September curled her fists. She tried very hard not to cry.

“Green! Stop it! I just want to know–”

“One! Because you were born in–”

“If I am special,” finished September, halfway between a whisper and a squeak. “In stories, when someone appears in a poof of green clouds and asks a girl to go away on an adventure, it’s because she’s special, because she’s smart and strong and can solve riddles and fight with swords and give really good speeches, and . . . I don’t know that I’m any of those things. I don’t even know that I’m as ill-tempered as all that. I’m not dull or anything, I know about geography and chess, and I can fix the boiler when my mother has to work. But what I mean to say is: Maybe you meant to go to another girl’s house and let her ride ont he Leopard Maybe you didn’t mean to choose me at all, because I’m not like storybook girls. I’m short and my father ran away with the army and I wouldn’t even be able to keep a dog from eating a bird.”

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Because sometimes, just sometimes, while reading a passage in a book, the words resonate so deeply with what you feel that you have to stop. I read this at work today during my lunch break and had to stop. My breath came out as a slight sigh and my thoughts for the rest of the day were daydreams I’d tried very hard to suppress.

 

Advertisements

Creative Writing Courses or The Attempt to Produce Cookie-Cutter Writers

Okay, so, today was not a particularly good day. I had serious downs. And in terms of my writing, well, blogging has been it, pretty much. While I have escaped my own mire, I’m not trusting myself to get out of my own head and into my characters’ heads quite yet. But that won’t stop me from plotting and planning later tonight.

Anyway, the title of this post has to have you wondering by now what the bloody blue blazes I mean. The topic stems from a bit of personal growth I discovered during a relatively calm discussion with one of my friends today about her creative writing courses. She and I went to different schools, so there will of course be discrepancies in how programs are run, but to my slight dismay, I found that isn’t really the case.

See, when I attended my university, the focus was purely on this ambiguous genre of fiction called “Literary,” which while I know by the examples given of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Chaucer, Hawthorne, Austin, Wolff, and many more covered in courses more in detail. I didn’t understand what made them “Literary” when things like “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Peter Pan” were also “Literary” (to say nothing of Asimov and Bradbury). The former are what everyone always strove to be in these programs, or at least what would receive the highest marks, but the latter would get passing but not much better marks. So what was this “literary”* they were demanding so much?

I guess I could put it as “true to life” writing. Stories that are plausible for the world we live in, be it current times, an age long past, or an age yet to come. The stories of people who go on living day-to-day lives and face the challenges of what that entails. But that alone would be boring. No, literary also has something special attached – a conflict that shows an issue, be it family issues, racial, gender, sexual, or just the issue of appearances. There are subtexts.

But the question remains as to why our two schools chose to focus solely (and some might even say restrictively) on this “literary” fiction that so many find terribly dull. I came to realize at least part of the answer as I spoke to my friend about it.

“Literary” fiction as covered in school is boring. It is our lives put on paper trough the eyes and ears and touches of characters. It is our thoughts through their mouths, but given the decency of creating a different persona for the characters so that we can avoid a certain responsibility for saying such things. (Hint: We’re still given credit for them though, so don’t run from that. It’s impossible.) It’s boring. But it’s useful.

This form of fiction has only the most basic of basics in it to make it work. It has a focus on the characters, plot, conflict, setting, climax, action, pacing and so forth. There are no gimmicks like magic or world-creation rules or fantastic science that modern science has yet to discover. There is only a character or two, their lives, their problems, their dialogue – if any – and a classroom filled with editing piranhas ready to rip your story to shreds just as they would have you do to theirs. “Literary” fiction as had by college courses is essentially the fiction of nuts and bolts, the basis for everything else. To learn this and learn it well is to learn how to create a solid foundation for any type of writing you could possibly create down the line.

Now, that being said, their insistence on ONLY writing this way leads many to believe wrongly that anything outside of this genre is lesser writing. I have my own experience in this. My counselor in the English department assumed that because I didn’t like to read the classics that I didn’t like to read at all and thus wrote me off. I did try to clarify that I liked reading fantasy and light sci-fi and such, but she wouldn’t hear of it. According to her, I didn’t “read.” Students who don’t like writing “literary” fiction are writing “junk” and this opinion comes not only from the teachers but the other students who DO tend to write this elitist fiction and get outstanding marks.

Just like there are students out there who learn in different ways (the different modalities: Visual, listening, speaking, doing, etc.) there are writers whose brains simply struggle to think in terms of “literary.” It’s simply much easier for some people to write Science Fiction or Fantasy or Romance (smut edited out for classroom distribution) or whatever genre they find themselves gravitating toward. So why are these people looked down upon? These stories have the basic nuts and bolts that “Literary” fiction has, it’s just they have something different added to it.

What I have found I’d love to see more of is the classes where the students are asked to try out the different genres, even if they fail, just try it out. Mystery, Romance, Horror, Mythology/Folk Lore/Fairy Tale, etc. There are so many. Spend a day each going over the major genres and what standards they follow like Mystery focuses on very detailed plot and setting while Romance focuses more on the characters and their interactions. Go into some of the larger, more popular subgenres as the larger ones are discussed, like Science Fiction is very focused on the technology and human interaction with it while Steam Punk (a subgenre) is a specific kind of technology in a more historical period, usually Victorian.

The reason many of my fellow writers chose to enter into creative writing classes in the first place was because they wanted something out of it, usually some guidance on how to get better, but most of what I’ve seen is a lot of condescension, a silent battle between genre-fiction and that “elite” “literary” faction that people seem to value so highly, and a whole lot of miscommunication. Just like “Literary” does not necessarily mean “better,” “genre” does not strictly mean “junk” or “trash.” The whole point was to create a story that the reader would enjoy: TO ENTERTAIN. Each person is different, so let them write what comes most naturally to them and stop looking down your nose at what comes out if it’s not “literary.”

Creative writing courses were not created to produce cookie-cutter writers. The End. Full Stop.

**I would like to say this right now, though: I do not take sides in this conflict. I read genre fiction, the Classics that constitute Literary fiction (now that I’m not having it forced down my throat in class), and I read “literary” fiction. I enjoy some authors from each and dislike others. I enjoy them equally for the ability to immerse me into another person’s life and world for a few hours at a time and make me care about the characters. What do I write? I’m still trying to figure that out. Right now, I do a bit of everything. But for the longest time I had a strict preference for fantasy. Then I tried something new because it was MY idea. If it had come from anyone else, I wouldn’t have done it. It has to be my idea for me to enjoy it. I guess that means I’m wired a bit oddly. I write the stories that my characters either tell me or need, be that in a fantastic make-believe world or a realistic one. To each their own.

So now I open the floor to you: Do you have any ideas that I haven’t covered here as to why this “literary” genre is the sole focus of the creative writing programs that my friend and I have explored? (“Because it’s just so much better, meh~” without justification won’t cut it.)

 

*I use quotes around it bring into focus the differences between the two. Literary with the capital L being that large collection of works force-fed to us as we grew up like so many moldy old prunes (It’s GOOD for you!), and literary with a lowercase l being this genre that the college professors seem to prefer.
** WordPress decided to cut my entry here short and use an autosaved version instead of what I’d finished writing. My apologies for any misunderstandings and inconveniences this may have caused.