Category Archives: Write On

Thank You, Ariana Grande: The Necessity of Writing About Hometowns

Up in the hills facing Lake Elsinore, dramatic mansions look outward onto Lakeshore Drive. The homes are relics of the early 1900s, when the city was a hidden hotspot for celebrities trying to get away from the Hollywood scene. Before July 4th, whenever I drove down Lakeshore, I would stare up at the domed rooftops of immaculate quasi-castles and wonder why celebrities would want to come here, escaping to this smudge of a city that people only really knew by its position along one of the routes to wine country and San Diego.

Then, of course, Ariana Grande licked some donuts in my hometown, and now nothing is the same.

One of the big revelations of my undergraduate career was that it is perfectly acceptable to write about home. Initially, something about that act felt cheap and, somehow, inauthentic; so many of the books we studied and talked about were set in huge, amorphous cities with names that end up on t-shirts (New York, London, Paris). These larger cities dominate the bestseller lists. They’re the places that get demolished in superhero movies as the villain battles our protagonist across the screen. I think major cities have always functioned as imaginative settings because they are inherently immersive; we see a character surrounded by that grid of buildings and we are easily transported out of less cinematic cities — like my hometown, Lake Elsinore, where the our version of a skyscraper is the Holiday Inn off Diamond Drive.

Lake Elsinore’s uniqueness is in its quirks that seem to characterize the forgotten cities within the Inland Empire, the surprisingly large area of Southern California bordering Los Angeles County; consider, for instance, the cemetery that entombs most of Elsinore Valley. It is located immediately next to an IHOP, which I never thought was weird until I travelled through areas of Los Angeles and found large expanses of isolated graveyard spread along hillsides like theme parks of sadness.

Or, alternately, consider the landmark importance of Wolfee, the donut shop at which Ariana Grande tongued some countertop pastries. One, it is an independent shop, which is difficult to pull off in franchise-ridden areas like Lake Elsinore; and two, it is open 24 hours a day, which is, in and of itself, a rarity in this city beyond gas stations and the Del Taco drive-thru on Central Ave. These qualities completely explained why many residents of Lake Elsinore (Elsinoreans? Lake Elsinords? Demonyms are lost here) were quick to defend the shop, despite its quick descent to a B health rating for keeping its donuts within licking distance; Wolfee should not be defined by its mistakes, for it is a part of the Lake Elsinore landscape, and therefore we shall defend it with glazed fingers.

And really, this is why borrowing from hometowns matter — they come with an inherent set of experiences, people, and places that serve as sample sizes of an entire nation’s complexities. When Storm Stadium, home of Lake Elsinore’s minor league baseball team, partnered with Wolfee, they posted a 26-second video to Facebook to promote July 15th’s game as anti-Ariana Grande night. Storm’s general manager, the owner of Wolfee, and the baseball team’s mascot (a gigantic, neon-green dog named Thunder, naturally) called for Grande to come to the game and “publically apologize for all of the Americans, Joe from Wolfee, and the lovely Lake Elsinore community.” The resulting comments from area-dwellers were as diverse as Lake Elsinore itself, and it felt fitting that such a weird event would generate so much conversation about and around and among the city’s people. After all — just like any number of the pockets of thriving humanity living off innocuous freeway exits — my hometown is weird, and that is wonderful in every sense of the word.

There will always be room in fiction for big cities, especially for the authors that are shaped by those places. I can literally track the movements of the characters in Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude as they walk through Brooklyn, which makes the story feel even more authentic — not necessarily because it’s true to Google maps, but because it is true to the unique landscape as Lethem understood it — and through my reading, I can get a sense of the author’s personal landscape. And, after all, that’s the beauty of fiction: it lets us share glimpses into our lives so that others may live in our shoes, too.

There are dialogues currently forming about the shifting representation of characters in the media; we are experiencing the entrance of marginalized individuals into the mainstream, which is both historically significant and personally exciting. But Ariana Grande’s Donutgate incident reminded me of the importance of marginalized places, too — those corners of existence that can capture a microcosm of America in something as simple as a series of Facebook comments. I know many of the people responding to Donutgate, of course. I went to school with them, worked with them, and even visited Wolfee with them. But what struck me most about these comments was neither the mixed responses nor the fact that people were aware of the businesses’ obvious publicity grabs — really, it was the fact that we were talking about this at all, pushing forth a series of conflicting opinions that were rooted in as much absurdity as the action that had caused everything in the first place. We were speaking from the deeper, more complex layers of the people that live in this not-so-small city; we were a sample size of America, brought together because our little-big city hit the national scale.

