All posts by Shayna Hamm

It’s Complicated

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What do the three men pictured above have in common? If you guessed, “They’re all white dudes!” or “They’re all sociopaths!” you would be correct, on both counts. But Walter White, Hank Moody, and Tony Soprano share another important characteristic, one that demonstrates one of the best ways to complicate a character. All three men have daughters whom they love very, very much.

It was no accident that, as Breaking Bad came to a close, the last thing Walt does with his family is stare lovingly at Holly as she lies in her crib. I didn’t finish Californication, because the show’s writers decided to put the whole thing on repeat after the third season, but Wikipedia informed me that it ends with Becca’s wedding. And throughout The Sopranos, Tony tells Meadow that she’s more like him than her mother. The major plot line at the end of the series stems from Tony seeking revenge after one of his rivals says some not-nice-things to Meadow at a New York City restaurant.

I call this the “Give the Guy a Daughter” phenomenon. If you have a character, in particular a main character and especially a man, that would be very easy for the audience to absolutely and totally despise, give the guy a daughter that he loves and prizes above all else. We will forgive many sins if the man loves his daughter.

There’s probably a lot of psychoanalysis that could go into this phenomenon, especially regarding the sort of inverted “Daddy Problems” thing going on here. Also, we should probably talk about how women characters don’t get any bonus points for loving their children because it’s just expected, whereas men characters, by simply being around their children, get to revel in the audience’s good graces. But I’m more interested in the mechanics. The “Give the Guy a Daughter” concept works because loving a daughter absolves the man of some, not nearly all, but some, of his moral reprehensibility. If he loves his daughter, he can’t be all bad. But not all characters are monsters, and non-monster characters also need some complicating.

In a tweet not too long ago, Guy in your MFA talked about how his main character having an affair demonstrated emotional depth. It was a smartass remark, but something I often see in short story submissions. The main character is a little boring, maybe a husband who works as an insurance salesman, or a wife who teaches second grade. How does the writer spice it up a little? Throw in an affair. Voila! Now we have tension! Emotional depth! Lies! Perfection!

If it works for Don Delillo, it will work for you.

I brought the “Give the Guy a Daughter” thing up with some of my EIU friends a while ago, and they helped me brainstorm some other ways to complicate a character. If a woman character is spectacular in every imaginable way, make her clumsy. If the character is a total nerd, have him/her listen to hardcore gangster rap. If the character is Catholic, make him guilt-free. Minds will be blown.

I think these concepts work because melding opposites immediately creates tension, and tension leads to drama, and drama leads to a good story. What strikes me as odd is what does or does not become cliché. It seems like the “Give the Guy a Daughter” and “Affair Equals Emotional Depth” concepts could go on forever. But does anyone want to read about another alcoholic priest? Or English professor having an affair with a student? Or writer with writer’s block?

Perhaps the best way to figure this out is to catalogue some other repetitive, but not quite cliché, character complications. Readers, what do you got?

–Sean Towey

Bluestem At AWP15: Postcard Contest

BoxofBluestem2015

 

Thanks to everyone who came by the table at AWP in Minneapolis to say hello. If you picked up a postcard for our 2015 contest, we look forward to reading your work! Here’s a reminder of the contest guidelines:

1. Pick up a Bluestem postcard  at AWP and write an amazing poem, story, or essay on it.
2. Mail that postcard to Bluestem Postcard Contest c/o English Department, 600 Lincoln Ave., Eastern Illinois University,  Charleston, IL 61920. Don’t forget to give us your digital contact info.
3. Top entries will be considered for publication in an upcoming contest issue of Bluestem (online and/or print).
4. One grand prize winner will be awarded $50.00.
5. Limit one entry per submitter. No submissions
considered by current or past students, faculty, or staff of EIU.
6. All submissions must be postmarked no later than
April 30, 2015, to be considered for the contest.
7. Look for winning entries on bluestemmagazine.com.

