I'm finding nonfiction--or more accurately, truth-telling, as the two are only occasionally overlapping genres--quite hard.
I haven't quite figured out how to treat certain aspects of Logan's situation here. What do I write about my wife, and our extended families? What do I write about Logan's doctors, nurses, the hospital?
Memoir would be easier, I think; though it may be a case of thinking the grass is greener, I would think that I'd feel freer to discuss particular details with some distance. I'm more hesitant to get into everything while it's actually happening. And that's why, at least until I work all that out, there's likely to be a great deal of focus on interiority on this blog.
But it's also hard because I've never really done this kind of writing before. I've always wanted to make stuff up, or at least improve upon reality.
The last time I wrote even autobiographical fiction was in graduate school at Auburn. In my early twenties at the time, I really didn't have a damn thing to write about except the typical high school stuff--somewhere between Ferris Bueller's Day Off
and Catcher in the Rye
(sans the irony). But Elly Welt saw something promising, I suppose, and agreed to be my thesis director. She pushed me, sometimes gently, sometimes less so--led me to the right books and movies, offered praise when I needed it, yelled at me when I needed that too. I was (and am) a stubborn bastard, so it was hard getting through to me, but gradually I started finding the story, and the book started to take shape.
In my second year a new writing professor whom I shall not name joined the faculty. I was excited: another writer--and a well-published one, too. Elly was pleased too; she may have thought I'd annoy her less with someone else to talk to. She passed along some chapters of mine and someone arranged a meeting.
I no sooner sit down in New Writing Professor's office than I start getting slammed. I don't remember too many details, but I remember several very clearly. Too many characters. Yeah, I'd been struggling with that. But then she scrunches up her face and says, "I just kept asking myself, 'Why am I reading this?' No one wants to read about kids in high school."
I mumbled some responses and left with my tail between my legs.
So what I had--what I'd been working on for three years--was crap. And I had nothing else.
Oh, to have been but a few years wiser. No one wants to read about kids in high school? Were students using their copies of A Catcher in the Rye
and A Separate Peace
for toilet paper? In some instances, probably yes, but in most instances, no.
What about all the movies? Ferris Bueller's Day Off
--and almost anything else by John Hughes. Grease. Back to the Future. Say Anything. Heathers. Porky's
, for Christ's sake. (And the genre is not exactly dying off.) Or TV shows: Happy Days. Freaks and Geeks. My So-Called Life
(was that out then, or later)?
Was Fast Times
of the same order as Ulysses
? No. Was I the next James Joyce? No. Hey, winning the Nobel Prize would be great and all, but I wasn't holding my breath. As Elly told me several times, "Don't try to write the Great American Novel. Just try to write the best novel you can." That was my plan.
NWP might have replied that it was fine if I wanted to wallow in such lowbrow material, but college was not the place to learn that sort of writing. Which would have been fine--if we'd been at fucking Oxford.
She might have said that I would never publish in this or that literary journal--to which my reply would have been, "Thank God!" The only people who read that stuff are the editors and writers trying to get published in them.
I went into her office expecting to learn something. The part about having too many characters--that was a good point. What else was I doing wrong? What was I doing right? I wanted criticism; after several years in Elly's workshops, I had gotten pretty good at dealing with it. I knew I had a lot to learn, I knew I could be a lot better, and I wanted to learn how. What I didn't expect to hear that my subject matter was somehow unworthy--which was absurd on its face. Hey, so high school stories aren't your bag. That's okay. I don't like stories about unicorns. But you're supposed to be teaching writing, not imposing your own tastes.
Elly was none too pleased when she learned of this conversation. I was her student, after all, and we'd been working on this material for more than a year, so she took it as something of an insult that I'd basically been told that what I had was crap. Never one to mince words herself, she nevertheless understood how someone could damage a young writer with the wrong feedback. Rather than give me hell, which she was quite good at when I needed it, she offered encouragement, and I found my way back to the writing. I wasn't some ninny who was going to let a single person's remarks ruin me.
But I got hold of NWP's book. Paid for it, even (damn, I just remembered that; I should have checked it out of the library). I wanted to see what the Great Author had actually written.
She could turn a phrase. Nice imagery. Not a bad writer at all. But I also immediately saw where she was coming from, and what type of subject matter she valued.
Derisively--and, in my opinion, deservedly--called "Kmart fiction," this subgenre of literary fiction could be described as focusing on supposedly ordinary, working-class people, while being written by and for the upper-middles who read the New Yorker
(and enter MFA programs). Rarely does anything happen, and at the end we often find the protagonist staring blankly out the window of his or her trailer. As best as I can tell, one derives pleasure from reading this sort of thing in one of two ways: the feeling that one is somehow connecting with the working class without actually having to mix with them, and the satisfaction that one is reading something that must surely possess "significance," of the sort that only the sophisticated and initiated are able to glean (i.e., the author is the swindler, the reader the emperor, and I the little boy who cries, "But he has nothing on at all!").
Perhaps the most ironic thing about the term Kmart fiction is that there's basically zero chance of ever finding the stuff in a Kmart. Unlike the readers, the subjects of this particular subgenre apparently prefer stories in which something actually happens.
(Am I being nastily hypocritical, trashing a subject matter after I just got all huffy about someone trashing mine? Perhaps. But remember, I was the student, and she the teacher, a much different dynamic than adult to adult. And I will acknowledge that, as with any subject matter, there are writers of great quality who rise above any attempt to pigeonhole--Bobbie Ann Mason being just one example. But yes, I'm having fun being nasty, too.)
I made no secret of my displeasure at NWP's comments--so much so that she came and found me one day and asked me to go for a walk.
As we took our little stroll about the charming campus nestled in the Loveliest Village on the Plains, she explained that she thought I was a very good writer, that her comments were not intended to discourage me in any way, she just had problems with what I was writing, blah blah blah blah.
I can't evaluate her sincerity. But she didn't have to talk to me, so I appreciated that. But I kept my distance the rest of my time at Auburn. I finished the thesis, and shortly afterward moved on to the LSU.
I never really returned to such autobiographical fiction. I still think--in fact, I know--there's a story there. And I did revisit some of that story on Irate Savant
(for those readers, it was the stuff about the Gnat and his mother). But since then I've always felt that I hadn't personally experienced much worth writing about.
Maybe NWP did me a favor. I did try to stretch my abilities beyond my own admittedly narrow experiences. Of course, I'm not published, at least not in book form. And that old story is sitting there, waiting.
But if I didn't before, I now have experiences to write about. And all things considered, I'd rather be making stuff up.