Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Write What You Know

First of all, I think that I forgot something during these first few weeks of the semester (post residency). I forgot the reason I decided to get my MFA–to write, to write in a more focused way, to have the best and greatest excuse to write when maybe I “should” be doing other things. Don’t get me wrong, I have a super supportive husband who, even prior to school, says “Go, get out of here and write.” Not to mention that I had a very active writing life before the MFA. I was writing at a clip of a novel and several short stories a year for the past five years. Ideas a-plenty and writer’s block– virtually never. I also had the amazing support of my writing students. So, I was a writer and an author before the MFA and pretty confident in my talent– never thinking I was great in a competitive way but knowing I could write a good story and hold people’s interest and had pretty good command of language and story telling.

Then, I got to the residency and, well, all confidence– everything I thought I knew kind of disintegrated with each workshop and each class. I was suddenly 14, before my first real true writing class or workshop when I was screwing around in my room writing about the second-tier popular girls overthrowing the popular girls in a book called “Rivals” and devouring Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High Books at an alarming rate.

I have studied the craft for over 15 years, taking classes at Harvard summer School, going to writing camp, taking every workshop offered on the east coast as well as teaching writing. I am, damn it, a writer. I got the clout; I know character development and no-nos of plot construction– show don’t tell.

Sitting in workshop listening to the deconstruction of my peers work and my own, I thought why the hell are we bothering? What we want to achieve is truly impossible. We will never be done we will never be right.

I fell into a trap that I TEACH and COACH people to side step. I have writing techniques created as the antidote to the number one complaint I have when people come to class MY BRAIN WON’T SHUT UP AND LET ME WRITE!!!!! My techniques are all about writing through these “tight spots” as I call them. These techniques work! I have hundreds of students as well as myself to prove it.

But there I sat feeling stupid and young and amateurish like one of the wanna-be American Idols that stand up and perform completely off key and suck but have no idea until they see themselves on TV.

I should stop writing.

But I haven’t because I am 33 and have been writing for years and teaching it, and I don’t know how to do anything else.

So, I am writing. I’m working on my creative and my critical work for school, diligently.

There’s just something missing that I used to feel every single time I sat down to write–

FUN.

Working towards my MFA, so far, is NOT fun. I am spending like $30,000 to NOT have fun.

So what do I do? Nothing. I am not doing a damned thing except continuing on. Riding on faith, faith that somewhere, at some point, the fun will return and I will get my wings–or whatever– and fly.

***

So, I finally reached out to my mentor–reluctantly, not because she is someone I can’t talk to, on the contrary. She is very easy-going and supportive. I hesitated because, well, I shouldn’t be suffering from any kind of block, I mean I am a teacher of how to unblock– it’s like an overweight trainer or a doctor who smokes, right? Anyway, I did reach out and she kind of reassured me. She told me to basically chill out and enjoy the inauguration. Which kind of made me think, God, I am so self obsessed.

But what artist isn’t?

Anyway, that reassured me that she isn’t worried about me. At least I can fall on that, that faith, or whatever it is.

But she also, in our exchanges, has pushed me to examine my work in a way that I have avoided or maybe never considered. Coming into the program I decided to work on a short story collection called Regular Girl. All of the young women in this collection struggle with “regular girl” problems: love, food, sex, self-esteem, friendships, parents, identity, and even parenthood. Their struggles are those of other young woman growing up today, yet the way in which they attempt to gain control over their lives, which seem to be spiraling out of orbit, is truly unique.

As part of my first set of assignments, my mentor has asked me to write up an “intention” for the collection as well as summaries of the stories I already have and ideas for future ones.

In a recent email exchange she brought up the following:

… I have a feeling your collection is too general and broad. To say that you are gathering stories about a "regular" girl might get you into trouble. Is a "regular" girl only white and middle class? Is a "regular" girl also black or Asian or Latina or poor and living in the mountains? What kinds of problems and hopes does this "regular" girl have? Do you see what I mean? So part of writing the collection is about explaining why and how these stories fit together. Otherwise, you are kind of stumbling around and just writing anything. And that might be your goal as well. Some writers just write a bunch of short stories and collect them together without one central theme. However, it sounded like you did have a purpose in mind when you spoke about your work at residency.


My first reaction, my first draft of this blog, is filled with defense, anger, who-the-hell-does-she-think-she-is-tone combined with a lot of words around “I am sick of this forced multicultural shit.” Then, this morning, I turned on Good Morning America and saw excerpts from the inauguration that I MISSED, yeah. Totally missed it yesterday because of some self-loathing and anger bullshit around writing. Anyway, I watched the images on the TV, and there were a lot of shots of people with various shades of skin tone–a lot of shots of people with brown and honey colored skin. And that’s when I had this kind of moment, I started to cry, just stood there watching the TV and crying as images of old women and men, young women and men, of various shades of color, flashed across the screen and they were all crying too. So, my second reaction to her email, after my crying fit, once I sat down to rewrite and revise this blog, my second reaction was…Holy shit. She is right. She is completely right. She is not talking about forcing some multicultural shit. She is talking about reality. Real life. Real life regular girls.