I think, at the end of the day, that writing about hometowns — writing about the places that have shaped us — is a necessary exercise because it informs writers that their hometown humanity can weird, troubling, beautiful, and complex: everything we could hope to capture in the written word. Through an honest portrayal of home, readers from outside our spheres of experience can start to understand the way others live, too. I believe in Lake Elsinore’s ability to showcase the diversified livelihood of striated, middle-class life, and I believe in its ability to represent something larger than myself.

I won’t write about Lake Elsinore forever, of course — oftentimes, I just borrow from it, catching glimmers of my hometown show up in the ways I write about mountainsides. But what matters is this: for writers who come from the places that barely have a Wikipedia entry, we should recognize that our homes — our small cities — can have just as much appeal and character as the larger ones.

Big-city celebrities once fled to the forgotten hills of distant pockets of civilization off the 15 Freeway. When I drive down Lakeshore today, I can start to understand why — everything is a little different in Lake Elsinore, my home.

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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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My Top 5 Necessary Follows for Reading and Writing

Source. Downtowne Books, Riverside, CA.

Source. Downtowne Bookstore, Riverside, CA.

While I was in undergrad, it felt stupid-easy to keep track of important readings, literary goings-on, and overall Creative Writing drama because I was surrounded by people who knew all the info I didn’t know. I could smile and nod as professors spoke about things like “Pushcart nominees” and “National Book Awards” and “a big reading in LA.” I was, for all intents and purposes, a literary leech, but it worked.

This leeching completely shifted once I graduated; all of a sudden, I felt like this literary conversation was still happening, but three blocks away from me and on the nicer side of town. And, as is true for most things after college, I had to figure out how to get information on my own. For the sake of entering that conversation, here’s my list of resources I’ve used over the past year to stay in the loop and learn new things about writing, reading, and publishing.

1. Literary Hub’s newsletter. Oh, blessed be this list. Aside from hosting tons of great features, Lit Hub compiles articles of note from around the web and delivers them to your inbox on the daily. The links range from interviews to articles about writing, and span the gamut of websites emerging writers should know (The Millions, LARB, and The Rumpus, among others). The best part: in case you forget to check out a link, or accidentally delete a daily as you’re frantically clearing all the potentially virus-heavy spam from your Gmail, Lit Hub sends a weekly aggregate of the biggest stories.

2. Electric Literature’s Recommended Readings. On the whole, Electric Literature is a wonderful website to have bookmarked, favorited, and frequently viewed, but its Recommended Readings Tumblr specifically features beautiful (and weekly) new stories recommended by editors and writers. Featuring both familiar and emerging authors, each story is accompanied by an in-depth editor’s note. It’s a lit journal without the commitment, and if you’re an inbox-happy person like I am, you can subscribe to get an email every time a new story is published.

3.  Short Story Thursdays. New fiction is vital, but keeping up with the classics is also a necessary part of being a well-read and decent human being. Short Story Thursdays follows a simple philosophy: email shutyourlazymouthandread@shortstorythursdays.com to join, and then read the classic story that is sent to you every Thursday. Each email is prefaced by a beautiful, meandering, and occasionally violent intro from founder Jacob Tomsky, which adds to the charm of each story and potential shame of not reading them.

4. The Nervous Breakdown’s Book Club. It’s super easy to fall into a rut of reading the same type of fiction, especially if you’re like me and think literary fiction is a huge and stupid label and how do I even find what’s happening from smaller presses? TNB’s book club sends its members a book every 30 days for $10 per month. It’s an endlessly easy way to read a diverse range of authors and genres (fiction/nonfiction/memoirs/everything), and you can become that cool person who lends books out to people because “It reminded me of you, yo.” As an added bonus, each featured author is later interviewed by the website’s founder on Otherppl, a literary podcast that has become a staple of my otherwise non-literary commute.

