Last week I wrote about that dark time in this writer’s life: the 80’s, the terrible floundering with the Less than Zero prototype novel and the lonely search for a genre. There’s more to the 80’s story–including a detour through academia. Caught in a tangle of Derrida and feminist literary criticism, I put my “creative writing” on hold and muscled my way through a masters degree in English Lit. But, maybe we’ll circle back to that another time, because this week I want to write about the participating writers in Theo’s Big Memoir Giveaway.
So fast forward past evenings of pretending to understand Foucault, an oral defense that nearly killed me and seven years teaching at a community college and we land in my never-ending sabbatical, the first two years of which I spent in the fiction writing program at the University of Washington.
My first workshop was with David Shields. I was excited to take the class because he said something in the course description like he felt he had more to learn from Seinfeld than Faulkner. Yes! Me too! Intimidated as hell, I turned in my first lackluster story. Our tiny class was talented and smart and completely unimpressed with my stilted, generic short story. I think someone might have used the word “banal” but I could be wrong. A week or so later, one of the other writers said to me, “Why don’t you write about the stuff that really scares you?”
Um. yeah. Why don’t I?
But the challenge was out there, and a few nights later, I got up and wrote my first essayish thing. I didn’t know what it was. It had scenes. It had musing. Some statistics. What was it? Did this type of beast have a name? Could I hand it into a fiction workshop when it was clearly about me and clearly about the scariest thing I could write about?
When you’re in a workshop class, no one wants to admit it, but you’re basically holding your breath waiting for the golden moment when you definitively know the class and the professor “like” it (okay, love it). You’re supposed to be listening for important criticism, but really you’re listening with all your being for that moment, and when it’s there, you know it.
The moment sounded like this: “This, this is what you should be writing.”
And that moment was brought to me by David Shields, one of our writers in Theo’s Big Memoir Giveaway. His genre-defying book THE THING ABOUT LIFE IS THAT ONE DAY YOU’LL BE DEAD shot onto the New York Times Bestseller List shortly after the book’s 2008 publication, demonstrating that readers are willing to stretch themselves and read a book that’s part personal story, part chronology of the human body, and part philosophy. Probably part something else too. You tell me.