Last year we had lots of excellent entries for our contest, and we cannot wait to see what this year will bring. Here’s a look at last years winners featured in the June 2014 Online Issue:

“Dear Dad” by Judy Halebsky
“Through the Viewfinder” by Sarah Shaffer
“The Youth Minister & His Wife Go to the Pool” by Anne Kniggendorf

“You Do You”: It won’t be for everyone

A couple of weeks ago, Colson Whitehead published an op-ed in The New York Times Magazine titled “How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture.” In a glorious moment of online irony, the piece, an anti-narcissism salvo from a writer who just published a memoir about playing poker, showed up on my Facebook newsfeed at least ten times. We are now using media dedicated to self-aggrandizement to share our thoughts on the deleterious effects of narcissism in our culture. Go team.

Whitehead’s main point, which has previously been made by Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity, is that the “you do you” mindset leaves no room for criticism. If everything is relative, no one action or actor is bad or good. As Whitehead puts it: “‘You do you,’ taken to its extreme, provides justification for every global bad actor. The invasion of Ukraine is Putin being Putin, Iran’s nuclear ambitions Khamenei being Khamenei.”

I agree with Whitehead that the prevalence of narcissism in our culture is a problem. However, the piece is extremely bitter. Someone from Generation X calling someone else “narcissistic” is extraordinarily annoying, in a pot-kettle-black sort of way. My other issue with Whitehead’s piece is that it ignores the positive justifications for the “you do you” ethical imperative, which can be summed up in the phrase “Who am I to judge?” The idea is that, because we can never truly and totally understand the inner-workings of another person, we should not judge that person’s actions. It’s not that I don’t want to criticize another person, it’s that I don’t have the right.

The culture is not nearly as hopeless as Whitehead proposes. There are not a whole lot of people saying “That thing in Ferguson? That was just Darren Wilson being Darren Wilson.” Or “That thing in Charleston? Michael Slager being Michael Slager.” Or “That thing in Indiana? The Indiana State Congress being the Indiana State Congress.” We are willing to make moral judgements about the actions of others in specific circumstances.

I believe the issue is a little bit deeper, and perhaps more pernicious, than critics of the narcissism present in millennial culture wants to admit. The “you do you” mindset is only partly, as Whitehead supposes, about protecting ourselves from criticism and assuaging our fragile egos. It is also about creating a moral horizon that everyone can follow. With the rise of modernism and postmodernism, any and all ethical paradigms went out the window (some for very good reason). But there weren’t any ethical paradigms left to replace the moral horizons flattened by the postmodernists.

About the only ethical imperative left in our society is: never disallow others from being themselves. Which tells me lots of things not to do. But it doesn’t tell me a whole lot about what I should do, besides keep being me.

Our nation is very good about discussing the protection of individual rights from systematic injustice. Taxation without representation. Civil Rights Movement. Gay Marriage. But what we are not very good at talking about is what happens when individual rights battle other individual rights. What happens when a woman’s right to control her body runs up against freedom of religion?

The time is coming when “me being me” will somehow affect “you being you.” The real question is, what will we do then?

 

–Sean Towey

Drinking and Writing and Drinking

A writer is an anxious creature. There is the little gnawing creature at the back of your head telling you the words you insist on putting to the page are not only incomprehensible and stupid, but boring. You’re a boring person. Then there are the rejections from literary magazines, short in length and long in an ability to crush confidence. Finally, there’s Duotrope, a web site that writers use to keep track of their submissions and to predict the arrival of the aforementioned soul-crushing rejection letters.

But then there is alcohol, which provides writers with self-assurance while simultaneously disappearing disappointing memories. In my opinion, the writer’s anxiety re:failure has directly lead to the writers-as-alcoholics stereotype. Seeing as AWP, where thousands of writers gather to drink and talk about writing, is this weekend, it is a fitting time to explore what various writers have said about booze.

The following quotes are all from Goodreads.

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”
—Dorothy Parker

I don’t know much about Dorothy Parker, but, judging from that quote, she seems like she was a lot of fun. Because here’s the thing about hooking up with someone because you were drinking to forget about how you want to be a writer—it could become material for a great short story.

