories and people that matter. You remind yourself that you are largely sheltered, that people in places are dying because of atrocities you have only heard about and cannot picture as part of the real, hard truth of living. In this mindset, of course you stop writing. None of it matters in the real world, where other struggles seem so much louder than you own. You remember that one professor who said writing cannot be taught. You figure you might as well remain silent.

On your endless commutes, you listen to podcasts about writing and read about writing and talk about writing to your old classmates, many of whom are in the same amorphous place as you are. You linger in the terrible space of “What now?” for what feels like too long. At some point you stop talking to your classmates, even, because at a certain point you feel you’ve reached the maximum number of complaints you can make about the ambiguities of life and your role within it.

A year passes and two very important things happen. One, you listen to a podcast interview featuring Mat Johnson. He shares things you’ve heard before, but it is the genuineness in his voice that surprises you, especially after consuming so many interviews where it seems as though the writer is in a perpetual state of mental anguish and self-hate. These qualities may be true for Johnson (they are true for many people), but you focus on his authenticity as he discusses the things that matter to him about mixed race and identity — and the difficulties he has faced finding a “place” for his fiction and experiences. Despite those difficulties, he did what you could not do — he continued writing and producing because he believed, and continues to believe, that his ambiguous background — and the thoughts that bleed through it — matters. And it does. By exploring that ambiguity, Johnson is expressing a contemporary truth. He is offering a mode of understanding to people whose lives are not clearly defined; he is speaking about the people who are composed of torn-off pieces of many different labels. He believes in this endeavor. You are jolted into awareness as you listen because you, too, have struggled with ideas of mixed identity that make you feel unqualified to discuss — but they are your struggles, and true for a growing population of people, and they carry weight. You think about your own labels — woman, Latina, Californian — and consider the fact that you’ve never felt comfortable labeling yourself a writer because you’ve never felt as though your experiences and thoughts are truly worth sharing — and even then, who would read them? Who would care? You think about these questions in terms of Johnson, and you realize his answer: he cares, so he writes.

Two, you are tasked with the responsibility of writing two letters of recommendation for a student who is receiving educational consulting at work. This is your first big task as part of the team, so you tackle it fully, ghostwriting on behalf of the professionals who have asked your student to write her own letters. So, in a sense, you pretend to be a student pretending to be her professors, and you realize halfway through the writing that you feel completely, irrevocably wrong. Even though you are assured that writing on behalf of recommenders is common, you don’t realize until after the fact that you essentially sold your skills and pushed aside personal convictions (idealistic, romantic notions of the role of recommendations) to get a job done. You feel like you did when you were copywriting freelance blog posts for faceless companies — like you produced nothingness, just worked for an hour on something that would never impact the public consciousness, never reveal the truth of a single layer of humanity to another soul beyond the admissions representative who would glance, passingly, at the effusive praise of your empty writing.

The word “integrity” enters your mind and you turn it around in the area of your brain normally reserved for existential crises. You pick the word apart and wonder why it sticks. “Integrity,” you say as you speak to your boss about your reservations. “Integrity,” you say as you stand up for yourself and your writing, thinking of Mat Johnson and his sense of purpose, thinking of that professor who said writing cannot be taught. “Integrity,” you type into the glowing keyboard of your Mac at home. This is what it tells you:

integrity

            [in-teg-ri-tee]

noun

  1. Adherence to moral and ethical principals, chiefly in regards to your worth as a creator and your (presently tenuous) ability to state, loudly, that your beliefs, perspectives, and life matter; they belong in the conversation of human existence because no other person     is you, and you are able to share yourself as a person who subverts labels and lives       somewhere between woman/Latina/Californian because only parts of those labels truly             define you.
  2. Honesty, not only in your own abilities, but also in your own writing — because that vulnerable, steadily growing strength is what will remind you of your own personal      legitimacy.

You consider the stories that have sprung up from your multifaceted experiences as a second-generation, none-Spanish-speaking, Hispanic female. You think about the time you spoke in your professor’s Mixed-Race Novel class about growing up marking “Mexican” on scholarship applications but knowing, absolutely and entirely, that the truest label that can possibly describe you is “American.” You remember how openly the classroom of other mixed-race students accepted your perspectives, saying that they, too, felt shoved somewhere in the middle of two camps. You are not a writer of women’s fiction. You are not a Chicana. You are, if anything, a Californian human who has felt the seismic shifts of receiving something like a National Hispanic Scholar Award and wondering why you have to be identified by your race and not your accomplishments. You are, you are, you are — and you must write every detail you have noticed about the world around you, every person who has lingered in your mind, every experience that lends itself to story because, as you remind yourself, everything will be filtered through your unique lens as a middle class, Inland Empire, mixed-race-mixed-culture individual, and that alone means that your writing has something important to say. You write forever and don’t even begin to capture the smallest portion of your existence — and yet, that’s okay, because you have no reason to worry or doubt your ability to work. You have integrity. You believe in yourself and the stories you want to share.

