One of the interesting parts I find about being a writer is the pieces I do not publish. On my computer, I have many stories and poems that I’ve collected throughout the years that are in varying states of completion, sketched out in drafts, or finished but not likely to be published. There are even novels and plays that I have never (not yet!) completed. I believe that this is true for most artists.
The reasons why these pieces linger are as varied as the states I’ve left them in. I have many ideas for stories and poems, and there is a certain necessity to putting them down in written form, but that does not necessarily mean that they are ever intended for the public eye. There are stories that didn’t make it into my dark and erotic collection (Into the Woods) for different reasons; one I thought was way too subversive, another way too romantic. Will I publish them elsewhere? I have no idea. When you write to write, and not with an eye towards a specific market or specific publication, many times these pieces of writing linger in a purgatorial state. When looking towards publication, there is always a question of fit, and many pieces I have do not appear to fit anywhere. So, they linger. I’ve found places for some of these stories years after their writing, which is always interesting. I’ve revised stories years after their initial drafts. Even work that is accepted for publication can take up to a year to be actually published. “New” work is rarely “new.”
One of the reasons I started this reading series was to share some of these lingering stories and poems in a direct way with readers. These are the stories and poems that I am not looking to publish as part of a collection or an anthology. Many times, I’m sharing work that doesn’t seem to “fit” anywhere else, but I still like them for whatever reason, and don’t want them to stay trapped in a doc file. Sometimes I share things that have been published, and wish to impart a sort of contextual lens to the work. Other times, I share stories from my life, written specifically for this purpose, as in my “stories of failure” series.
Awhile ago, I came across this idea: “You are not reading what I wrote.” I think this is always true, even as it applies to myself with work that I have written. This is the idea that readers bring something very important to the process of writing. I believe that good writers leave a lot to the reader’s imagination, making them an active part in the process of creating the story. “What I wrote” is only the beginning of the process. Readers are essential in bringing a story to life, by bringing their own sense of meaning and connections to the words they read. In this sense, “what I wrote” will be a different story to every person who reads it. Furthermore, it will be different to each person at different points in his or her life. This is one of the major reasons why I love re-reading and revisiting not only books that I love, but my own work as well.
In thinking of what to share today, I kept coming back to a story that I wrote a very long time ago. This story is called “Kill your television!” I wrote this story even before I attended my MFA program, which is now quite some time ago too. For many years, I considered myself a poet and fiction writing was elusive to me. One of the reasons I wanted to receive a MFA was to study fiction, although I wound up studying playwriting, which is another story altogether …
Nevertheless, I brought this story into one of the workshops, and everyone liked it a lot, but even then, no one could offer suggestions in which to change it. It was a slice of life, a little piece about college life, a time capsule. People in the workshop felt that it was a throwback to the 70s, which was something that I had not even anticipated (the title itself was a partial reference to a song that was relatively popular in the early 90s, when I began my college years. I also felt that the television was a substitute for the self); however, I see the threads my fellow students saw to 1970s subculture more clearly now.
For me, I was writing about some of my college experiences a few years after the fact. Like so many writers, I drew heavily upon my personal experiences in creating my earliest attempts at “fiction.” This is a fictionalized account, but it is also surprising at how much of what I wrote was thinly veiled truth. I just wrote it. I never intended on publishing it. I wasn’t even sure it was a proper story. Yet, this is a story that still makes me smile when I re-read it. I remember how I was trying to wrap my mind around telling a story, working on dialogue and character. I think that it is interesting that my voice is pretty much the same. I also love some of the lines, such as:
“Yaron threw the television out the kitchen window as dawn gave way to day on Wednesday morning, before Diane had the abortion, before Thom od’d, before I told James I was leaving and he painted all the red doors in his apartment black.”
“My room was my refuge, my safe haven. I had painted the walls forest green, and because I was inept with a roller, ragged green edges that looked like grass surrounded the parameter of the still-white ceiling. I had plans for the ceiling, and I used to lie on the floor, looking up, imagining what I would paint. When I moved out, the ceiling remained white, only slightly imprinted by the will of my imagination”
“He was offering me a path that would only lead further and further into darkness. I had spent nearly three days in seclusion, trying to figure out a way in which to live. I had already figured out all the ways in which to die.”
“Before I had time to answer him, he kissed me. I had been numb for so long I didn’t recognize the space between us expand and contract, or that my body moved according to his. I didn’t know how it was that my breath caught under his touch, against my more logical inclinations. All this, and I kissed him back, breaking my heart so he wouldn’t have to.”
There is also a bittersweet element to reading this story, because it does contain some elements of truth. That was my room when I lived off-campus, painted dark green with ragged edges that looked like grass extending around the perimeter. I did used to lie on the floor, imagining blue sky and clouds instead of the chalky white above me. Reading this story brings me back to that time, a time of great uncertainty in my life. It is amazing to think of how far I have come in the past twenty or so years.
Reading this also brings to mind the idea of publication, which is another thing that I think most writers struggle with. Publication is an important part of the writing process, but it is not the only part, and I think it is far from the most essential part. In our contemporary time, the idea of publication has also expanded greatly. Since I am writing this on my website, one could say that I am inherently “publishing” my work. Some would say that it is only through 3rd party publication that one is truly “published.” Is not publication the opportunity for others to read what you have wrote? Is that not the reward for any writer … to be read?
Relatively recently, I came across a post from a writer who was lamenting the lack of opportunities to be published in the erotica field, due to some major publication houses closing and the lack of monetary compensation awarded for stories. This writer has also posted an extensive collection of stories on her website, which is available for free to all. The irony is that she was lamenting not the opportunity to be published exactly – she has been publishing her stories on her own site for many years. What she was upset about was the opportunity to be paid for her work. Only a few short years ago, it was common to be compensated about $100 per story in the erotica field. In today’s market, $25 is considered to be in the high range for payment. There are many reasons for the depreciation in value, but I have to divorce the monetary compensation from the freedom many writers have (including her) to publish their own work across the internet, without the somewhat limiting hand of external publishers.
I’ve also recently come across a post from a writer complaining about the nepotism in a well known and respected sci-fi/fantasy/horror website. Apparently, there is a tie between a certain writing program and the publisher, and a disproportionate number of graduates have been published there, many within a year or so after graduating said program. Are they being groomed for publishing? Perhaps … sometimes people go into specific MFA programs because they are well connected. That is a reality. However, I truly feel that this a short-term success. Writing is life-work, and no matter how well you are connected through a MFA program, long-term success rests solely on the writer. Writers are meant to grow and evolve. While MFA programs can be transformational spaces, their function is to help emerging writers learn the craft of writing. Two years with a specific set of teachers can only teach so much.
As I said, writing is life-work. Our true teachers are those who have written in the past, those who have left their legacy through their work. Teachers of creative writing know this. There is always more to learn. There is always room to grow. As in any craft, one learns most by doing, by living and breathing through their work. Anyone can follow a formulaic plot line or keep regurgitating the same material. The writers we celebrate are often the ones who have unlearned what they learned, who have created new ways of expression, measuring their success by their own measure, and not what society has defined that as. Is Tom Clancy a success? Of course he is a best selling author. There is a big publishing house behind him. He also doesn’t write his own books. He has become a name, a brand, a pre-formulated, calculated machine meant to churn out books to the general public. That is not my idea of success.
Ah, I am getting tangential again. Where was I? I am posting in this reading series, taking about a story that I wrote a long time ago that I never intended on publishing, something I wrote when I was young and searching for meaning, standing at a precipice between life and death, choosing life.
To read “Kill your Television!”, click here.