***

Growing up, my friends were various shades of African American, Hispanic, Caribbean, Asian. I always found it interesting that no matter where we lived or what school I went to, I gravitated toward the minority groups. I think because I always felt out of place as a Jew in a sea of Christians, I felt a kinship with other minorities. It’s not like we talked about our differentness, but I felt safe knowing that we had each other–just in case. Just in case someone ever made a big deal out of who we were– we had each others backs. Just in case. I even chose my college, Clark University, almost solely on the advertisement I saw in my school ‘s guidance department– a pea pod with different colored peas in it. Ah ha, now I might fit in somewhere.

And now, when Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were my choices for the democrat candidate, I was really torn. I wanted the symbol of hope either of them would bring to our country and when it was Obama, it was an amazing feeling. For some reason, I felt safe, finally, like this country is not a bunch of racist bigots. We are going to be okay.

So I totally believe and want and need diversity but– I am afraid.

First of all, I don’t want to convey any stereotype of any cultural group, ever. I am NOT a stereotype and neither were my friends in high school. A. I was the dumbest and least academically successful of my friends and my favorite type of music was rap. B. The best student of my friends happened to be a black girl who preferred Led Zeppelin to rap. C. I did not go on to become a lawyer, a doctor, etc.

In my current life, one of my best friends happens to be gay–but she does not have short hair and wear flannel shirts with the arms cut off. In fact, she cares more about hair and make up than I do. My other best friend is a Jewish girl from Long Island…who married a French Canadian who is NOT a doctor.

So, see, it would bother me to portray a character who is poor and black and strung out or gay and butch or Asian and valedictorian.


And, secondly, I don’t want to be the empathetic white girl trying to speak for a population that already has endured other people trying to speak for them. I want to write about what I know and, quite frankly, what is safe.

On the other hand, I realize that my strong reaction to my mentor’s words means that maybe she hit a nerve, too. That maybe all this self-riotousness that I just espoused is actually a cover up for something far simpler.

I am afraid of failing. I am afraid of writing the story about say, three best girlfriends who are each a different color and it never mattered until they went off to college and really saw for the first time that they were all different and that their differences really mattered. Or, the other story about the closeted gay girl who is outed by the boy she repeatedly turns down and then tries, for a while, to live that good, heterosexual life her mom and dad want so badly for her but ultimately fails. I guess, I am afraid of writing stories with characters of different races and backgrounds because, like it or not, it does matter. It matters to this world and it matters to those of us who wish it didn’t matter–because it matters to others.

How can I write stories from different perspectives with characters that are a different race without that being the issue or THING in the story? It’s kind of like how on the new 90210 the upper middle class white family has a black son, and it’s great that they kind of don’t dwell on the fact that he’s black– but he is black and we are all wondering how he wound up with this family. They give us bits of info in each episode but it still feels contrived. Yet, I applaud the writers and the studio for trying. I mean that is a good thing whenever anyone tries to break a color barrier.

So, I feel completely, creatively, totally stuck. My mentor made me realize that my entire collection, as it is, is a little, narrow-minded. I mean, it is, isn’t? How arrogant of me to think that Regular Girl stories featuring an all white, middle class cast would really be an accurate portrayal of a regular girl in this country! In this world? How small minded of me. I know, I know, I did not intend for the collection to be single-minded, but the thing is, it is. As it stands, it is and that, well, that bothers me. A lot.

What I would like to do in this collection is have the voice of a variety of girls–from different backgrounds, including different ethnicities and races– be heard but I am afraid that I just can’t pull that off. That’s really it. I just don’t know if I can pull it off. Maybe I am a one-trick pony and need to make peace with that.

But I can’t. I just can’t.
***

P.S. I showed this to my mentor and her words brought me to tears....she commended me for opening my mind to her thoughts and suggestions but told me this, "Write what you know..." So, now, my task is to write what I know, what my experience has been, which, I seemed to have forgotten included friendships and relationships with all kinds of people. Now, I have to challenge myself to go ahead and talk about those things through my creative work.


5 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Margaret said...

Hannah,

When I read you were writing about "regular girls" I thought about the things most girls experience regardless of race, etc. It is like that movie, Ordinary People. Now the family in that movie has more money than most of us will ever see, but they were ordinary in their grief and troubles. There are lots of experiences that transcend race, class and religion. And you grew up with girls from different backgrounds so I would think you do know something about what life was like for them. Not completely. But that would be true if you were writing about other Jewish girls, too. I think your group of short stories about regular girls will work just fine.

Writerwomyn said...

You know, that's a great point. I think that, at the end of it all, I know what I want to do and I also know that there's other things I haven't explored (my friendships with those girls) but haven't. I might just start that process!

Margaret said...

I am looking forward to reading it when you do.

Joanne Carnevale said...

I second that emotion. Margaret's comments are straight on. I not only look forward to reading this collection, but also seeing how this experience translates into your own teaching, coaching, and mentoring.