“I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.” 

Sylvia Plath

Hardcore alcoholics, the type of people who maintain a near constant buzz, drink vodka. It’s odorless, clear, and pairs well with any other liquid. The amazing writer Sylvia Plath, who is unfortunately more famous for her mental instability than her syntax, nails the writer’s love-affair with drinking. It is both self-destructive (swallowing swords is not healthy) and confidence-boosting. We call this sort of relationship tragic.

“War and drink are the two things man is never too poor to buy.” 

William Faulkner

Well-played, Mr. Faulkner, well-played. Perhaps there is a direct proportional relationship between the amount of time the United States has been at war and the rise of microbreweries. If we can’t defeat the terrorists, we’ll out-drink them using our best home-grown American hops.

This might be apocryphal, but I heard a story about Hemingway driving to Faulkner’s house to tell Faulkner he had to drink less. If Hemingway is telling you to sober up, you’re in a bad, bad way.

“I drink because it’s the only time I can stand it.”

—Truman Capote

I love this quote because what is the “it”? Life? Writing? Love? All of the above?

There are a lot of great non-drinking writers, too, for example David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace. Also, no proof exists to show that the hard-drinking writers would have been worse off if they didn’t drink. It strikes me that Sylvia Plath’s poetry might have improved had she gotten sober.

Overall, I think we tend to romanticize the writer-as-drinker lifestyle. Writing, like anything difficult, is best done sober. And if you’re writing to uncover the hard truths about being human, imbibing a substance that’s greatest attribute is dulling life’s hard edges doesn’t seem like a solution.

 

–Sean Towey

April 2015 Contributor News

Bluestem is excited to announce our past contributors’ newest accomplishments! Check out what our writers have been up to!

Jerry Bradley’s story “Derangement” appeared in the Print 2014 edition of Bluestem and has been collected in an anthology called A Shared Voice. He is better known as a poet than fiction writer, and his 3rd collection of poems, Crownfeathers and Effigies, came out in 2014 from Lamar University Press.

Eric Burke’s short fiction piece “Mineral Rights,” which appeared in the September 2012 Online issue of Bluestem, has been included in a video of his short works titled “Fog.

Sarah Jubar (previously Kendall)’s fiction piece “Turducken” appeared in Bluestem in December of 2011. She is currently working on a novel, and her most recent publication “How to Tolerate the Dawn” (flash fiction, nominated for a Pushcart Prize) appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Short, Fast, and Deadly.

Michael Lauchlan, whose poem “Evensong” appeared in the December 2014 online edition of Bluestem, has a new poetry collection! You can read the press release for Lauchlan’s new book Trumbull Ave. here.

Sandy Longhorn, whose poem “Seized with a Small Fever” appeared in the Spring 2014 Print edition of Bluestem,  has a new book: Alchemy My Mortal Form.

Jim Meirose‘s short story “The Rowboat” appeared in September 2014 edition of Bluestem. His new novel Mount Everest will be published by Montag Press in 2015.

Matt Pine, whose fiction “Winter Vacation” appeared in the June 2012 Online issue of Bluestem, is starting a new weekly lit-web-type-think. It’s called How It Feels To, and he is currently seeking submissions. He wants to solicit short pieces on how it feels to… Well, how it feels to do anything. Like clean your apartment. Or roll out a yoga mat. Or teach a child how to hold chopsticks. Or how to hold chopsticks yourself. Any form is welcome.

Doug Ramspeck has appeared in multiple issues of Bluestem, the latest being the December 2013 Online edition with his fiction piece “Three Crows.” Ramspeck’s latest book of poetry, Original Bodies, was published in December 2014 by Southern Indiana Review Press and received the Michael Waters Poetry Prize.

Bradford Tice, whose poetry also appeared in the Spring 2014 Print edition of Bluestem, also has a new book available–What the Night Numbered.