5. Twitter. Yes. Twitter. All of it. When I graduated, I went on a frenzy and found as many literary magazines/organizations I could find, and followed the hell out of them. If you lurk your Twitter feed and infrequently tweet like I do, there are so many benefits to this act of frantic lit following: not only do you get to keep track of any open submission periods, but it also exposes to you to the variety of journals available as other journals become recommended to you and, occasionally, cold-follow you. The Reject Pile is one such follow that I’m super excited to track once it gets up and running, primarily so I can submit all my future rejections in a show of “I’m okay, I’m a writer, I’m okay.”

Those are the resources I’ve grown to love since I graduated — what websites do you use to keep track of new releases and the latest lit news? And yes, it feels strange and awkward to write that as a question into a blog article. But you should tell me anyway, so I can check it out. Yes? Do it.

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The agony of taking one step toward writing/literally anything potentially icky

"Bewitched Park" by Leonid Afremov

“Bewitched Park” by Leonid Afremov

My gig for the summer is working as a reading instructor for kids and adults. I’m teaching students how to tackle textbooks, how to improve their reading speeds, how to care about a book that seems totally outside their life experiences, and how to talk about great fiction. This job is exhausting. I never realized how draining teaching could be. Most nights, I immediately collapse on my bed in whatever I wore to work for the day, smelling like Expo markers and book glue.

Despite the general exhaustion, here’s one thing that I’ve pulled from this experience that has benefitted me entirely: the idea of taking one step forward.

In the classroom, it looks like this: If I know a student is struggling, or if I know I should speak to that student directly, or if I need to step in and talk about a behavioral issue or something else potentially icky, there are two paths I can take. One, I can avoid the situation and hope it resolves itself. Or, the better of the two, I can take one step toward the situation. I trust myself to know how to handle most classroom situations, and at bare minimum I can flub my way toward a compromise, but taking that first step is the hardest part, because it’s the first step in committing myself to trying to figure out a problem. It’s opening up the potential for failure, too, and the longer I delay that step, the longer I can delay potentially failing in my duty as a teacher.

But if I take that first step, I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into the situation at hand. Usually, I realize something like this: Oh. I didn’t need to hesitate. I do, in fact, know how to work through this situation.

This is important.

This is the part where I bring the point of my introduction into the topic of writing.

I’m experiencing a lot of false starts in my writing. I currently have three windows open to three different projects I want to work on, but they’ve been largely untouched because every time I sit down with the intent of continuing their stories, I end up freezing up in some way. I’ll write endless To Do lists, spend time “researching” (read: Facebook/Twitter/Reddit), or just write an outline of ideas instead of actually bumping up the page count of whichever story’s first draft.

But today, I took one step forward. And it has made all the difference.

It’s so easy to perpetually exist in a state of I’ll-get-this-done-eventually. And a lot of the time, once I actually, seriously, actively focus on writing, I can get work done. The difficult part, of course, is taking that first step and committing myself to a project that I’m afraid of seeing fail — or something I’m afraid won’t matter to anybody but me.

(Those are bad thoughts. They’re normal thoughts, but they’re also toxic. I have to remind myself that, when I’m writing a first draft, I’m writing it for me, not an audience.)

I have to sit down and take a step toward my goal — writing 1,000 words per day, finishing a scene, adding four more paragraphs — because, however small or large my goal may be, taking one step is just part of finishing that first draft, and getting closer to understanding what my story might be. That’s what I did today — I told myself I’d write one page in one hour, and I sat down during a free block of time and took one step toward continuing where I’d left off. I wrote a sentence. And then repeated. And repeated.

And I reached two goddamn pages. #murica

It’s a rough scene and it doesn’t totally establish what I want it to establish just yet — but it’s moving my story along, and helping me realize its larger purpose. And that’s a success.

The potential for failure is terrifying, and it’s so tempting to listen to that voice in the back of my mind telling me that I should have been literally anything but a Creative Writing major. But then I remind myself: I have a story to tell, and the only way it is going to be told is if I take one step forward.

And then I step.

