Four years ago, I started and then shelved a manuscript about a folk hero. The primary action of the story was set during the Regency, an era I adore. At the time it was too daunting for me to take on, which is why I put it away. But now I am a stronger, better writer, and I feel the urge to finish this thing.
So I’m going to. Even though parts of it worry or scare me, because I have no idea how I’ll finish this thing. I’ll figure it out as I go.
Anyways, aside from this blurb, it’s very top secret. I am currently combing through the first chapter and frantically trying to figure out how Japanese people could have landed in Britain during the Regency, given the fact that Japan had laws in place against foreigners setting foot on Japanese soil, and there was no trade or diplomatic relationship between the two nations. Guess I’ll just have to figure it out?
I previously wrote about censors and censorship, and the essential characteristics of the people who try to censor writers, be it the self proclaimed “social justice warriors” to the Evangelical parents who squawk loudly at the school board to have a book banned because it’s “inappropriate”. Today, I want to turn to the moral responsibilities of the reader.
So often responsibility is placed on the author to make a “tasteful” work, something that is somehow ennobling. Not all literature is about “ennobling” us or making us feel good. Some of it is about making us feel like crap, in point of fact. Have you ever read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? It is the most profoundly perverse and heartbreaking narrative I’ve ever encountered. It’s not supposed to be wholesome, but a sad commentary on race and gender.
While authors are constantly told to take responsibility for their work, I have never once heard someone ask a reader how they took responsibility for their reading and understanding of the piece. That is a curious, dangerous problem. We have a society of people whose tastes are catered to, who are not challenged, so that when they encounter a challenging piece, like The Bluest Eye, they are wholly unequipped to deal with beautiful, disturbing writing. They just want to feel good, not think.
But, nonetheless, readers have moral responsibilities. I say “moral” to emphasize the imperative to hold readers to a high standard of conduct — the same standard authors are often held to. If we hold our writers to high standards, it only stands to reason that we hold readers to the same rigorous standards.
Dear 22-Year-Old Me:
After getting over the shock of discovering your older self is, in fact, a man, and hairier, smellier, and grubbier than you currently are, I expect you might be a tiny bit disappointed. (But not with the impressively groomed facial stubble.) I know that you didn’t expect your life to be like this, thirteen years in the future. I think you expected to be a university professor by this time (ha ha), rather than some dude who works part time as an adjunct. I think you also expected yourself to have written and published a few novels by now, and might look on this scruffy character — who will be you — as something of a failure. Not only is he one short bastard, and not only has he not even finished a single novel, he does not even give two shits about writing novels anymore. He has all these — novellas and short stories — just simmering away on his mental burners. But what does he really have to show for those thirteen years’ time, creatively speaking?
I’ve applied for a few Stegner Fellowships in my time, and inevitably found myself looking at the biographies for the current Stegner Fellows. Supposedly the fellowship takes people from all walks of life, with different educational backgrounds. The website for the Stegner Fellowship states that a degree is not a prerequisite for the program. And yet, fellow after fellow had matriculated in an MFA program, and published in all the “right” prestigious literary magazines, and was neither terrifically young, nor that old — probably most in their thirties. Most were white or white-passing. I would also bet that the vast majority were straight and cisgender, and hadn’t dealt with PTSD or mental illness.
I wish it wasn’t so, but most creative writing graduate programs suffer from the same lack of diversity the Stegner Fellowship does. It’s no wonder the fellowship is populated with the same people.
This is a problem which has been commented on a great deal, so I won’t bore you with the standard “but we must have more diversity and it begins with changing our gatekeeping practices” shtick. We know that. Of greater concern to me (and to the literary community of the U.S.) is the impoverishment of literature under these conditions.
In my time as a writer, one persistent myth I’ve noticed, which clings to even seasoned writers, is that one should wait for inspiration. One doesn’t need to force words out with something as tedious and dull as discipline. Just let the words come naturally, as if by magic which came from rainbows farted out of a unicorn’s asshole.
Just like rainbows farted out of a unicorn’s asshole, the idea that most writers can get anywhere without discipline is false.
I am going to brag a little, so if you want to avoid that, now’s your chance.
While I have been neglectful of updating my site or submitting my fiction to magazines, it’s been a long damn year:
- I broke my ankle in three places last June, in an attempt to learn how to ice skate. I was still recovering well into December of last year.
- I totaled my car in a moment of carelessness. (That’s what you get for becoming too wrapped up in an audio book, kids.)
- I fell into a deep depression last December, and it lasted nearly six months. During this time, I wrote very little.
- I broke my wrist in the spring.
- Relationship woes in the summer, which I will not detail except to say there were woes.
So it’s been one hell of a year. I am feeling better, stronger, and more positive in my outlook. But the result of all of the above meant I didn’t submit to short story markets, and I didn’t do much in terms of writing except for the second half of the year. Hence the radio silence over here.
I will write more about what I’ve been working on. But later. I have to go make dinner. 🙂