Joe Weintraub, whose work appeared in the Spring 2012 print edition of Bluestem, had a productive year in 2014, with fiction published in Midwestern Gothic (Summer 2014), Oyez Review (Spring 2014), the special “Chicago” issue of Chicago Literary Quarterly (2014), and the special “TV issue” of Chicago Literati; here is the final story, “Braverman and the Dancer from Soul City.

Poetic License

I recently finished reading Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, and it’s really, really good. And I’m not just saying that because he’s Irish and my Dad’s from Dublin. There are a lot of people calling him “a great new voice” (by the way, maybe we should stop bestowing the whole “a great new voice” compliment so often. A quarter of my books have that line tagged somewhere on the cover).

Beyond the array of alcoholic, sexually downtrodden and existentially confused narrators, it’s Barrett’s semantic prowess and lyrical sensibility that make Young Skins excellent. Here’s an example:

“They were beyond the farmsteads now, into reefs of bogland infested with gorse bushes. Bony, hard-thorned and truculently thriving, the gorse bushes’ yellow blossoms were vivid against the grained black sheen of the sump waters, the seamed bog fields.”

See how Barrett hits the hard “f” sound of “reefs” and “infested,” and then repeats the hard “b” of “bushes” and “bony”? Also, I love how he uses a comma instead of “and” to connect “sump waters” with “the seamed bog fields,” because it preserves the sentence’s fast-paced rhythm.

Here’s the first-line to his story “Diamonds”:

“I left the city with my connections scorched and my prospects blown, looking only for somewhere to batten down for the winter to come.”

It’s a great hook, right?

As I read through Young Skins, I constantly thought to myself that Barrett must have trained as a poet. His writing showed a superb sense of rhythm. I looked him up on the interwebs, but Young Skins is his first book, so there isn’t a lot of information on him. I will reward knowledge on Barrett’s poetic undertakings with extraordinary gratitude and a blog post dedicated to a topic of the finder’s choosing.

I started thinking about poets who write fiction and “fictors” (“fictioners?”) who write poetry. I remembered that James Joyce published some poetry, but I think the consensus is that the human race is better off concentrating on his works of fiction.

Roberto Bolaño wrote poetry, and a poet’s understanding of imagery shines through his work. Here’s a line from The Savage Detectives: “You must cultivate a garden in the shadow of their grudges and resentments.” The concrete concepts of “garden” and “shadow” are lifted to a higher register by “grudges and resentments” to form a gorgeous metaphor—beautiful growth in the midst of petty artistic squabbling.

I’m sure there are a ton of other examples of poets kicking ass in fiction, and I would love to hear some names because they are probably people I want to read. I’m currently in a poetry workshop with Dr. Charlotte Pence, and I’ve come to the conclusion that all fictioners should take a stab at poetry. There is something about rhyme, rhythm and image that bypasses language’s semantic properties, somehow taking the reader directly to the heart of the matter. It’s like poetry has access to a soul-destined superhighway unavailable to “prosers.”

Most of all, I have a whole new appreciation for writers who take the time to write poetic prose. Thank you.

–Sean Towey

What I’ve Learned About Submitting Short Stories as an Associate Fiction Editor

If you’re a student in the creative world, you have probably been asked to read for a literary magazine. A professor or graduate student approached you and said, “Do you know how much reading for a magazine will improve your writing?” and your eyes lit up and you agreed to spend a few hours per week reading the bushy-tailed submissions of fellow writers.

Reading for Bluestem improved my writing. By articulating what I did and didn’t enjoy in the submissions I read, I more closely defined my own aesthetic. I also figured out some of the short story subjects that felt tired. For example, I never need to read another story about a Creative Writing professor. Also, the plot line of “weird guy meets weird girl and they have weird sex” is about as exciting as a first-paragraph detailed description of the main character.

When I became the Associate Fiction Editor, I read more carefully because I had actual responsibility. I had to consider the magazine as a whole, as well as my own individual tastes.

Here’s the main thing I learned—everyone who wants to be a writer would benefit from working as an editor at a literary magazine. So go out and do it. There are 5,000 magazines out there, and I’m sure one of them could use your services. Beyond helping your own writing, you’ll also have the opportunity to provide other writers with the sheer joy of publication, of feeling that your work isn’t the absolute worst drivel to ever end up on a word processor.

