Writing and Experience (re-visiting Best American Voices 2009 and my own fiction-related struggles and revelations)

In the winter of 2008-2009, I was thwarted in my decision to not think seriously about writing for a while.  What happened was that my boyfriend's mom, who has been supplying me regularly with new hardcovers for the past nine years, gave us the latest issue of Best New American Voices for Christmas.  The issue (which is a selection of short stories taken from various MFA programs around the country) was edited by Mary Gaitskill and included work by Suzanne Rivecca and Nam Le.  The stories by both of these writers blew me away, for lack of a better term, at a time when I was not expecting to be blown away, least of all by the writing of graduate students.  (I was feeling fairly pessimistic and cynical about MFA programs and new fiction in general at the time.)  There were several reasons why I reacted the way I did, but I would like to focus a little on what I feel is one important shared aspect of these stories, that being that they both question the value of experience with regard to stories and to one's own life.  "Look, Ma, I'm Breathing" (Rivecca) and "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" (Le) both tell stories of writers who attempt to exploit their own backgrounds for profit (of a sort, though what they ultimately hope to gain is more complicated).  Rivecca's character is a memoirist living off the perks and benefits of a book about her Catholic childhood, and Le's is a graduate student in the Iowa Writer's Workshop trying to write a story about his father's experiences in wartime Vietnam in order to complete his coursework.

At the time I didn't even think about these parallels, I was just very impressed with the writing.  But I later realized that in terms of subject matter, these stories echoed and dealt with a long-held frustration and confusion I had felt as a writer myself.  Something that was hardly ever discussed in any of the workshops I took in college was how to deal with one's own experience with regards to writing.  Unlike the fictional Iowa Writer's workshop in "Love and Honor," the creative writing program at my school seemed to veer towards discouraging the notion of autobiography altogether in a simple, clinical way (snipsnip).  More than once I heard the phrase "went outside of him/herself" murmured in an admiring manner, but with no further comment or explanation as to what this meant.  The impression I gathered was that if an undergraduate boy wrote a story about simple farm folk living in Kansas, the story was assumed to be a brave foray into something foreign, complete with research and reflection, even if it turned out the boy was from Kansas.  In fact, going out of oneself often seemed to be reflected by writing about farm people in general.  On the other hand, if someone wrote a story about clinical depression, or college sex and drinking, or a down-on-his-luck writer trying to get published, it was seen as narrow and self-centered.  The fact that I and most of the other 18 to 21 year-olds around me had very little basis for life perspective made such distinctions seem extra pointless.

(Lest this account itself become the stuff of bad autobiography, understand I have been somewhat crude about the description of my college experience for the purpose of portraying a personal dilemma.  I'm sensitive now to the fact that much of what I picked up at the time was probably at least in part indicative of what I was quick to absorb or take to heart.  I was not there for long enough and was not involved enough to make any sort of overall judgment concerning the quality of the creative writing program.)

My stumbling block at the time, and a question I still find relevant, is as follows:  How do you know someone has gone outside themselves if they haven't established that they were inside themselves in the first place? 

I like to be able to locate an author's presence in a story.  By "presence" I don't mean their personal life story.  I just like to feel that the author has some stake in the story, that they are journeying into the same waters I am.  I want to have the impression that if they are causing me to question something, that they are, to a certain extent, doing the same themselves.  I got a very strong sense of this with both "Look, Ma, I'm Breathing," and "Love and Honor," although I must admit that my sense of such things is not measured in a very objective way.  It's determined by a particular dead quiet that drops into my head at some point during reading, when the words on the page come across as barely a whisper but at the time same time seem like the loudest thing on the planet.  It temporarily silences everything else.

"Love and Honor" presents a discussion of "ethnic literature" while at the same time playing with the idea of The Writer in a mythical sense, and challenging our perception of how a well-written story should look.  After all, why can't there be a good story about a graduate student in a creative writing program who drinks heavily and has girl troubles and feels tension regarding his family and ethnic identity?  Why can't a story like this take part in the "old verities," have a big, deep, universal vibe?  The questions posed by the story stretch its themes to vast proportions.  It caught me in my own cynicism regarding people who write stories about writing stories, then shattered it.  The accompanying stories in Nam Le's collection The Boat make it clear that he did not write a story about writing a story simply because he had nothing else to write about.  It is not, as I initially expected, tongue-in-cheek meta-fictional, but rather an attempt to explore the idea of autobiography, as well as other themes related to writing and identity. 

