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Pickle Me This

November 5, 2006


I have no set opinions about the teaching of creative writing, but it is a debate that interests me and is worthwhile even without conclusions. Personally, I know it’s worked for me in some ways. I am definitely a better writer than I was a year ago, in terms of what I produce and how efficiently I do it, but I also find myself confused by so much feedback from all sides, and different advice that goes around telling us how it’s done. I think when one is reading about writing, it has to be kept in mind that no advice is surefire and that different things work for different people. It is helpful to read contradictory advice and figure out what works, picking and choosing from the pile. I have managed this pretty well, though it took awhile, but I am getting the hang of who I am as a writing creature.

What I am less sure of, however, is my relationship to my work. I still find myself following prescriptions about what fiction is and what I am permitted to do with it. I realize I am still early on in my apprenticeship, but still it bothers me that I don’t own my work yet. I write what I write, hoping that when I put it out to the world, someone will say “yes, that’s right” more than anything else. Which is crap. And that this is crap never occured to me until today. I realize I am never going to write anything terribly experimental and I think my speciality is stories rather than language, but I want those stories to be mine. I want someone to give me feedback and for me to be able to dismiss it, and not just out of fatigue or insult. I want everything in my work to function because I made it that way, and because it has to function that way. I want my work not to be eager to please, but still to please. I want to remain receptive to feedback, but I also want my work to be my own.

I was listening to that Creative Writing podcast a few weeks back, a writer saying she never showed anyone her work until she was ready to publish it, and I thought how much I could never do that because I don’t know anything, and my instincts are all wrong. This is a big problem with creative writing classes, and something I need to get over. My work suffered in the past, not because my instincts were so wrong but because I was not sufficiently engaged with what I was doing. I need to get inside my work more, take it back and get to know it so well. I need to be engaged with my work on a level I have never been before, on a level that is so demanding it’s nearly painful. Every single bit of my story and its entire container have to be so deliberate and meaningful. But the important thing I realized today is that if I have done these things, I can throw all the writing advice in the world out the window.

This is a revelation. It came upon me today as I was flipping through Francine Prose’s Mrs. Dalloway Reader. An essayist (I can’t remember which) wrote about how in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf turned fiction on its head. She told rather than showed, and the pace was slow, and the story was cluttered etc etc but her book was magnificent. She wasn’t listening to anyone but herself, oh but she was listening to herself so intently. Do this.

This might not sound revelatory on a grand scale, but I suspect anyone who has been mired in the questions surrounding how to write a novel will understand the significance of the line I crossed today.

Note: I find it interesting that searching for “how to write a novel” on amazon comes up with a 1994 book called How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey! James N Frey, that is.

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