02 December 2010

There's No Such Thing

Yesterday I gave my Creative Writing students a True/False quiz:

  1. (Creative) Writing is a form of art. T F
  2. Writing is political, and has the power to affect social change. T F
  3. Writing should be uplifting, and reveal the best of humanity. T F
  4. Writing should be dark, and reveal the problems of humanity. T F
  5. The best writing is accessible and relevant to the widest amount of people. T F
  6. The best writing is esoteric and rarified. T F
  7. I write for myself. T F
  8. I write for others. T F

The idea was to get them to think more globally about the writing they’ve done over the semester, and what they’ll do with their writing in the future, but the quiz may as well have been a list of the questions that batter me around daily. There are the ways I want to answer, and the ways that my writing, itself, answers. There’s no such thing as “my writing, itself.”


A few years ago, I saw a very famous young fiction writer get up on stage in an auditorium full of eager undergrads. The undergrads had a lot of questions for him, and they especially wanted to know about his writing process. Of course they did. He’s done this huge, inscrutable thing, and they want to know if and how maybe, someday, they could do it, too. His answers ranged from “I don’t know how that happened” to “It just came to me” to “That’s not a good question.” It was a grand and infuriating abdication. It was cruel to the questioners, not only because he was withholding information that they wanted to know, but because it perpetuated the myth of the author as some kind of mystic, some kind of vessel who receives ideas from the universe and magically transmits them to paper. Without work. Without, most importantly, responsibility. Inspiration is real, but at a certain point a writer makes choices.


I got into indie and punk music in my teens, and I remember thinking, as late as my early 20s, “I wish there was such a thing as an indie scene for literature.” This was not so much because I was dissatisfied with mainstream, but because I just didn’t get why underground fiction didn’t exist, or, if it did exist, why I didn’t know about it. In college, I wrote papers for my Cultural Studies classes about the subversive power of zines and queer punk, but literature was conspicuously absent. I really don’t know why it took me so long to discover that experimental fiction, queer fiction, and independent presses existed. Thank goodness for San Francisco, and Camille Roy’s workshop, and New Narrative, and Denton Welch, and Jane Bowles, and more and more, discovering every day.

Because I believe, of course, that writing is art and that all art is political. I believe that form, syntax, character, and diction are political choices, as are the ways one chooses to get one’s writing out into the world. Sure, a writer makes choices based on aesthetics as well, but all of it has a political valence. So that a writer who abdicates responsibility for how the words get onto the page and out to the public is saying, “I am not political, I had no hand in this”—which is the way hegemony solidifies itself, by proclaiming itself originless and invisible.


See but this is the thing. I am drawn, as a reader, to work that departs from fiction-writing conventions, that is explicitly or insidiously subversive, that is clearly out to, in some way, fuck shit up. But that’s not really the kind of fiction I write. And now here come the chorus of voices (you don’t have to provide them, I do a fine job providing them on my own), saying “How can you say “The kind of fiction you write? Can’t you just choose to write in a different way? Don’t you dispute the notion of an ‘authentic’ voice? Can’t you just make the words do whatever you find to be most politically salient?” I mean, yes and no. Because despite it all, I love narrative. I don’t care that much about plot, but I’m deeply invested in character, and my brain runs pretty well on conventional syntax. And I can write shorter pieces that are more experimental, but that writing doesn’t sustain me, creatively, over the long term. And, perhaps now more than ever, people make camps, draw lines. (See, for example, the Juliana Spahr/ Rebecca Wolff debate.) I’ve gotta say that, politically, I’m down with Spahr’s argument, but you wouldn’t know it from my work. And to force one’s work into a shape to match one’s politics—even if those politics are your own—feels somehow false.

Some days it’s a wonder I can get a word written at all.


  1. Hey Sara, great post. "What sustains me" or "what I seem to be able to work harder on" is a nice thing to consider when worried about stretching or not stretching, stylistically. I might steal this test when some day teaching something other than Comp.

  2. hi sara, saw you had a passing reference to jackdaw with crowbar in a story called the drummer, a cassette tape! must be an old one, we foolishly got back together, touring with The Ex in April. if you'd like a new cd, let me know and i'll send info@jackdawwithcrowbar.com
    Fergus jackdaw