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Revision, as opposed to destruction, also known as avoidance

From "The Cutting-Edge Physics of a Crumpled Paper Ball," Wired

From “The Cutting-Edge Physics of a Crumpled Paper Ball,” Wired

In one of my intro classes last year, my writing instructor had us hold up the first drafts of our stories and crumple them into paper balls. She’d told us it was representative of the power of revision, and the necessity of our willingness to recognize that the first draft is never the last. I don’t agree with the crumbling analogy, though — I feel like I would have gone with something less destructive. Because, really, beginning revision can be one of two things:

  1. Surface-level line edits, in which a few commas are placed and some sentences rearranged
  2. Total, annihilating, apocalyptic destruction of the original story

I’ve been guilty of #2 for a while. I’d bring a story into workshop, gather notes, and decide I needed to totally switch the story because I’d suddenly realized that this should be told from the supporting character’s point of view, you guys, obviously. Fitzgerald did it, why can’t I? Or I’d completely alter the character; same name, but now this guy is like, super tough and angry, when before he was too much of a pushover, you know? Or, a little more commonly, I’d dump the idea altogether because “I just lost interest in it,” moving onto another story idea and waiting until the last moment to write it for a class deadline.

I realized something, though. With some of those stories I’d written and forgotten, I hadn’t “lost interest” in the story — I was just afraid of revising it, endlessly, forever, never quite knowing when it was finally done.

It’s one thing to write a story and feel like it’s so utterly full of promise. It’s a false success; you feel like you’ve accomplished something and can set it aside. And yes, you can, and should, but the hardest thing to accept about creative writing is this: the first draft is only the beginning. It’s easy to look at something and say that it’s just rough right now, but in a few drafts, it’ll really shine.

The hurdle, of course, is actually getting revising the damn thing. And the biggest thing that has been holding me back is fear.

I experienced my first truly successful revision a few days ago. I had written the first two chapters of a novel in third-person narration, set in a place like my hometown, involving a big cast of characters reacting to a robbery. My protagonist is male, and I had decided to stick to omniscience because, as I realize now, I was afraid of writing a character whose gender is not my own. In my workshop, my classmates had told me that the narration was too distanced; it felt counterproductive, and like we were spending too much time seeing what was happening in the landscape instead of getting to know the characters.

So, on a Sunday, twenty-four hours before its deadline, I rewrote the thing. I allowed myself to enter the mind of my character and wrote it from his point of view, constantly asking myself if I was writing lines that felt like his, or just writing them because they sounded pretty. I wanted to avoid being authorial; I wanted to let my character dictate the actions, movements, and focal points of the story. And, by the time I handed it to my professor, I felt proud — I’d actually revised the story, and hadn’t demolished it entirely. I’d listened to my classmates and my gut, and had cut out the flowery prose that had initially come from my own heavy hand. I’d taken my time with the characters and world, and condensed two chapters into one introduction.

And it’s still so rough. But that’s okay.

With my earlier failures at revision, I was always drawn to scrapping my initial attempt entirely, which is absolutely a form of avoidance. I wanted to avoid the slog of having to go back into my story and really look at my weaknesses, and where I’d failed. And, really, I’d also wanted to avoid the realization that I wasn’t going to receive instant gratification with whatever project I was working on; writing, as I’ve come to understand, is a long-term thing. And to do it successfully, you have to stick with it for the long haul. You have to look at your rough drafts and maintain the willingness to polish them.

It may take twenty more drafts until I feel legitimately solid about this story I’m trying to tell. One of my professors told me that she revises projects at least one hundred times, which is terrifying, but also something that a part of me understands. After my first successful revision, I’m closer to the story I want to tell, but I’m still along way from really understanding many of the characters and what makes them tick. And really, it’s kind of like getting to know someone for the first time. Rarely do you know everything about them after you first meet; you have a first impression, but to really know someone, you have to spend time with them. Each revision is my attempt to spend time with my characters, world, and story, and right now it feels like it’s going to take forever.

But this time around, I’m not afraid.

Well, okay, I’m still terrified. But I’m writing.

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Ends and beginnings

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bank_vault#mediaviewer/File:WinonaSavingsBankVault.JPG

Courtesy of Jonathunder

I finished my undergraduate career today. I still have one project to complete — a revision, as part of a final submission packet — but everything else is done. My coursework, and everything leading up to this point over the past four years, is finito. Complete. Terminado.

Although, I wouldn’t quite say I’m finished.

