Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Confessions of an Amateur Iconoclast

When I was in college, I took a Creative Writing course. I think I got the "writing" part down, but "creative" always managed to elude me. This was back in the days before the ubiquity of computers, so first I wrote them out longhand, then banged out page after page on a typewriter. I kept a couple of the manuscripts, and once I did have a computer of my own, I retyped a couple of them, dropped them into a folder and forgot about them.

Not long ago, I found them in a long-unused backup folder and read them again. Wow. I really sucked as a writer. I think because I saw myself as the audience for my work, and so the stories I wrote mainly dealt with what, at the time, I saw as the most serious flaw in most fiction: happy endings. But the strange thing was that I didn't write depressing stories - I mostly wrote pointless ones. For instance, the theme of one of my stories was basically that sometimes you fight your inner demons, and the demons win. But there was really nothing at stake for the main character in the story. He meets a woman and he attempts to use her as motivation to win the struggle against the darkness in his heart, but it takes over anyway and he ends up murdering her. But since he gets away with it, and simply goes back to his life with no-one being any the wiser, although he's still trapped in a circle of inner conflict, he doesn't really lose anything. The other story that survived into the present is even worse. I decided to subvert the trope of the character being hunted for a crime that he didn't commit, so this guy DID commit the crime. Except that it wasn't really a crime. Maybe it was a tort. But, since I had no legal background, and hadn't bothered to do the research, it could have simply been that my "protagonist" had simply pissed off a bunch of people (and precipitated the death of his ex-girlfriend) by simply being a really obnoxious and needy prick. Anyway, he wandered around feeling sorry for himself and being unemployed - and most of the story is basically one long flashback about how he'd gotten himself into the situation to begin with. The police aren't even after him. Again, not much of a point.

By the way, I know what you're thinking about this point. My classmates thought the same thing, with one of them demanding to know: "Does the girlfriend ever survive?" Once, maybe twice...

In a way, despite the dark goings-on that drive them, the stories are oddly funny to read. At the time I was about 20 years old, and doing my best to live up to a reputation for being "notoriously un-romantic." To me, following that was "being original." After all, if everyone else was writing stories about how people overcame challenges in life, and went on to have happy relationships (and by everyone I mean the culture at large) what could be more original than failed challenges and disastrous relationships? (One story, which I didn't keep, was a near-future science fiction tale featuring a bounty hunter whose assigned target turns out to be his ex-wife. Of course, it doesn't end well. The ex-wife lives, but that's likely the story's only redeeming quality.)

When you're a jaded forty-something, what was edgy and original to you as a not-particularly-well-read college student seems like simply the latest in a torrent of bad unbelievably execrable writing. But I've found some use in reading my own writing - in addition to making feel that I've matured (rather than simply grown old), I think I better appreciate just how difficult writing can be. Compelling, original and well-crafted stories are much more difficult than coming up with a theme, a setting and some interesting characters. And successfully subverting an age-old trope is a real accomplishment. But most importantly, staying out of the way of the story that you're attempting to tell is harder than it sounds. If I didn't know what the themes of my stories were going into them, I don't think that I'd have ever figured it out. There are just too many possibilities, all created by me not knowing what I was doing.

Of course, back then it all seemed so important. As if one creative writing course, taken on a whim, was going to be the step that catapulted me into a career as a writer. I suspect that I was better off for never really having gained a foothold. Being an author has never been my strong suit. But I'm glad that hung on to the remnants of that time. Sometimes, it's good to be able to see the footprints that you left behind.

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