I was digging through some old notebooks last week, trying to find a scene I KNOW I wrote in SOME notebook SOMEwhere (argh). But instead of finding that, I stumbled upon an old college notebook. I flipped through, marveling at the story starts, the character sketches. And then on one random page, this note:
And I had to laugh, because a) OMG, how college emo is that?, and b) That is so not me anymore. You want a glimpse at your past self? Look through an old journal. Time travel exists; it’s called writing.
It’s a long road as a writer, trying to find your “voice,” that elusive, mysterious quality that somehow makes your writing yours and no one else’s. I’m not there yet, but I’m a hell of a lot closer than I was back in my college days, hoping I’d be the next Hemingway or Faulkner or Fitzgerald. How did I get to this point, from wanting to write the Great American Novel to realizing that nope, I may be more of a genre writer?
The short story: I wrote, and I read.
The long story: When I was a kid, I read a lot of fantasy and adventure books. The Redwall series, Harry Potter, Richard Adams, Goosebumps — I devoured them all. And it showed in my writing, too. The first short story that I remember being truly proud of was about a mailman in a surreal land where nursery rhymes come to life.
But once you hit a certain grade level, that changes — especially in a college-level writing program. You read Big Serious Books that deal with Big Serious Themes. Munro, Plath, Chopin, Orwell. Which, I can’t really argue with — these people are all seriously good writers, and if you’re learning to write, learn from the masters.
But this leads to one downfall: writing programs heavily favor literary fiction. As a student, you eat, breath, and sleep literary fiction (maybe with some poetry and creative nonfiction thrown in for good measure). After a while, the idea creeps into your brain that these are the books that are worthwhile, that the other genres of the literary world — romance, fantasy, science fiction, horror, pulp, mystery, adventure — are essentially junk food. Delicious, yes, but so lacking in substance that you don’t admit to consuming them.
If you’re in this type of environment, where literary fiction is placed on a pedestal (whether intentionally or unintentionally) — you begin to emulate it. Every kid in a writing program wants to be the next Hemingway — myself included. I tried to write Serious Books. I tried to write Serious Stories. And honestly? Most of them sucked. Some of that comes down to the fact that I was a very young writer, but a lot of it is because these were not my stories.
Lurking in the back of my mind were OTHER stories… stories that didn’t seem worthy of development, but stories that wouldn’t leave me alone. Stories set just past the veil of reality, in shadowy worlds with danger and intrigue waiting to be uncovered.
For a long time after college, I didn’t write much of anything at all. For several years I puttered away at stories that didn’t go anywhere. And then one November, I wrote a novella about a man traveling through space. And it seemed… better. Not great, not quite there, but better than anything I had written in a long time.
So one day I said “Screw it,” and put one of the lurking stories down on paper. And that story? That’s the book I’m working on now. Not to toot my own horn (because that horn ain’t very big), but it’s one of the better stories I’ve written — and one I’m genuinely excited to improve and share with others. The difference? It’s closer to the types of books I like to read — the books I read as a kid. It’s closer to that first true story I wrote, the one set in a land of nursery rhymes, the one that I didn’t know better not to write.
I do feel like I should make a caveat at this point: I LOVED my undergrad creative writing program and wouldn’t trade it in for anything. I had amazing, supportive professors, a whole slew of talented peers (many of whom I’m still friends with, and some of whom are in my current writing group). It is through no fault of theirs that academia turned me towards the path of literary fiction — as I found at the AWP conference, that just seems to be the nature of the beast. But it took me a while to figure out that that path is perhaps not for me.
At the end of the day, we need to stop placing one genre above all others. We need to teach writers that it’s ok to write the stories you want to write — no matter what section of the bookstore they end up in. We don’t do this for fame, and we sure as hell don’t do it for money — so we might as well try and actually enjoy this crazy pursuit called writing.