I majored in Creative Writing, and although I’m walking out of UC Riverside with just one completed story and a bucket full of first drafts, I’m leaving with ideas. I have dollar store notebooks scrawled with blue and black, both covers stuffed with scraps of paper where I jotted down a line or image that caught my eye.  I have authors and stories that inspire me, and infuriate me, and get me thinking about the stories I’ve started and forgotten. I have writing friends to whom I can say, “Ugh,” and they know exactly what I’m talking about.

I have beginnings.

And, really, that’s the most important thing for me to have. I have story ideas and characters and images I legitimately care about, which is more than I could have ever asked for at the beginning of my undergraduate career. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I first switched into my major, and I didn’t know what I wanted; one of the questions I kept dodging was, “Why do you want to write?” I didn’t know. I still don’t really know. I think it’s because I bought a Moleskine, and I feel like I need to write something important in it to justify the expense. (It cost, like, $10. On sale!)

But I do know that I finally have stories and settings that I’m passionate about exploring. I guess that’s why I don’t feel like I’m finishing my degree — really, in a lot of ways, I’m just beginning.

And that’s endlessly exciting.

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The weight of words

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This was my final column in the Highlander newspaper at UC Riverside, written as a goodbye to my term as an editor and the people I grew to love along the way.


There’s a quote by writer Gary Provost about the musicality of writing, and the way lines can bunch or fall or meld together to create many wonderful, panicked things. Short sentences? They suggest immediacy. Or jolts. Or monotony, if they’re used too often. Longer, flowing sentences can carry you like a riptide, twisting and curling into deep fathoms and forcing you to hold your breath until the pause, or full stop. But even then, writing can’t have too much of either; it needs to strike a balance, somewhere between abrupt and flowing, so that every single line matters in a way that feels incontestable.

We use so many words. We use them to greet each other for the first time, sometimes haltingly, sometimes like we’re already falling into a rhythm as old friends. We use them to say goodbye to those chapters of our lives that have carried our hearts into reverie. Sometimes we forget to use them, sitting around desks and laughing too loudly, reaching the point where our cheeks ache and friendship feels like forever. But all of these words carry a weight of their own — a weight that feels as intangible as the lyricism of the perfect line. When you strike gold, you know it. When a string of words feels like nothing could be more beautiful and true, when it sings or murmurs or echoes in the back of your skull, you know it — and everything about it matters tenfold.

I like to think we can hear that musicality beyond the page. Lyrical weight exists in our life experiences, and in the things that form and shape us as burgeoning individuals, shifting between quick moments and drawn-out adventures. When you’re in a good place in your life, you know it. Relationships flow. Words are pleasantly weighted. And even though all things in life must move on — by virtue of time, changing places or both — the music of those experiences can never be lost. Not after you’ve felt them in your bones.

On the repetition of short sentences, Provost said, “It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music.” I have heard that music throughout my college career. I heard it as I walked through campus lawns for the first time and felt my feet sink into mud. I heard it when my friends and I tried to scale the Bell Tower during a power outage. And I hear it now — moving forward, letting the tide carry me into Provost’s crescendo, happy and grateful and relieved to have felt, now and ever, the weight of those words.

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My 14,000 word weekend

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Inspiration: Leslie David, “Ornette”

I’m proud of a thing I did this weekend. I wrote 14,000 words in about two days. With chapter breaks and double-spacing, that translates to about 50 pages of the story I’m working on for my writing group. It’s my first draft and it’s a horrible mess with undeveloped characters, a wonky timeline, and lots of variations of the phrase “she looked,” but it’s there, and it’s done, and it’s the most I’ve ever written.

I had seven weeks to write this piece. I waited until two days before its deadline.

I read this article on the Atlantic about why writers are the worst procrastinators, and it resonated with me on a deeply emotional level (aside from the parenting tangent the author takes toward the end). Consider this quote by Alain de Botton from the piece: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

God, that’s me. And I feel like that’s a lot of people when they’re faced with the monumental task of creating something out of nothing and proving their worth.

For seven weeks, I sat thinking about my story — no, I sat thinking about anything but my story. About week six, I started sketching out an idea, and spent an hour working on my opening paragraph. I came up with what I thought was the perfect working title. I wrote sentences with semicolons, and then removed the semicolons, and then replaced them for artistic flare. I cleaned my fridge.

