Regarding Pallid Tendrils

I’m sure many of you know me as a wicked wizard of the written word, a master at turns of phrase, and a purveyor of puns. But, believe it or not, there was a time in the distant past where I was none of these things. Once upon a time, I was a mere human, with all the writerly skill of a boiled egg. And having just come off a Camp NaNoWriMo where I dashed off about sixteen thousand words in an attempt to finish the novel I’m working on (which is actually going to have to be separated into two novels, but that’s a blog post for a different time), I figured it was not a bad time to deeply examine my roots. So let’s pull me up by the stalk and take a look at those pallid tendrils.

It probably doesn’t astonish you to know that I have precious little formal training in writing fiction. My degree is in theater, and I regularly wonder how the hell I wound up working in a STEM field while exhausting my spare time writing fiction and blogging about storytelling. And I guess the truth of it is that writing has always been an overwhelming part of my personal gestalt, whether I was aware of it or not.

In second grade, we had an honest-to-God writing class. I think it happened a couple of times a week, and we wrote and illustrated our own stories on that thin, cheap newsprint-style paper. I can only assume that we used this paper because it was easily recyclable if our neophyte scribbles were to horrid to be contemplated. Alternatively, it was cheap and the grade school was already low on funds while still trying to provide a well-rounded education for its students. That’s a possibility, too.

There are two things I remember writing at this juncture. I wrote a sort of fairy tale, complete with a warrior prince, an evil witch slash queen(?), and a princess in distress. And I wrote what might be the mostly horribly executed non-erotic bit of Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction that has ever been perpetrated.

For this, I apologize.

Yuji Naka, creator of Sonic the Hedgehog
Yuji Naka’s disapproval is palpable.
Source.

On the upside, because I was eight, there was no mention anywhere of genitalia. Not even a footnote regarding the fact the Knuckles the Echidna should, according to scientific fact, have a penis with four heads. (That link is to a SFW Wikipedia article. If I ever link directly to pictures of echidna junk, I will be sure to warn you. LIKE RIGHT NOW. Just kidding, that was a picture of an adorable kitten. This time.)

At one point during second grade, the teacher offered a choice between a second recess and an extra writing class. I was the only one who wanted the extra writing class. I found myself standing on the playground with the yellow pocket folder I kept my writing in, feeling strangely disappointed.

I didn’t do much writing in my free time until my family’s subscription to Disney Adventures advertised a short story contest. Typically I would not have been interested, but it turns out that this contest was going to be judged by the one and only R.L. Stine. If you are too young to know who that is… Well, I’m impressed you’ve hung around this long. For any of the rest of you who have been living under a rock since the early Nineties, that’s the guy who wrote the wildly successful Goosebumps series. Naturally, my grade-school self was ASS-DEEP in those books. They were the freaky book equivalent of Pez, and I was poppin’ em one after another.

So I immediately wrote a story that was a hard ripoff of a Goosebumps plot, and we were off to the races. Naturally, I didn’t win, but it kicked off many, many years of writing on my part. The thing about the writing I did during this period of my life was that it was all imitation, and it lasted from elementary school on until I got to college. I imitated literally everything that I could: Goosebumps, Michael Crichton (who I started reading when I was about nine—yeah, I was that kid), Star Trek, Star Wars, the Metroid games, the Legend of Zelda games, Terry Brooks, Janny Wurts, Brian Jacques, cartoons, anime, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, movies, TV shows, video games, literally nothing was safe. I wrote an entire climactic battle in one story with a Linkin Park song as the soundtrack. It was disgusting, top to bottom, and boy howdy did I learn a LOT.

In the end, it turned out that it ALL mattered.

Members of the band Linkin Park
Take THAT, Linkin Park!
Source.

In all that time, I took two creative writing classes. One in middle school, which burned me out hard, and another my senior year of high school, which burned me out harder.

It wasn’t until college that I started writing material that this current generation, with their Interwebs and their compuwatches and their Playbox 360s, would call “OC”—original content. And it was a lot longer before I was actually happy with what I wrote.

I took three more writing classes during my undergrad years: two general creative writing courses and one in playwriting. These occurred as I moved through my junior and senior years, when I was also writing material for student productions. It’s an unfortunate reality that the faculty member in charge of those student productions was an unspeakably heinous human being who freely cut and changed and disregarded the material provided by students. This was partly because of said faculty member’s goldfish attention span and partly because they had a burning desire to do the unexpected, even if the material was already doing the unexpected.