"Look, Ma, I'm Breathing" also speaks to the value of experiences.  Isabel Hyde has written a memoir that both recalls and in some ways mirrors the story of her childhood lie about seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary.  Through her reactions to the increasingly disturbing behavior of the landlord of a house she hopes to acquire, we come to see how Isabel is still suffering for her childhood experiences, and is in addition suffering for the new experiences she has created for herself out of her childhood.  One of the things that I found most interesting is how Isabel seeks to maintain a relationship with the material in her book, not because she believes in its importance or finds it especially satisfying, but because telling stories is the only way she knows of to even attempt communication with other people.  Like a dwindling but practical marriage, it is necessary at all times to keep up appearances and also to bolster the relationship with images and possibly unattainable objects of desire (a dream house, for example), though flirtations with outside possibilities and doubts with regards to the relationship itself are frequent visitors.  Isabel's life is, at the core, very Catholic.  She is married to her "testimonies of harm" like a nun is married to God, and feels she has been deprived of other "earthly" desires (a loving relationship, perhaps, or a comfortable home) for the sake of this "marriage."

The later version of this story that was published in Death Is Not An Option gives more insight into Isabel's past and also, I think, paints a more complex and self-reflective character.

Google Books excerpt of "Look Ma, I'm Breathing" from Death Is Not An Option

"Exploitation" thus far has been used in a pejorative sense, as it usually is, but I think every serious writer exploits their own experiences to a certain degree, even if they don't write directly about them.  The above stories consider extreme examples, but in doing so give a background against which to ponder in a larger sense the idea of "using" one's life with regards to an identity, a career, or a story.  It's an issue that, sooner or later, must be confronted.  I suspect that most good fiction is done by writers who have successfully learned to consciously consider what they want to do with their life experience, rather than simply deciding what it means.

Sometimes, when I read short stories, I feel a certain strain with regards to how the story was written.  I imagine that the author is taking the gist of what they want to write about and stuffing it into a respectable suit.  I did not have that feeling with either of the above stories once I was done reading them and reflecting on them.  I had the feeling that both authors were writing exactly what they wanted, and were at the same time taking their time exploring what their ideas meant to them, rather than running through a simple setup for the reader.  In the process, they were taking risks that other writers might avoid.  For example, they cared enough about their material to risk having people consider how autobiographical it was (especially in the case of Nam Le, who even gives his character his own name), or worse, jump to the immediate conclusion that it was autobiographical in the most literal sense.

While I have read fiction with increasing frequency during my adult life and was even working intermittently on a novel at the time I read these stories, I had felt for a long time that the idea of me writing didn't make sense.  It was something I occasionally enjoyed doing and even sometimes felt an absolute need to do, but it always seemed either too close or too far away.  I was both troubled and obsessed by the idea of how to deal with experience in writing because I understood on a certain basic level that the fact that I was a certain social and emotional being was what made it possible for me to enjoy reading in the first place.  I didn't want to write about farm people, at least not yet, without a specific desire presenting itself.  I wanted to write with consideration for my own experiences but I didn't want to write about myself, and I could not seem to find a comfortable area to place this distinction.  I had, to a certain extent, given up the struggle to place it, or at least put the struggle on hold.  I found myself often thinking that I was fascinated by fiction, but I didn't get how it worked. 

When I was done reading those stories in Best New American Voices I was left with a bewildered feeling in the midst of the aforementioned quiet, and also a feeling that I have since begun to recognize as the best feeling to have after reading fiction, that is, the feeling that I had may have been wrong about something.  Whatever it was that I may have been wrong about, over the coming months I found myself returning to both stories and reflecting on them, and the idea of fiction began, for some reason, to make more sense to me.  It may have been due to the fact that I was reading stories by MFA graduates and realizing that I was about the same age now as I would have been, anyway, had I graduated college, taken a few years to do something else and then eventually done an MFA program.  It may have been the subject matter, or that I related to the characters' dilemmas more than I initially realized.  It may have even just been because I was in a better place to understand it anyway and those stories were better than anything else I'd read in awhile.  I don't really know.  But I ended up deciding I wanted to take my own writing more seriously.

