I’ll admit it: I was once the girl who had been told by disgruntled English teachers that she couldn’t write creatively. Heck, sometimes I still am the girl (maybe woman) who’s told she can’t write creatively.
I read stories and poems I’ve written in the past and think, “Oh, hell no.” And sometimes other people tell me the same. Recently, the online literary magazine Freeze Frame Fiction (FFF) sent me a rejection that included comments like “Left me feeling indifferent. Wasn’t interested in the main character or her point of view…” and “Seemed kind of pointless to me. I don’t see a real story here.”
One day I’ll probably reread this rejected story and understand what the editors’ comments mean, but all I can do right now is frequent the FFF site like a teenage girl Facebook-stalking the boy who turned down her invitation to the school dance.
On one such visit, I stumbled upon a guest blog post titled “things i’m tired of seeing in lit mag submissions,” written by Nathaniel Tower, managing editor for Bartleby Snopes. In the post, Tower describes many trappings of the beginning writer, who’s prone to cliches and not experienced enough to see the forest for the trees (see what I did there?). To summarize, Tower hopes never again to see the following: death endings, opening scenes with sex or masturbation, sentimental cancer stories, stories that open with light streaming through the window, stories that begin with someone waking from a dream, Alzheimer’s stories, and cheating significant other stories.
I agree that all the scenarios Mr. Tower describes can slip into cliche. For a moment let’s ignore the cliches he uses in his own post (“humble little lit mag,” “virtual doors,” “for as long as I live,” “For the love of everything that is sacred,” “pack as much punch”). Instead, let’s focus on some great stories that do include the scenarios he describes: “In September, the Light Changes” by Andrew Holleran (story that begins with streaming light); “Bullet to the Brain” by Tobias Wolff (story with a “death ending”); “People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” by Lorrie Moore (sentimental cancer story based on true cancer story); The Fermata by Nicholson Baker (basically a 300-page self-love whackathon); “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro (Alzheimer story); and nearly every short story I mention in this essay I wrote about failing relationships in literary short fiction (cheating significant other stories).
My question for you, Mr. Tower, is this: when was the last time any of these wildly successful authors submitted their work to Bartleby Snopes?
As a writing instructor who teaches Introduction to Creative Writing, I understand that most beginning writers don’t realize why their work is cliche because they don’t have enough experience with reading and writing quality work. That doesn’t mean these students don’t have potential. In fact, the use of cliche is a sign that the writer has the mental capacity to tap into a universal feeling, something that can be understood by the “anyreader.” He or she just hasn’t yet found the voice to describe that feeling in a unique way. Hey, it’s a start.
Even today I’m embarrassed by work I submitted to literary magazines just a year ago, but I’ve grown and will continue to grow. I understand that the occupational hazard of editing a literary magazine is standing on the receiving end of that growth. But what bothers me most about Mr. Tower’s post, and what really prompted me to write this response, is a sentence from his final paragraph: “If these are the only ideas you can come up with, then please stop writing forever.” I’d like to see Mr. Tower’s first short stories, the ones he wrote when he, too, was just a beginning writer. I wonder how he would have felt if someone had told him to stop writing forever.
I’ve been told I don’t have talent. I’ve been told to stop writing. But abandoning writing, for me, would mean death. And we can’t have any death endings, now, can we?
(Photo by Flickr user Al_HikesAZ)