Below are some practical tips on submitting to literary magazines that I’ve learned during my time at Bluestem and by collecting rejection letters. Keep in my mind these are my own personal opinions. There are several other great places to find tips on the submission process. There’s a Latin phrase that works well in this situation—tantum quantum. It directly translates as “tantamount” or “as much as,” but there is also a “if it works, use it” implication. If you find this advice helpful, great. If you don’t, forget about it.

You’re not submitting a story

It sounds weird because of course you’re submitting a story. You’re probably submitting lots of stories.

From my perspective as an editor, you’re not submitting an entire piece of fiction. You’re submitting two pages of writing at a time that add up to a story by the end. If I get to the end. I will read the first two pages very carefully. If those hold my attention, or have something that keeps me reading, I will read the next two pages very, very carefully. If I get bored, or if something stops making sense, there’s a good chance I’m going to move on to the next submission. Or get lazy with my reading.

This has some consequences. One, if your piece depends on the close parsing of irony and understanding layers upon layers of symbolism, if it’s a piece that would make T.S. Eliot and all the New Critics smile from the grave, it’s probably not going to do well, unless the writing is also interesting/humorous and has an intriguing plot. If I only understand the piece’s brilliance by reading it through to the end, there’s a good chance I’m not going to read it through to the end.

Size Matters

When I see a piece over 4500 words, my chest tightens and I go cross-eyed. I usually read submissions late at night, once I’ve finished my own writing and homework, and a longer piece is as appetizing as climbing K2 after running a marathon. There is more to a short story than its length, and I’ve read wonderful longer pieces in short story collections. But when we’re talking about submitting to literary journals, I would do whatever it takes to keep the story under 4000 words.

Cover Letters

I’ve heard editors say they never read cover letters. I almost always read the cover letter before reading the piece itself.

In my experience, previous work for the Foreign Service is usually a bad sign. Some publications is a good sign. I appreciate the honesty of a writer who says up front that he is yet unpublished. Most importantly, the cover letter should be concise. Tell the reader the length of the piece and where else you have published work. If the magazine has any other requirements, for example, Midwestern Gothic only publishes Midwest writers, then put that information toward the end of the cover letter.

The most important thing is to avoid arrogance at all costs, or anything else that would give the reader a poor first impression.

A Brief Note to NYC Writers

I just returned from a trip to NYC over Spring Break, and I get it. New York is way cool.

But, here’s the thing. I read at least one submission per week from a Brooklyn-based writer that is entirely about the craziness of living in New York City. Brooklyn writers tend to also include the specific neighborhood in which they reside, like Greenpoint, in their addresses, which strikes me as almost royally arrogant.

As cool as Brooklyn is, there are a lot of other writers with creative hair styles writing about how cool Brooklyn is. Also, there have been a ton of other really, really talented writers who have written about NYC. Are you doing a better job than Colson Whitehead, Don Delillo, and Toni Morrison?

So, that’s what I’ve got. As always, keep writing, reading, and submitting to Bluestem.

 

–Sean Towey

The guy who wrote “Things I can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One” is an asshole. But maybe so am I.

Unless you’ve been hiding under rock, or you don’t spend your days reading blog posts published by free weekly newspapers about the writing world, you’ve heard about and/or read Ryan Boudinot’s “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One.” In the blog post/rant/first-year composition essay, Boudinot outlines his major gripes against MFA programs.  I say “gripes,” instead of “arguments,” because arguments tend to have some semblance of logical coherence.

Several people have written wonderful responses to Boudinot’s piece. The best point out that Boudinot is an asshole. For example, his thoughts on MFA students who choose to write memoirs: “In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” It is very poor taste to talk about the work of former students that way, and Boudinot is being rightly ridiculed for it.

For those of you looking for your daily dose of patriarchy, Boudinot reminisces about how he told a (male) student who asked for extra reading to dive into Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow.

