While fall turned to an unprecedented winter here in Washington, and then a wet, violent spring, and only now the promise of summer is in the air, I read and considered many books from the angle of the writer: How does this work contribute to the great body of literature that fuels and defines the art of writing?
I’ve tried to remain objective, non-judgmental, a scholar-observer because I know that I have been blessed with a unique opportunity to grow and learn through the support and demands of this MFA program. The book I chose to read for my final—and 24th!—critical reading assignment was Norton’s Postmodern American Fiction. Though it is long and the selections are so varied that at times I felt jostled, I do believe that the reading of this collection brought some ideas together that will carry me into this second year of MFA work and strengthened my identity as a writer.
As I read the bold and varied selection in this anthology, I found myself being more judgmental. Brautigan (who I loved at sixteen!) is clever and I like reading him, but Vonnegut has more moral sense, which is ultimately more admirable. The Paley story “Pale Pink Roast” was literary dessert, full of immaculate language and powerful subtext, but Silko’s selection from Ceremony felt more human, less intentionally artful. The editor’s in the introduction to the excerpt from Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, quoted him as saying, “I’m not interested in imitating a style or structure I’ve used before. I’ll never write another book like Trout Fishing in America. I dismantled that old machine when I finished with it and left the pieces lying around in the backyard to rust in the rain” (38).
This insistence on innovation seems to be the way of things in the “high art” of writing in the post-modern era! To be always breaking old frames for fiction. To take risks. To scramble the narrative. To incorporate other art forms: digital, visual, performance—anything goes! While this is liberating, I think it is easy for a writer to lose heart and perspective, to innovate for the sake of innovation, not because it will make the work more meaningful. Mark Leyner’s “Tooth Imprints On A Corn Dog” details the activity of a writer trying to write a poem he’s been commissioned to write in twenty four hours, “1,000 lines of free verse in the poete maudit tradition of Arthur Rimbaud, but infused with the ebullience and joie de vivre that made ABBA so popular in the 1970’s” (242). This is so clearly absurd. The writer (in the story) so vain and self-indulgent that I wanted to shake him and ask: But what is the god damn point? And what is the point?
Why have I aspired to write more and better since I was eight years old? Why am I (when I’m poor to begin with) racking up more student loan debt in order to earn my MFA in fiction writing? And this program requires a lot of work! More than I realized it would. I’m accustomed to hard work, but this year has tested the limits of what I am capable of taking on—for sure! In reading the works in this anthology, an answer to these questions rose to the surface: to communicate and to make meaning for myself—to contribute a verse.
I’m curious, but not romanced by literary dogma. And though I’d like to see my work in print—I won’t lie—that’s not a driving force for me at all. In fact, I find the whole business of it tedious and frustrating. I do; however, feel privileged to live during a time in which such a rich and varied tradition of literature exists.
What I’ve gained from all I read this year is an appreciation for the individual work itself. A desire and an intention. A desire to cultivate patience in my writing, to slow down the sentence building, because this is an area where I can improve. An intention to allow form to shape from the piece itself, which includes a willingness to experiment with and change ideas I have going into a piece of writing about how the story will be told for the sake of the story itself. To always return back to the breath of the story—the life force—the central idea.