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This Writer’s Life

August 17, 2010

Donor and Loyal reader Alicia emailed me this:

An early assignment I have my students do is a writer autobiography of sorts, telling about an important experience they had with writing, or describing a memory they have about feedback they received, or telling the story of a piece of writing that was important to them as a writer. I would be really interested in hearing a story like that from you. Did you ever have a teacher that pushed you and your writing in just the right (or wrong) way? Or is there a contrasting set of experiences as a student writer between when you were in the US and Germany? Can you isolate a time when you thought, “Yeah, this writing thing is what I need to be doing”? Or is there a piece of advice you wish you had gotten as a young writer?

I thought I combine this entry with another requested post by a donor who posed this question:

How does your musical taste inform you as a writer?

So in no particular order…

While You See A Chance…

My earliest writing memory involves copying down lyrics from albums my parents had. I vividly remember copying the lyrics to Steve Winwood’s While You See a Chance, stretched out on my belly next to my Fisher-Price record player. It was the only song from Arc of a Diver I ever played. I was probably around 9 or 10; all my stories started with the phrase, “Stand up in a clear blue morning until you see what can be…”, which I’m sure I felt was profound and literary. Even at an early age I was interested in the use of pop culture as prompts for my writing. One of the stories I remember writing – and hope to recreate – involved sitting in the back back of La Mommie’s beige station wagon, staring out the window, thinking (what I assumed were) important thoughts while the song played on the radio.

I’ve got looks, I’ve got brains and I’m breaking these chains

One of the pieces of writing advice I’d wished someone had given me early in my “career” was to cultivate humility. I’m pretty sure if someone had I wouldn’t have christened David Naughton’s disco classic my writer theme song. Of course, I would later receive that advice in the most unpleasant way. Nevertheless, Makin’ It is still my writer theme song!

But me, I’m getting stronger

Much of my writing life has been fairly charmed. My very first submission for paid publication – Bitch Media – (in 2005, right after I finished my BA) was eagerly accepted and nurtured. Mentors and fans were acquired with surprising ease and enthusiasm. While I’ve not hit “big”, I have felt that my writing career has been largely successful, even the parts that probably wouldn’t feel that way to others. That said, I did have several detractors. They say you can learn more from your critics than your fans; so it was with me in college. I proposed my way into a semester of nothing but independent study, which I assumed would be glorious. I’d be able to focus my literary studies on writers not appearing in the “canon” and actually develop my craft with lit mentors whose works reflected my subject interest and style of writing.

They gotta name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose…

So that was all hats and horns, except for my Creative Writing independent study. I was assigned to a prof who didn’t seem to like me or my writing very much. In fact, this prof HATED every word I submitted and told me so in no uncertain terms. She felt my writing was “gimmicky”, “immature” and “unpolished”, which was fine, except she never offered any thoughtful analysis as to where I struggled in terms of craft or what authors I might want to read in order to get a better handle on what I was trying do. I want to say it broke my spirit, but oddly enough it didn’t. The project she hated most: a collection of stories inspired by Steely Dan’s landmark album Aja!

Trying hard to recreate what had yet to be created

For the record, I don’t even think she was wrong in her criticisms – despite not wanting to hear them. It was an important moment in my writing life and definitely humbled this intergalactic diva, who was getting a bit to big for her platforms. Grateful it happened then, when there was less at stake rather than now.

Give me the night

One of my proudest moments was learning to graciously accept her criticisms of my work and strive to work harder at my craft and be okay with someone not liking the way I wrote. It served me well because later in grad school I got to work with my lit hero Sarah Schulman who turned my writing around! She championed my talent, but not necessarily every word I wrote and I graciously accepted every single craft/narrative criticism I received. Enthusiastically, even.

When I think about tomorrow, I can’t wait to stir it up!

Had I not had the experience with the Armond White of creative writing professors it’s doubtful I would have been able to embrace the smart, sharp and non-hand hold-y criticism I received from Sarah. All the praise I’d receive prior had made me a confident writer, but Sarah’s rigorous and unflinching critiques of my work made me a better writer. It taught me to be unsentimental and not precious about my work. It taught me to see 30 pages of a 40 page submission X’d out as a relief (don’t have to write that ever again) rather than some heartbreaking loss of sparkling prose.

There’s no sensation to compare with this
Suspended animation, a state of bliss

Perhaps there are those who prefer a sweeter, kinder touch as it relates to their work, but when it comes to craft concerns, toss my work into a group of lean, hungry writing peers or a no-nonsense mentor and I am in heaven. Of course, this pretty much only applies to my fiction writing. I’m still working on being a much better recipient of negative feedback as it relates to the craft concerns of my non-fiction writing.

Saturdays

For better or worse my writing concerns recapturing the past, particularly aspects of my childhood that feel erased by the way in which black girlhood is often explored in literature (when it’s explored at all). My graduate thesis – Bright Neon Love – is completely informed by my own childhood/teen years in the sense it explores the intersection race, gender and sexuality from a roller skating framework. There are whole chapter devoted to roller skating! For some reason this song by Cut Copy captures the balance of nostalgia and transgressiveness I seek to convey in my own writing. Also, I just dig the song.

Wanna blow my mind

My goal/dream as a writer is to create a novel that has the same resonance and rhythm (to me) as this here jam by Zapp.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Amanda permalink
    August 17, 2010 8:27 am

    Delurking to say this post resonated with me. I’ll admit to being very curious about what events shaped your writing life, because there is a richness to your blogging I haven’t noticed in others I read. Thank you for writing this piece. It’s really nice when a writer is so thoughtful regarding their process.

  2. August 17, 2010 8:37 am

    You’re amazing, Ms. Machine… answering two questions with one fascinating, insightful well-framed post. And while I’d remembered David Naughton recently for his Dr. Pepper commercials and American Werewolf parts, I’d forgotten about his disco number! Whatever happened to this multitalented performer?

  3. aliciamaud permalink
    August 17, 2010 9:38 am

    What a great post! Thanks so much for answering my questions–I will definitely be sending my students here to check this out as a potential model for their writing pieces! They’re sometimes afraid to let their personalities and interests come out in their writing at first…but this example should light a little fire for them!

  4. August 18, 2010 9:19 am

    This was a really wonderful post. I think that we connected because of our pop culture leanings. We both want to make things that resonate like our favorite pop songs! That Zapp song is totally the JAM! If I can make a painting or a print or a drawing or whatever that intoxicates the senses like “Heroes and Villians” or that fires some teenager up like “We’re Desperate” than maybe I’ve done my job.

    My “kick to the ego” moment happened in Junior College when I was just cranking out work that was good, but I had no focus and no real discipline to speak of. I guess you could call it arty masturbation. I had a teacher who took me aside and showered me with praise before absolutely tearing me down to the level I needed to be at. She then also said that I would be given “extra credit” but that if I did not complete it, and complete it at my very best, that I would fail. I either got an A or an F. It scared the pants out of me and instilled the work ethic that I still have today. Thanks, Teach!

  5. August 18, 2010 9:25 am

    Also, this post really inspired me.

  6. IrishUp permalink
    August 18, 2010 11:19 am

    I’ve re-read this three times now. I just love how interjecting your songs works with reading the post. Multi-media writing! It’s like the first year that “Dream On” was on HBO. How they interspersed old film clips to show how Brian BenBen was feeling? Totally new, and just CAUGHT me! It’s just like that! Thanks, Snarky

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