An anonymous nineteenth-century painting.
The hard truth is that not everyone has a novel in them. “I have no gift for invention,” I say to anyone who ever asks after my own ambitions—and why do people ask? For that matter, is my response even appropriate? I’m not sure what that means, “a gift for invention”: certainly I’ve never visited the Genius Bar without concocting some elaborate and gratuitous lie to explain the condition of my computer.
Which is not to say I’ve never written any fiction. I have, under duress. It was a requirement for my degree. The instructor was an older lady in caftans and arty jewelry with pumpkin-colored hair who had at one point written an epic women’s best seller with a lurid, seventies-style jacket. She’d also written a book of cat poetry. I didn’t mind any of that; the problem was that every detail of the class was as lazy and clichéd as that constellation of characteristics.
A few people in the class were predictably pretentious. They turned out derivative takes on macho writers and they were unnecessarily confrontational when discussing others’ submissions. One guy’s work was disturbing, but tritely disturbing. A few in the class spoke and wrote poor English. One girl was writing a fantasy novel; she was my favorite.
We were required to write a story every week. As much as I hated other people’s work, I hated my own more. I resented being forced to show writing I knew to be bad, and I went to ever-greater lengths to avoid committing myself to anything resembling earnestness or feeling. There were multipage descriptions of meals. There was this weird period piece “written in the style of 1850s potboilers,” whatever that meant; I hadn’t actually read any in preparation. There was a series about a dollhouse decorated for different obscure liturgical holidays; one of the dolls abruptly committed suicide at the end, just to shake things up. The teacher and the fellow students seemed oblivious to my hostility—I admit, it was something of a deep game—but they frequently urged me to express more emotion in my work.
Our final project was a longer piece. Mine was—well, I guess you’d call it slash fiction, though it defied easy characterization. First I’d attempted a novella about Kay Thompson, the author of Eloise, going crazy and drinking a Negroni in Florence with a concerned gay man. That didn’t really come together, so I switched my energies to a fictionalized account of Joyce Carol Oates’s first year as a graduate student. In this piece, “In Which a Fictionalized Joyce Carol Oates TAs Her First Class,” Joyce Carol Oates really hates everyone in her writing seminar and develops an obsessive crush on a mature student, despite her scorn for his terrible writing. She contemplates murder. She is an excellent dancer. At the end she walks across the campus resolutely. I worried it read as too conventional so I threw in a dollhouse and set the whole thing on Shrove Tuesday. “Of course gritty reality always wins,” says Oates in the story’s final lines. “But I don’t understand why everyone assumes the smart people get to plot life … romances and fantasy novels are best sellers. Why don’t those women get to write the plot sometimes? Escapism is a reality too.”
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