So Writer, What Do You Write?

I’ve been writing almost all my life. When I was 11 my parents gave me a typewriter and I banged out stories on that all summer. They were all very tragic – lost children, dead parents…and space aliens, there were a lot of space aliens. I don’t know why. I don’t care for space aliens, but they kept showing up. I’ve kept journals throughout my adult life. I wrote for a newspaper for a while in college. I do a lot of professional writing now.

I have always had a few stories hidden away that I would pick at. But until a couple of years ago I never brought them out into the light to share with other people and to get feedback and instruction. Then I took an online course through the Gotham Writers Workshop and I found a groove, so I took another Gotham course. Those courses were rewarding experiences for the instruction I received, the validation and the encouragement. But what I enjoyed most about it was connecting with other creative people who shared a passion for writing. After Gotham, I entered the University of Washington’s Certificate in Literary Fiction program. I want to know other creative people; I want to create with other creative people; and through that process I want to gain better understanding and better control over whatever creativity I possess. What I write about comes as it will, but how I write is a life-long work in progress.

I am not a flashy writer. I would not say I am a terribly clever writer in the sense of being someone who pushes the envelopes of form and style. I can admire that in other people, but it’s not what I’m trying to do when I sit down to write. My stories are straight forward, linear, traditionally told. What I want to be as a writer is honest. I want to be a writer who, first and foremost, tells a good story. I want to be a writer who does not flinch from what is awkward, uncomfortable, ugly, sad or even ridiculous so long as what I say in my fiction is true – true to human experience.

The people closest to me in my life know that I am a writer. But I haven’t shown that part of myself to my wider circle of acquaintances and friends until recently. They’ve been supportive, but they all immediately want to know what kinds of things I write. They want to peg me to some part of the spectrum:

“Do you write mysteries? I love mysteries!”

“No,” I tell them, “I write stories about regular people living their lives.”

“Are you like Nicholas Sparks? Nicholas Sparks is great! If you’re like him, I would love to read your stuff!”

“No, Nicholas Sparks isn’t really it either.”

To try to give them some understanding I list the writers that I like: John Updike, Allistair MacLeod, Andre Dubus, John Cheever, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Marilyn Robinson, Steven Polansky, among others. They nod politely.

I  want them to understand, so I read to them the back cover of Steven Polansky’s short story collection “Dating Miss Universe”, because what it says there is what I would love someday to have someone say about my stories: 

Steven Polansky’s universe has no heroes, no villains. His people are fallen and eminently human. They try to live difficult lives with dignity and grace, to cope with what scares them. These are powerful stories of brokenness – broken families, failed loves, dangerous intimacies, unrealized dreams – that are surprisingly tender and often comic. These are stories that are at once bright and dark, written with scrupulous moral precision.

I don’t know that I, or any of my friends, know with any degree of certainty what “moral precision” is, however, so maybe the best I can do in explaining what I want to write is to simply say to them what I said to my wife last week as we were driving to the grocery store. I pointed to the houses along the street, their windows lit up, spilling yellow into early spring darkness, revealing to us, as we drove past, glimpses of kitchens and couples and children doing homework. “Every one of those houses has a story inside of it,” I said. “Those are the stories I want to tell.”

“And will there be space aliens?”

About that, I make no guarantee.

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