Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Today, Neil Gaiman posted a letter I wrote to him about creative writing programs and genre writing on his blog, which you can read here Neil's Blog

And, since I'm getting some of Neil's fans coming over here to check me out, I want to expand a little bit on my letter to him. If you look through my previous blog posts about grad school, you'll see I had a phenomenal experience getting my MFA. It was very different from my undergrad experience. I loved my professors, my fellow students, and every class I took in grad school. Getting my degree was, hands down, the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing. Ever. I would not be writing the novel I am today without this program and the people with whom I worked. They have my utmost respect and gratitude.

I don't write much fantasy or science fiction anymore. My work has always alternated between realistic fiction and fantasy (as does my reading tastes), although even my realistic fiction has fantasy elements. The novel I'm currently working on, The Altar of Dead Pets, is about a 14 year-old boy who's brother dies on page 1 in a car accident. It began as a ghost story, with a decapitated body, but has grown into more of a symbolic ghost story (no decapitation) that culminates with an attempt to contact the dead brother out in the Nevada desert that doesn't go exactly as planned.

My comments to Neil are about the relationship of genre writing and creative writing programs and based on my observations having been in two such programs. While I understand the frustration some professors feel at having to read bad fantasy or science fiction work, why is that frustration any greater than when they have to read bad writing of any kind? I have never seen a professor seek to ban stories about drugs, violence, partying or relationships gone bad UNLESS they fell within the categories of genre fiction no matter how atrociously the students wrote them.

Even though 20+ years have passed since I got my undergrad degree, the academe has not changed its bias against genre writing. I think it is destructive of professors to denigrate, limit or inhibit what their students write, especially their undergraduate students. No one has the right to tell another person what they should or should not be writing.

Young writers are especially vulnerable to the influence of professors. I know I was. I wanted their approval. These were published writers. Authors with good reputations. I wanted them to anoint me, to tell me I was worthy of joining their club. Having someone like that tell me what I was writing wasn’t even worth my bringing it into class was devastating. I stopped writing for seven years after I got my undergraduate degree and it was a long, long road back even though there is nothing else I ever wanted to do.

When my husband and I were in Australia for our honeymoon many, many years ago, I was told that the Australian aborigines believe that you have a story and you are the only one who is allowed to tell that story. While I think it actually means you become the guardian of a particular story, say the story of Odysseus, and you are the only one allowed to tell it. No one else can tell the story of Odysseus, and when you die, someone else takes over that story. I took it to mean something a little different.

I believe everyone has a story to tell that is theirs and theirs alone. As writers, we are guardians of all our stories, and I don’t think anyone has the right to tell another writer which stories are theirs and which aren’t.

(if you’ve found my blog because of Neil’s post: Hello, and welcome! Thanks for stopping by. I hope you stick around and come back soon.)


Diane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diane said...

reposted by me from a comment by dampscribbler:

Diane, in case you don't know yet, Neil Gaiman published your letter on his blog today. You're famous!

Thank you so much for your insight and perspective. About a decade ago I spent a year researching grad programs, I applied to a few and was rejected, and I struggled with the idea of spending $20K-plus to study a subject that few people make a living at. Lately I've seen more and more comments and revelations like yours, and I know that I made the right decision (for me) by not continuing to apply to programs. I've worked with writers in my community since 2000, and even within our network there is a strong bias toward literary writing that had me distracted from the work I really am most drawn to writing. I am grateful for the experience that I gained writing literary fiction, and I don't expect to abandon it entirely, but this year I have found my way back to a much older form of storytelling and I am delighted to be working within this form that feels so right to me and my stories. Thank you for standing up for the student who is writing genre fiction. Thank you for directly advising the student. And thank you for your letter to Neil, I'm so glad he shared it for the rest of us to read.

That a professor is thinking of requesting students to sign a "ne genre contract" literally took my breath away. I wonder how the University, the department, would feel if she petitioned them to adopt such exclusionary measures during the application process?

Thanks again for your letter. Best wishes to you.