What I now think I wanted to learn in school and didn't (this speculation, for the record, is a far cry from blaming anyone for my tepid college experience or lack of success thus far) was how to keep experience from burning a hole in one's brain before it could actually be useful as a tool for writing.  I knew that there were personal subjects I wanted to write about, and for a while I tried, but it was like trying to pick up something very hot with my bare hands.  I needed someone to help me find my way around the kitchen, but it would be several years before I would even locate the oven mitts or learn to follow a recipe for a simple pot pie.  I don't mind this, and I don't mind the fact that I haven't been published yet, for several reasons:  1) I have approximately, by my own count, about the same number of stories under my care as Nam Le's protagonist in "Love and Honor" (three and a half).  2) These stories are, in terms of what they are, more than I would have thought I could accomplish previous to 2009.  3) I don't, at the moment (literally the moment I write this), see these stories as being ready for publication, though I have started submitting one of them, which I've found is a great way to figure out what edits I want to make, because they come to mind the minute the envelope is in the mail.  4) I have learned some very important things about writing and experience, like that several people can have the same basic background and can all write about it in different ways through conscious acts of will.  One might stretch it out and wave it around like a flag, another might fold it into a hat.  This matters.  It doesn't matter what you do with it as long as you don't assume that it somehow makes a story on its own.  A story is a story because it is always "made up," even if it is also "true."  The best writers, I think, both fiction and non-fiction, accept their writing as an act of creation and choice, as a single point of view, rather than The Answer, or The Way It Is. 

It's worth mentioning, I think, that my college experience all took place before the memoir craze hit and people began to be shameless about these things, so in a way I understand the paranoia regarding autobiography.  Fiction was still in a place where it was seen as being a possible haven for secret memoirists, and the idea of "ethnic literature" had already taken hold.  The fact that it's now becoming less and less necessary to cry fiction in order to get one's own story on paper is in some ways, I think, making fiction more exciting, because it's raising new questions about what fiction is and could be.  If someone chooses to exploit details of their own life for a book but opts for fiction over memoir, they are making a conscious decision to use their experience, whereas memoirists may be making an unconscious one and not really be aware of who or what they are exploiting.  The most common downfall of the memoirist may be to trap oneself in a bottled image, that is, to write too broadly with the intention of finding explanations for one's own existence, then be left with a small space for an entire life to be squeezed into.  The equivalent trap for fiction writers is to think that they can write a story that does not somehow reflect or expose their own personal experience.  But the writer who acts consciously with regards to experience is accepting control, accepting responsibility, and there is a chance for something surprising to take shape.

This all seems especially topical in light of social networking sites and reality television and smart phone technology, which are changing the way we communicate as well as the way we think of ourselves.  I suppose that was something else that struck me about these stories:  Something in the social fabric is rippling in a way that we always sort of knew it would, and these are the kinds of trends we always thought would eventually lead to the real downfall of literature (making it truly obsolete) but it occurs to me now that it might just present new opportunities.  Not only have we invented technology specifically to support an environmentally friendly reading habit, thereby indicating we have no intention of giving it up in favor of screen technology, but there are writers who are now using all of this collective experience to their advantage.  I don't think it's completely crazy to suggest that in an era of extreme self-disclosure, fiction and particularly short stories (which often have to be more unflinching in their portrayal of a character, if only because they can't afford as much as a novel to waver in focus) might in some ways be more necessary, or at least have a more fertile environment in which to grow.  Which makes me feel hopeful and also kind of dumb.  Like I said, I may have been wrong about something.

My Amazon review of Death Is Not An Option
(I am now aware of the fact that I used the phrase "by contrast" twice in succession, and this bothers me, but I feel it would be petty of me to remove and re-post a review that 4 of 4 people have found helpful for the purpose of a minor correction.)

Just one more thing about the above-mentioned stories:  If you like the excerpts, do yourself a favor and buy the collections.  I won't make any silly promises like saying you won't regret it, but if you do, it's certainly not my fault, or the fault of the authors.  :p  ☺☻♥♂♀♥☻☺


  1. This is so rich with insights that it bears re-reading more than once, so I don't want to trivialize anything by pretending to have a clarity of understanding necessary to discussion.

    But...wow...thanks for a feast for thought!


  2. Thanks and you're welcome. I considered sending you a message when I finished this entry but it seems like you're usually the first to read my posts anyway.

    Hopefully the lack of clarity isn't just due to the scattered nature of my own thoughts.

    :) Elisabeth