It’s all shit, until it isn’t.

I had a recent conversation with an acquaintance that I hadn’t seen in awhile.  She asked if I’d been accepted into the VONA workshop and if so, what did I learn.

I went into this excited rant about how the experience was life changing, life affirming . . . the BEST experience of my life, blah, blah, blah, second only to the day that I brought home my son.  The workshop gave me exactly what I needed and more.

“Well, what was so good about it?” she asked.

She stumped me.  If I’d said those words to the ten other people in the workshop with me, they would know immediately and EXACTLY what I meant.  It’s very difficult to express that experience to someone outside of it without making it sound trite or exploitative.

“It was very emotional,” I said.

Yes that’s true, but the folk who read this and know me well know that it doesn’t take much for me to turn on the waterworks.  No, it was more than the fact that Chris Abani made us cry.  He was trying to get us to understand that in order to create emotional resonance within our readers, we first need to connect to our genuine, “real” selves.

Good writers who aspire to become great writers must get past the “fake suffering” as Chris called it, or neuroses, and connect with real, honest, emotion, to write with sensory details, not exposition.  He provided a whole new depth to the phrase ‘show, don’t tell.’   I didn’t quite get it then and I’m still working to explain it to myself but I’m coming to understand that I can no longer just report or be an observer to my story.  I am a PART of the story.  Because I am the story.

I write genre fiction: mysteries, thrillers.  My stories aren’t personal, I’m not working through past hurts or crises, they’re not memoirs, I argued.  My stories are about a bunch of people who come to visit me in my head, and who bug and bug me until I put their stories down in print.

Here’s what Aleksandar Hemon, the MacArthur “Genius” on willful delusions, the ego’s limit, and the stories we tell to make sense of experience”  says about the matter:

You devise ways to tell a story that complies with your sensibility. Style and method are really extensions of your present sensibility. The beauty of literature—also its limit—is that it is inescapably personal, even if you’re writing science fiction. Even if your story takes place on a different planet, it comes out of your personality, your personal experience, your sensibilities, your interests, your passions, the whole of you. Even if you tried to extinguish your personality, what is left in the story will reflect it, perhaps by its negation. Our lives provide the bricks from which we build these cathedrals.

When I think over everything I’ve written up to this point, I recognize bits and pieces of me.  I see the things I want to express to the world, the parts that I want you to see but am afraid  or too shy to express directly.  Now imagine if I wrote in a way that was deliberate and intentional?

Chris Abani wrote this article this week in honor of the recent death of Chinua Achebe, a man he calls “our living ancestor”.  It starts this way:

It is five a.m. and for some reason I have awakened and cannot sleep. I pace around my apartment in the cold California dawn. I brew coffee and sit sipping in the kitchen watching the sun come up over my neighbor’s house. I don’t know why I feel so uneasy. I always have this feeling, this waking from deep sleep to unease, when someone I know passes away. Then the call comes from my brother—Chinua Achebe has died.  –Chris Abani

I am sad to say that prior to his death, I was unfamiliar with Chinua Achebe or his contribution to literature.  I plan to rectify that soon.   I didn’t know him so I didn’t have a personal stake in his loss.   Members of my VONA family posted various tributes, obituaries on our Facebook page and  I scanned the articles, only because my friends recommended them.

However, after reading this evocative piece, I felt his grief and then experienced some of my own.   There once was a man, a brilliant man, who fought through trials, oppression, poverty, just to make his voice heard and then when he spoke, it was beautiful.  I grieve for the lost opportunity.  This tribute shook me from my position as distant observer.  Mr Achebe was real now and someone I needed to know.

I failed to communicate this point to my friend, so I’m going to give it a try here:  writing is personal, regardless of genre and it comes from an intimate place.  If we are unaware of ourselves, the things that drive us, our motivations, our strengths and weaknesses, if we fail to look closely at the world around us and recognize our personal attachment to it, we risk failing to connect with readers and risk producing works that are flat, passive.

More importantly, I think, is that this becoming is a process.  We work at it, we learn, we practice, we grow, we fail, we get up and keep working at it.  We write.  That’s what we do.

But there’s a very simple rule of writing: it’s all shit, until it isn’t. Steady, incremental improvement does not work in art. Some people wake up one morning and they write a fucking great book. Or they write shit for twenty years and somehow, miraculously, one day, because they have made all the mistakes they could have made writing shit, they write something that contains no mistakes. It’s fucking perfect.  –Aleksandar Hemon

So, yeah, eleven professional adults — or I probably should say twelve because Chris was crying too — we sat in a three day workshop together and we cried.  We cried because we recognized that we had finally taken our first step towards becoming.

Now I’ve got to get back to working on my shit.

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