I did these things because I feel like I have something to prove. I feel like I need to write the very best I possible can every single time, and if I don’t, this major and this degree and every single saved bit of fanfiction on my computer’s “Archive” folder, hidden behind the “Taxes” folder, will be for naught.

That’s terrifying. And also hugely unhealthy.

Once I sat down on Saturday to write the brunt of my 14k, I entered this zone where I knew that everything I was typing was circular and unpolished and just not pretty. But aside from the frantic tick-tick-tapping of my fingers against the keys and knowledge of my looming deadline, a part of me understood that there was no possible way this could be something completely ready yet, because it was a first draft.

The author of that piece via the Atlantic, Megan McArdle, points out that we don’t see the ugly first drafts of great novels. We see the final product, after it has been labored over for a decade and editors have slashed bits of it out with red pen. And since I knew what I was writing on my first go wasn’t pure gold, I kept comparing myself to the writers I admire, and figuring that if I couldn’t compete with George Saunders or Amy Hempel or Benjamin Percy, why bother?

As I woke up early Sunday morning to write out my final two scenes, I realized why all of these gross first drafts matter. In the process of writing my first, complete, long-form story, I learned more than I’ve ever learned in two years of study. I was given a practical understanding of the idea that I still have a long ways to go in regards to character development, pacing, motivations — and I still have a lot to learn about confronting the emotions and experiences from my life that I want to incorporate into my stories.

It’s hard, and it’s messy, but it was goddamn worth it, and I think that’s why I’m proud of what I did. I waited until the last minute, sure — but when I finally did it, in two leg-numbing, blood-clotting sittings, I got a true sense of where my weaknesses lie.

And that’s a pretty great deal.

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Don’t call it women’s fiction

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Oh, what a time to be a woman! As I finished cleaning the kitchen and preparing a sandwich for my husband, I logged onto Amazon and stumbled upon a category of books called “Women’s Fiction.” The titles in this section featured such scintillating titles as “50 Shades of Grey” and covers with flowers and curlicue lettering. And me? Well, I was just tickled, because I’ve always wanted my reading tastes, as a woman, to be delineated for me. I can’t thank booksellers enough for creating a category especially for me and my female genitalia, particularly since I’m not interested in reading anything in “Men’s Fiction,” also known as dick-lit, also known as Fiction. This makes things so much easier!

When booksellers and publishers decide that a book is fiction for females, that decision says that whatever themes that author might be discussing — family relationships, for instance, which Amy Tan tackles in her latest novel, “The Valley of Amazement” — are not applicable to men. This, in turn, suggests that women’s issues are not men’s issues, and that women’s issues do not have a place in the larger scope of the human experience. As both a writing student and reader, that tells me one thing: If a book is about anything related to women, or if a woman writes it, it will be considered Women’s Fiction. And that’s just wrong.

“Women’s Fiction” is a catchall term for any novel written about anything related to women’s experiences. This is a huge umbrella category that places novels focusing exclusively on romance next to novels that deserve to be considered within the larger literary zeitgeist. Tan’s, for instance, follows the connection between a mother and daughter over the span of four decades. I can’t help but wonder where that same novel would be categorized if a man were to have written about the relationship between a father and son over the same amount of time — “Men’s Fiction?” No. That’s categorized as Fiction.

Breakout author Rachel Kushner’s novel, “The Flamethrowers,” follows a female artist named Reno in the 1970s who travels to New York, falls in love with a sculptor and journeys with him to Italy. Technically, since it follows a woman’s experience and is pulled from Kushner’s life, it can totally be classified as Women’s Fiction. The success of her novel stands in contrast to Tan’s, who similarly writes about the female experience but is not able to escape the label of “Women’s Fiction.” Although their content differs, who’s to say that Tan’s novel is more “womanly” than Kushner’s?

No matter how many flowers are thrown onto the cover, or how many sexy protagonists an author writes about, nothing about a category verifies its stance as representative of an entire gender. Call the “Women’s Fiction” category something else — place the appropriate titles in Romance, or Beach Reads, or anything but a term defined by the gender of the people who are supposed to read it. Let the novels by female authors like Atwood, Bender, Oates and Kushner stand on their own as a larger part of the exploration of literature, marketed to readers and learners and people.

Not solely women.

This article originally was originally published in the Highlander newspaper.

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