Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Joshilyn Jackson: How ____ Really Are

Back in grad school, my friends and I were heartless and young and pretentious and in love with ourselves. I am pleased to report that we are quite different people now. (The first comedian to say, YES! BECAUSE NOW YOU ARE OLD! shall be taken out forthwith and fed unto lions. I’m just sayin’.)

There is a certain kind of poisonous factionista mindset that quite often grows in the cracks and festers in creative writing graduate programs, and I am ashamed to say I indulged in it. A lot of us did. To be fair, there were quite a few writers who floated around our program trying to make something and be decent humans. Then there were ... the rest of us. Competitive to a fault, we divided ourselves into camps and glared out of trenches, our pop-guns loaded up with smug better-than-thou (or in my transplanted southerner in Chicago case, Little-bit-sugar-mouthed-better-than-y’all,-sorry!). There were three main camps.

First, a pod of men writing BIG MALE PHALLIC POWER FICTION---oh, it was SRS Bizness, lolcat, I assure you---and they spent their time not letting a cigar be just a cigar, not ever. In workshop they poo-poo’ed any word penned by a creature who had ovaries.

Second there was a droopy faction of oppressed hyperrealist women writing about hypersensitive female leads who floated haplessly in tepid lake water describing clouds and filtering silt and their sad histories through their emaciated, pale, long, lovely fingers.

The smallest faction was a mixed gender squad of experimental fiction whackjobs (That would be the team I played on, yes). We were...weirdier than thou. I ended up there because I was in madcap love with Samuel Beckett, and because a smart professor told to me I should befriend the writers in the program whose work I most admired. That was hands down Lydia (and my opinion of her writing has not changed), but at the time she was maybe 20, fresh out of an undergrad program, and she was in this pod.

If you had put all three of these factions on an island together, there would been a Lord of the Flies style pig roast based on aesthetics in RECORD time.

The man-pod, we easy-breezy-beautiful dismissed rather quickly. They needed, we said, to get a ruler, drop trou, and award the biggest fella an MFA. The rest could slink off home. But us expy ficcers and the hyperrealist hypersensitives made each other clinically insane for two years running.

They would slog through our stories and blink at us, puzzled. Invariably, one would ask, “Is the narrator CRAZY? Or is this actually HAPPENING?” and we would answer, “Where were you when Dada went by, trailing Surrealism like a crazy kite with trout instead of string?” Then they would say, “What?”

We would push our way through their stories waiting for something to HAPPEN or for the invariably female narrator to PERFORM AN ACTION instead of being acted upon by cruel men/fate/weather/pond frogs. We would blink at them, puzzled, and one of us would invariably ask, “Nothing happens, what is this even about?” They would say, “It is about how _____ really ARE.” And in the blank they would put, say, Manic-depressives. Victims of poverty. Victims of men. Victims of victimhood. Gardeners. Monkeys. HOPES! LOSSES! TRUTHS! SNICKERS BARS! In other words, they were slice of life stories from the plot-free wasteland of the early 90’s.

My final irritated response to being asked for the umpty-hundredth time if my narrator was insane or if a large waterfowl was REALLY following her all around Chicago was to drink umpty-hundred vodka/peppermint schnapps/chocolate milk shooters and write a TERRIBLE story called “How Nutria Really Are.”

Nutria really are large swim-happy rodents that infest the swamps around New Orleans, but my story was more about how Nutria REALLY secretly are tricky furry covered literal bombs waiting sentiently to be used in acts of murder or revenge by 90’s style victimized women. (As I recall, some Nutria really ARE, in that story, pseudo-machines that allow a moderate amount of convenient time travel. Um. Yeah. *cough*)

In my defense, no one could accuse that particular story of not having a plot. In my further defense, I wrote it in 45 minutes under the influence of really, just... SO much Schnapps.
Defense aside? It was a terrible story.

What made it most terrible was its small-minded cruelty. I wrote it to poke at the hyperrealist hypersensitives. And let's be clear---this wasn;t sly literary criticism. I wasn't making fun of an aesthetic. I was making fun of people. In the way of such things, it was funny if you were in on it, and absolutely impenetrable---murky with a side of mean---if you were not.

Another way to say the above is... I wrote it to make fun of People Not Like Us. I wrote it from outside of them, to mock them, not inside, to puncture the pretentions we writers, me included, betimes indulge in. I was uncomfortable with it the minute I was sober, and I should have been. It is the opposite of the way I am currently comfortable finding humor in small town southern living. I can gently mock the South and even angrily point out her inconsistencies and cruelties because I am in and of it ---and most of all, most of all, even with its flaws and blood-soaked history, I truly, truly love it. It is me. I am it.

A lot of writers come to book signings and speaking engagements. In some of them, I recognize my younger self. I can always spot my former kind, the heartless ones, young and ruthless and better-than, chins and shoulders forward, pugnaciously demanding that their betterness be recognized. I can spot them from space, because I used to be them.

One of the most F asked of the FAQ’s I hear on tour is, “What advice do you have for young writers?” and my favorite answer---especially if one my old kind is present---is to say, “Don’t compete. Don’t be slotty or narrow. Don’t make yourself feel better about your work by mocking the work of others. Be kinder than that. Love people more than that. All people. Even the irritating ones. Even the ones who you have wisely decided aren’t as special as you are, because probably they have gifts you are too narrowly focused to recognize."

I tell them that, to be a good writer, you have to grow up enough to love people. When you do, that’s when you can write about them from the inside, as one of them. If you love them, if you are OF them and IN them, not needing to put others down to raise yourself up, you will write without stock villains mustache twirling along to tie Sweet Polly-Sue to the nearest railroad track, without perfect heroes who actually are your sad idea of you with a better body. Be an insider, because when you write people, you have to write more than what you know. You have to write what you love.

New York Times Bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Powder Springs, Georgia with her husband, their two kids, a hound dog, a scurrilous Boggart-cat, two legally separated Beta fish, and a twenty-two pound, one-eyed Main Coon cat named Franz Schubert. She wishes their neighborhood was zoned for goats.

Her latest book is The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and Entertainment Weekly called it “a wild, smartly calibrated achievement." It makes a great hostess-best friend-teacher gift, and plus your mom told me she wants a copy, so you should definitely run right out and get a couple. Oh heck, get three, they are small.


Shelby said...

"Be an insider, because when you write people, you have to write more than what you know. You have to write what you love."

I have come to realize the stark truth of this just the past few weeks. And I'm 45 years old. I cannot write what I know I I do not love what it is that I truly know.


Shelby said...

correction.. I mistyped..

I cannot write what I know "if" I do not love what it is that I truly know.

c.a Marks said...

This is a good suggestion for anyone. The young people I work with could benefit by reading this and participating. Thanks, great article.

Sandra Leigh said...

Isn't it sad, the way we need to put other people down in order to feel good about ourselves? (How People Really Are!)I don't think you have to kick yourself for doing it, Joshilyn. Instead,rejoice in the fact that you outgrew it.

As for writing what you love - that sounds like wise advice.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on achivement. It should be very much helpfull

Karim - Creating Power

Jill W. said...

I was in an MFA program for poetry and this is one of the reasons I left. There was this vicious rivalry between the poets and the fiction writers. I could never understand exactly what the competition was for.