Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Aunty Christ and the writers’ group, part dos

Ever since moving to Saskatoon, I’ve been trying to join a writers’ group. This should surprise some of you—those who have followed me here from TCOWT (my old blog), for example, and remember certain problems I had with my last writers’ group. Problems that included, in no particular order, vagina worship, celebration of the vajayjay, and unleashing the power of the hoohah through bad poetry. Also: Stories about having children, not having children, going through menopause, dealing with being a mother, dealing with childhood memories of your own awful mother, looking at Grandmother’s shoes, etc. Everything need be supersupportive of Who You Are these days, I suppose. Wouldn’t want menopause or childbirth to be, you know, just one of those things that lots of people have gone through when it could instead be Totally and Awesomely Empowering For Absolutely No Reason.

I think, though, that I found a pretty good group of women to join this time. For one thing, we’ve all read writing samples from and found ourselves to be okay with the writing skills of the two others in the group. For another, we’ve all exchanged emails, and none of us appears to be totally cheesy, or insane. Not yet, anyway. Maybe I am. I might be insane, based on emails I have sent the group. “Hello! I am a bad writer! Please help me feel as though my life is worthwhile and lie to me, or else I will cry!” This is not actually what I have written, and it is not at all what I intend to write, ever, to anyone, and yet it seems that it just slips in there, unbeknownst to me. “Hello! Monday afternoon at the Coffee Shop is fine! Let’s meet and discuss why I am not worthy to be in your presence! Ha ha ha ha ha!” See? I totally did not even mean to write that.

One of the women in the group is a performance artist who has already been published, and handled an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor with much more grace and maturity than I ever could (though she also missed a golden opportunity to beat him about the head with a shoe, but I assume she has a long-range plan for that). One has been published in a textbook and is working on her second novel. And then there’s me. Well, I blog! And I have that novel that I was working on for a few seconds, before Bread Loaf turned me down, mumble mumble.

The novel, incidentally, has occupied a large space in my mind lately, having been since last year shoved to the back, behind a pretty fuzzy street map of Saskatoon, my ever-changing to-do list, the rotating series of albums I’m interested in, Dear Abby’s advice for teens, the location and approximate sizes of tumors on Gallant’s lumpy torso, the latest 30 Rock catchphrases, the date Heroes returns to television, the name of that restaurant, what blog linked to that site, that good wine, the latest news, the issues, etc. The novel, if you can call it that—well, first of all, it’s not that long. I hesitate to say how short it is, since it just makes me look pathetic, and then there’s a one-page summary of where I see it all going, plotwise. The last thing I wrote of any length was a novella that pretty much mirrored my life as a college student, with the only exception being that, instead of being a college student who rarely went to class, wrote bad songs in her free time, and worked in a hair salon part-time, my main character (and the first-person narrator) was a recent college grad who worked in a hair salon full-time and wrote bad songs in her free time. So I mixed it up quite a bit, as you can see. My new novel, which I have written about three pages of, so you can totally not understand, I’m sure, why I would hesitate calling it a novel, is told in third-person limited POV, with three different main characters, two of them men. This was the direct result of being in a writers’ group with eight women who all wanted to write in the first person about menstrual blood and its similarities to moss and ocean water and amniotic fluid and love. I will say that, for a writer of my limited experience and capabilities, anyway, it’s hard writing a man character. Men! They’re like me except … more prone to male-pattern baldness? More baseball cap wearing? More testically? What? So the men in the few chapters I have so far are either fey (man #2) or stupid (man #1).

But the problem I really have with what I’m writing is that one of the characters is supposed to be smart (PhD candidate in philosophy), and if there’s one thing it’s impossible to do, it’s write a character who’s smarter than you. If there’s two things it’s impossible to do, frankly, it’s write a character who’s smarter than you and write into your work quotes from something that you’ve set up to be A Really Amazing Work of Art. I’m hardly the first person to say it, but please. Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love almost worked despite this flaw, and I’ve even heard that some people liked Stranger than Fiction. But really, a mid-grade, first-time writer cannot convincingly write even a paragraph of a supposed work of genius. I can’t buy it, anyway. It’s like casting Paris Hilton as the lead in your movie called The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

But here’s the other thing: It’s also hard to convincingly write very stupid characters. I saw (or: listened to, I guess) George Saunders speak in the recent past, and one of the things he said, with respect to his writing, was that it’s a balancing act. Or, that’s how he saw it, anyway. A story would start with a fragment of a conversation, overheard at the mall, between two very stupid teens. And then it would occur to him that his take on these characters was less than sympathetic, so he would create a new character, a wholly sympathetic character, their saintly aunt. But that’s no fun, so he’d kill her off. But that destroys the balance too, so then he brings her back to life, and makes her as selfish in death as she was selfless in life. On and on. (This is “Sea Oak” I’m describing, from Pastoralia, if anyone cares.) Not that I’m saying I can write anything close to the level of Saunders’ work, but it’s something to live up to, and something to think about. I have one character who’s so stupid that I—even me, his creator, I—have no sympathy for him and firmly believe that anything good that comes to him over this course of events is a fluke, a universal mistake, and one character who’s smarter than I am, but can’t be, so maybe he’s just pretentious and willing to overlook his shortcomings while trying to earn a post-grad degree. That’s two unlikable characters, just in case you haven’t been paying attention, which seems like a really good idea at this point, frankly.

Either way, I’ve been obsessing over this for weeks now, and I’m afraid that I’ve created a problem that’s far too complicated for someone as dumb as me to solve. And, well, either way, I’m glad, in any case, I’ve hooked up with this new writing group. We’ll see what comes of it, but I imagine that playing with the pros can only raise the game of an amateur like me.

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