You agree that writing cannot be taught. It must be felt, and that cannot be taught in a classroom or through assignments. It must come from an unshakable place of the writer’s mind that is self-sustaining, autonomous, and receptive to the surrounding world. Another professor once told you that the writer does not matter — the story matters. The reader will not know anything about the author, but the reader will know the world you create and the experiences you allow them to feel.

You believe it. And so, you write.

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This Author’s Meltdown is Everything You Shouldn’t Do With Bad Feedback

“Narcissus” by Caravaggio (Source)

The beauty of a Creative Writing workshop is that it is intended to function as a safe, constructive space to honestly assess the areas for improvement in a piece of fiction. This is the intention. There’s also a huge risk with workshops, which is that sometimes people come to class not giving a single shit, or giving one too many shits, and then the idea of “constructive” crits go out the window as everything devolves into a cacophony of victimized terror.

One of the things that I hated was when writers brought in shrunken-down portions of their novels-in-progress. Not chapters from novels — if that was the case, students were instructed to also compose a synopsis that explained the context of the chapter so we could critique it through that lens. No, what I really hated was when students felt compelled to bring in their novel, but because it clocked in at 40 pages instead of the maximum 20, they tore out sections and basically presented a heavily abridged version of the text. This was problematic because, nine times out of ten, the writer did not process any critiques the class shared. Why would they? The writer could sit and think, “You just don’t understand what I was intending. You just don’t understand the larger piece.” That line of thinking basically translates into an hour of wasted time for everyone involved — and I’m not a fan of wasting time.

Not only that, but in most of the workshops I attended, the writer of the piece being workshopped was not allowed to speak — like, at all. And that was great. Because it allowed the conversation to exist around him or her, and it allowed the author to blend into the background as the story was naturally critiqued without any interruption. When an author interrupts a critique, that’s when things get messy. And all of this, in essence, is what happened in this recent Goodreads exchange.

When a reviewer offered her honest evaluation of a novel — rating it one star because of the author’s “unnecessarily wordy and pretentious” writing style — the author committed a grand faux pas by replying to her — and then continuing to reply to her, berating her, insulting her intelligence as a human being (“Do you have empathy? Do you know what it’s like to make something for a living? Are you human?”). His justification for his comments reminded me almost exactly of the writers from my workshops who felt like the class simply didn’t understand the larger intent of the text, or even the author’s purpose in writing. Intents and purposes are noble considerations, sure, especially because the author in question believes that he is “trying to warn people what’s going on in this world so that they can protect themselves and help others.” However, choosing to freak out over negative feedback in such a defensive way — hell, even replying to it in the first place — is hugely problematic because it ignores the basic beauty of putting your work out into the world.

Writing is about discovery on a personal and communal level. Yes. That sounds artsy. But it’s true: the things that strike me as fascinating or horrific or engaging might be completely outside the realm of experience or interest of another person, and that’s completely fine. This means that we might not enjoy the same things that other people enjoy. And oh my god, that’s wonderful, because it provides an honest opportunity to learn what stimulates the interest of other people.

This also has a lot to do with the foundation of a successful discussion about writing: personal feelings have to be discarded because, at the end of the day, the only thing that truly matters is your work. Not your intent, or how much you researched the topic, or even how many hours you put into it (although those are all worthwhile) — the thing that people will see is the writing and story, and if something is causing people to lose interest or miss something you have perceived as a necessary part of the piece, it is vital to learn that through the perspectives of others.

One of my professors is fond of saying to writers, “You don’t matter.” And it’s true. The words matter, and for this reviewer, the words the author presented weren’t working for her. This is valid. Since this is a published work and not a workshop environment, though, the author should not have defended himself, as he justifies later in his comment train; instead, he should have continued working, continued getting feedback, and continued developing as an artist. Really. I understand the desire to justify your actions or defend your work, I do. But in an open review forum like Goodreads, wherein the success of its reviews rely on honest and fully formed opinions, the line of thinking is similar to the depths of a workshop: process the good and the bad and move on.

Could the reviewer have phrased her initial comment in more constructive terms? Absolutely (and she even offers to provide a more in-depth analysis of the book’s shortcomings). But that doesn’t change the issues with this author’s response, or its biggest lesson to writers: Bad reviews will happen, and you should never, ever, not ever take them personally.

The thing that crystalized my issue with his replies was when he quotes David Lynch by stating:

If you have a golfball-sized consciousness, when you read a book, you’ll have a golfball-sized understanding; when you look out a window, a golfball-sized awareness, when you wake up in the morning, a golfball-sized wakefulness; and as you go about your day, a golfball-sized inner happiness. But if you can expand that consciousness, make it grow, then when you read about that book, you’ll have more understanding; when you look out, more awareness; when you wake up, more wakefulness; as you go about your day, more inner happiness.

The irony of this statement: the author himself holds a golfball-sized perspective on his work, and instead of allowing himself to consider the perspective the reviewer offered, he fought to maintain an iron hold on his own angry understanding.

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