by Lily Iona MacKenzie
Several years ago I entered a Masters in Creative Writing program as a poet, but I was equally interested in writing fiction and signed up for several short story workshops. My experience in the poetry classes led me into exciting new places as a writer, opening me up to undiscovered parts of myself and of the poetry world. But it has taken me all these years to fully recover from the fiction workshops.
First let me say that, no, my intent here is not to bash creative writing programs. I’ve found them useful in many ways. Overall I felt inspired and challenged, part of a community of writers. But it was the poetry workshops that completely turned me around. They made me aware of the amazing work done by writers I’d not read carefully before—many of them women, work that was more innovative than I’d been used to: Kathleen Fraser, Barbara Guest, Leslie Scalapino. This writing didn’t fit into the traditional genre of lyric poetry as I understood it, largely autobiographical material, emotional snapshots of the writers’ pasts including an epiphany or “point.”
Reading these poets was like voyaging into a totally foreign country. They made something happen on the page, treating it as theatre, letting the meanings emerge from the interaction of language rather than from recreating a remembered event. They pushed language to its limits, attempting to bring into the poem a larger world by shattering syntax, rethinking grammar, challenging the notions of narrative as we know it, forging beyond linear cause and effect thinking into new realms. They were questioning our assumptions about poetry—what it is, what it can be. Its subject matter. They were (and are) questioning the very fabric of our lives, the notions of subject and subjectivity, of art and its role in our culture.
Through these classes, I came to see that experimental and traditional works are part of a continuum, not either/or, better/worse. These workshops show writing programs at their best. The poets who taught the classes embraced a wide variety of styles, from formalist to the most experimental. Students were free to experiment and didn’t conform to one particular party line.
Unfortunately, the openness and scope that I experienced in poetry did not carry over into the fiction workshops I took. The writers teaching these classes mainly followed the conventional notions of the short story, the realistic/naturalistic tradition, or the psychologically subtle stories that have descended from Chekhov, Joyce, and James. And, of course, minimalist fiction was hot then.
No room seemed to exist for what has been at the heart of American fiction since its inception—romance, combining the ordinary with the inexplicable. Richard Chase, author of The American Novel and Its Traditions, believes the main difference between the realistic novel and the romance is the way each views reality: “The novel renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail. It takes a group of people and sets them going about the business of life.” The characters, involved in plausible situations, become real to us, revealing their complexities, their human foibles, their multiple motives. In these works, “character is more important than action or plot” (12).
Romance, on the other hand, feels free to render reality in less volume and detail…..Astonishing events may occur and these are likely to have a symbolic rather than a realistic plausibility. Being less committed to the immediate rendition of reality than the novel, the romance will more freely veer toward the mythic, allegorical, and symbolistic forms. (13)
Chase’s ideas apply equally to the short story, but as an undergraduate and graduate in creative writing, I learned something different. When I tried to do what was natural to me—to write symbolic dramas, Shirley Jacksonist contemporary folktales/fables that retained the details of everyday experience and psychological authenticity—I found the readers of these pieces did not have a context from which to judge them. I met a blank wall.
I was familiar with Marquez and Borges’ writing, where Western rationality clashes with magical native cultures, the natural and the supernatural intermingling, the living with the dead, each world as real as the other. I’d read the symbolist stories of Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and James. For my first master’s thesis (in the Humanities), I’d investigated the literary fairy tale, parables, and fables, where characters tend to be caricatures rather than fully realized imitations of humans.
But when I tried to suggest there are approaches other than the usual conflict/resolution type of short story where character is the focus, or that caricature may be valid within certain contexts, I didn’t get very far. Since I was still feeling my way around in the short story form, I wasn’t able to clearly articulate yet what I was attempting in my narratives. Unfortunately, my writing instructors and my fellow classmates had not explored much beyond their turf as writers. Hence, many critiques were harmful if not totally destructive because the readers were trying to fit the work into a narrow perspective.
One teacher, after reading a draft of a story I was working on, said “Who are these people?” The characters did not fit into her ideas of what should happen in a story. She went on to say, “My overall impression at this point is that you have serious gifts in the area of the real, honest to God short story. I do not see you succeeding as a ‘magical realist’—in fact, I see you being led down a disastrous path, away from your own power as a storyteller. I would most strongly advise you to give all that up and start to write the real things. I don’t think you’ll ever regret it.”
The authority, she was saying that works of the imagination are not real; the true path is the conventional story. I hadn’t yet sufficiently discovered my voice as a fiction writer, so I couldn’t rebut her criticism.
Just as poets do, fiction writers have a rich, multiply textured tradition to draw from that includes more than the conventional narrative, and I haven’t even mentioned the fabulists and those writing metafiction. In an article in The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates says,
…Carol Shields’ third collection of stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival, is an intelligent, provocative, and entertaining collection of variegated prose pieces, both conventional and unconventional….[T]he majority are deftly, even sunnily written, and bristling with ideas, reminding us that fiction need not be emotionally devastating or ‘profound’ to be worthwhile. (39)
Shields describes the process she went through in letting go of the rules of “what a story should be and how it must be shaped” in an essay entitled “Arriving Late, Starting Over.” After teaching the absolutes she learned in English Lit for years, she finally rebelled. She actually had no choice. Before she could go forward as a writer, she had to go back and release herself from the structure of the traditional story. It no longer was large or loose enough to allow in what had bubbled up in Various Miracles, her first collection of stories that she’d written in “a mood of reckless happiness” (245 & 246). They opened the way for Dressing Up for the Carnival.
While I enjoy reading all types of fiction, I don’t want to be captive of the realistic story. Reading and writing various story styles keeps me in touch with the strangeness, the unfathomable mysteries, of life. Realistic stories certainly can do this, too. But the stories I’m most attracted to view the world from an unusual angle, from what is invisible to ordinary consciousness—the content we often find in dreams (I’m thinking of Salman Rushdie’s work, as well as Reginald McKnights’, Jeffrey Renard Allen’s, Mark Danielewski’s, and especially Roberto Bolaño).
Over the years, in the process of finding and accepting my particular preferences as a writer, I’ve had to teach myself what I didn’t find in the academy. At those times it’s been helpful to remember Eudora’s Welty’s admonition:
Writing is such an internal, interior thing that it can hardly be reached by you, much less by another person. I can’t tell you how to write, no more than you can tell me. We’re all different from one another even in the way we breathe. Writers must learn to trust themselves. (Dawson 27)
Yet this kind of trust doesn’t come easily. However, we’ll never discover in our fellow writers or ourselves what we’re capable of if we don’t consciously release these expectations and enlarge our repertoire. As writers and teachers, we need to be more aware of the range we have available to us so we don’t limit our own or others’ imaginations.
Lily Iona MacKenzie’s poetry, critical and personal essays, travel pieces, and short fiction have appeared in numerous U.S. and Canadian publications. All This, a poetry collection, was published in 2011. Fling, one of her novels, will be published in 2015. lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com.
Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. New York: Anchor Books, 1957, p. 12. Print.
Ibid, p 13.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “An Endangered Species,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 2000, p. 39. Print.
Shields, Carol. “Arriving Late, Starting Over.” Metcalf, John and Struthers, J.R. (Tim), ed. How Stories Mean. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1993, p. 245 & 246. Print.
Dawson, Marie. “An Interview with Eudora Welty.” Poets & Writers Magazine. September/ October 1997, p. 27. Print.