Wrestling with the Real Writers

My productivity last week centered on typing the first draft of a story I wrote last month. I write longhand. My very first writing teacher said that was a huge waste of time and thus began a long string of advice from writing teachers that I have ignored.

For me, writing longhand is soothing. There’s something about putting pen to paper that allows me to shut off the editorial noises in my head and just write. Typing is for revising and editing. But most importantly, notebooks do not have the Internet and so I can’t click off my story and onto Facebook or Good Reads or chat or any of the other million ways the Internet tempts me to not write.

It’s probably a good thing that most of my work is taken up by mere typing because last week kind of sucked as far as creativity goes. It seems I have some demons to deal with and I’ve been facing them pretty much anytime I sit down to write.

My MFA program cultivated a certain amount of elitism amongst its writers. Between the 40 or so of us in the fiction program, there were unspoken guidelines about what made you a “real” writer[1] as opposed to someone who would leave their MFA and go work in technical writing for the rest of their lives. (Since I have already lost my “real” writer status by doing just that, you’d think I have nothing else to lose.) Real writers, for instance, wrote literary stories. They were usually about drugs and sex and parents and death. The stories were edgy, sometimes violent, and usually involved taking drugs at 12, midgets, monkeys, and other extraordinary elements. They read Borges and Lovecraft and nothing else published after 1975. They didn’t come to readings because they were too busy writing (or thinking about writing while down at the bar). Generally, a lot of the stuff they wrote was very good.

If you didn’t fall into this category, they didn’t quite know what to do with you. When I started the program, I tried desperately to fit into this category. But I developed my love for reading and writing through contemporary fiction and (cough, cough) chick lit. I didn’t grow up with drugs or violence and the story I most enjoyed writing was the anti-love story. In the autumn of my first year of the program, one of the “real” writers who was in her last year at the program suggested I look into romance writing. She did so after she’d sat in on one of my workshops and in a tone that left no question about how little she thought of my work.

I went home, cried for a little while, read through my New Yorkers and Best Americans and resolved to write a better workshop story. I don’t think I ever earned the approval of my peers, but I improved my sentences and my characters. I became a better writer, even if what I was writing wasn’t what I loved. In the end, I liked the stories I was writing and I thought I was doing a pretty good job at them.

And now? I was at a reading a few months ago for the winner of a local short story contest. As the first place winner read, I grew increasingly annoyed. There was the down-and-out protagonist. There were the drugs. There was the fantastical event that existed more in obscure imagery than in clarity. It wasn’t a bad story, it was just the exact same story that I’d spent three years reading in the program. And the epiphany here is more about me than about the story I was hearing: I am simply not interested in the literary genre anymore.

The struggle comes, though, that literary writing is pretty much all I’ve ever known. Prior to the MFA, I had three stories in my name, one of which, I still work on from time to time. I’m having a hard time letting go of what I should be writing and focusing on what I want to write. Of course, the minute I start thinking about what I want to write, I find myself drowning in my own prejudices and elitism.

I’m starting small, but I’m changing that. Last night at the bookstore I bought a couple of books that looked good. They aren’t on any literary lists. They will probably not win any major awards. But dammit, I’m going to start reading what I enjoy again. With any luck, it won’t be a long path back to what I enjoy writing.

[1] For the record, I hate the term real writer. Do you write? Then you’re a writer. I have no idea what qualifies you to be real.

2 thoughts on “Wrestling with the Real Writers

  1. I’ve recently set up my writing space away from my internet connection!

    I don’t call myself a writer even though I write and have been published. I suppose I’ve always thought of a writer as someone who has a body of work.

    I hope you continue to read and write what you enjoy.


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