You might note that this left something of a bad taste in my mouth. Regardless, I’d gotten a sense that writing was the thing that I really wanted to do, even though financial realities demanded that I complete my degree in theater just to get the hell out of undergrad.

This led me to enroll in the university’s newly minted creative writing MFA program at the first opportunity, which turned out to be, in part, a horrible mistake. This was where I first learned the Exaltation of the Literary and the Castigation of the Genre. I realized within three weeks that this was not a good program for me, and (probably against my better judgment), I gave the program another forty-nine weeks to prove itself before I bailed.

I know it was three weeks exactly, because the first week was spent on the syllabus and asking for volunteers to bring a short story the next week for folks to take home and critique. I volunteered, and the second week I distributed copies of my story, an urban fantasy romp where two women, one a wizard and the other unremarkable aside from a case of complete heterochromia, wind up having to chase a demon set loose in the city as a result of a summoning ritual gone awry. I enjoyed writing it, and, as of week three, I learned that my peers enjoyed reading it. My short story class’s professor (who was also the director of the MFA program), however, did not approve.

I was told point-blank, in front of my classmates, that I would not be able to construct a thesis from this sort of material—genre, after all, uses cliches as crutches to disguise poor writing, and that would not be allowed in the program. Upon visiting the director during office hours, I asked why I was accepted into the program at all when the story that accompanied my application was a comic fantasy spiel where a lady thief disguises herself as a man to break into a wizard’s tower and accidentally woos a princess and helps in the downfall of the wizard in the process.

The professor told me that she didn’t think that was all I wrote, and tried to walk back her remarks about how literally nothing I write was going to be worthy thesis material.

In the end, it was good that I didn’t walk away immediately. I learned two important lessons from my year in grad school: one, that critics are tough on people who write genre fiction, which was a prejudice I had not known existed. Two, during the poetry class that was taught by an artist in residence, I discovered that economy of words is important.

It probably doesn’t seem like I took that lesson to heart due to the length of my blog posts, but this is my blog and I do what I want here, up to and including being a sesquipedalian blowhard. When I write things for actual publishing, I keep it as tight as possible.

After the grad school debacle, about nine more years of practice and rejections have brought me to this point. I’m knockin’ out novels with an eye toward publishing, I’ve got a steady pattern of writing every day, and I’m gearing up to release Love and Other Impossible Things as soon as my DBA paperwork goes through. That last one in particular is something that I am ludicrously excited about.

So the point of all this is to say that, while formal training is nice to have—it helps you dodge a lot of pitfalls you have to otherwise learn about the hard way—it’s not altogether necessary if you’re stupidly stubborn enough and you’ve got words deep in your marrow. You just gotta have a whole lotta time on your hands and a willingness to fuck up really a lot.

How about you lot? Formal training? No formal training? Lived in monk-like isolation with a deranged hermit who taught you the secrets of cyberpunk? Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts to “Regarding Pallid Tendrils”

  1. Firstly, and most importantly, I used the phrase “Butts and Other Impossible Things” the other day, so your work is already inspiring other people Congrats on that.

    Secondly, I was in both the middle school and high school creative writing classes you referenced. WHY THE HELL DID THOSE TEACHERS THINK KIDS COULD CHURN OUT A SHORT STORY A WEEK?! I mean, I wrote some stuff that was pretty good for my age, but shit. Burn out was correct. I remember not writing at all during the summer that followed those classes because my brain was a pile of oatmeal, more so than usual.

    Thirdly, I think the experience you had in grad school is pretty universal. I went to the genre fiction equivalent of the MFA, and was promptly told that humorous mainstream fiction stories were not a thing that were worth writing, and that I should try for an MFA. MFA programs told me I wasn’t literary. Basically, I think those programs exist to validate the professors and their view of what the writing world should be, which is irritating as butts.

    1. I feel as soon as your work begins generating butts-inspired remixes, you’ve really arrived as a writer.

      And YES. They were like every other teacher. “oh they’ll only have to spend an hour a night on this” DAMMIT I NEED TO SPEND AN HOUR ON EVERY CLASS I’VE GOT EVERY NIGHT AND STILL SLEEP AND EAT

      I absolutely agree with your point on grad programs for writing. They think they’ve all found the Secret to Success and Relevance when really all they’ve managed to do is get published. Which is nothing to sneeze at, but it doesn’t make you a damned expert any more than sinking a single shot in the basketball court after school makes you a b-ball savant.

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