The best responses to “Things I Can Say” point out that Boudinot raises some decent points. There are a lot of people with/earning MFAs who aren’t good writers, and, for a variety of reasons, will probably not become good writers. Personally, I loved his idea of “woodshopping,” where a writer spends several years just writing, without any expectation that anyone will ever read the work. Because that will definitely prepare you for the current publishing market.

Instead of rehashing all of these arguments and counter-arguments, I want to bring up the concern fueling many of the MFA debates—the current MFA/PhD system seems unsustainable.

In 1975, there were fifteen MFA programs. In 2009, there were 153. According to Poets & Writers, there are now 218 (some of those are in other countries).  There are four MFA programs just in Chicago. And it doesn’t end there. There are now around thirty PhD programs in Creative Writing (Full disclosure: I will be pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing in the fall).

To top it all off, for those of you who do not regularly check your Duotrope account, guess how many literary magazines are listed? If you said 4,998, you’re correct. That’s more than three times the number of people who died on the Titanic.

Here’s another point—almost every time I go to a reading, fiction or poetry, the questions from the audience rarely bring up theme, or plot, or what the piece is trying to say about being human. The questions are about craft. How do you write strong summary? How do you get dialogue to pop? How do you stop writing about how horrible your mother is?

If there are way more writers than readers, the system is unsustainable. The thing with writing is you need both readers and writers. I’m imagining a dystopian society where everyone writes but no one reads, except for the sole purpose of stealing craft.

Of course, you can read to steal craft while reading to broaden horizons and learn about the human condition. Also, I have a hard time thinking the country is worse off for having a lot of people with MFAs. Workshops teach way more than writing. You learn about bias, how to articulate your opinion, how to convey meaning, and how to take criticism, among other skills.

Still, I’m a little worried. I can’t help but think that 218 MFA programs and 5,000 literary journals point to something not so pretty about our nation. To the part of our society that spends a lot more time speaking than listening, to narcissism’s constant buzz, to the inability to run a functioning democracy. It concerns me that I’ve read more stimulating debate from literary types about MFA programs than about how the country has been at war for fourteen years.

But, I’m part of the problem. I want to be a writer. I want to be heard. I. I. I.

–Sean Towey

Even If It Hurts: The Cold Harsh World of Creative Writing

 At one of the many meals shared during Lions in Winter, Edward Kelsey Moore, an accomplished cellist, spoke about some of the differences between the music and writing worlds. Moore felt that writers tended to not take criticism very well. He recalled attending a weeklong writing workshop and hearing his fellow students call one of the professors “mean.” He had no idea what they meant. Compared to his music teachers, the professor had been like Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.

One of Moore’s music professors regularly berated students in public. If a student did not perform to the professor’s expectations during a private session, the student had to give a public performance in front of the department several days later. The professor would stand in a corner, chain smoke, and look generally unimpressed.

Not one to believe the first thing I hear, I called Michael Towey, my younger brother and a percussionist at Central Washington University, and asked him about his worst experience with a professor.

As a young, impressionable, eighteen-year old fresh-person, Michael met with his Music Theory professor so she could do some quick evaluations before the class began. After the meeting, she told Mikey that she was shocked he had made it as far as he had, that he had absolutely no ear, and that his chances of succeeding in the music program were basically nonexistent.

And that was before the class even started. I asked Mikey if he had seen Whiplash. He had not because he was worried it would hit too close to home.

Michael will graduate with a B.A. Percussion Performance this spring, and he’s applied to several graduate programs, and he’s awesome.

Compared to the music world, Creative Writing workshops are like semester-long Caribbean cruises. Very few mean things are said. And when they are said, they are couched within layers of compliment-frosting. I’ve never heard a professor tell a student that she should give up on writing altogether. It’s usually along the lines of “I love the castle-setting, but maybe this story doesn’t need three pages of direct dialogue?” or “the conflict between the mother and daughter is really interesting, but I’m not sure I buy that the daughter would literally eat the mother’s heart while it’s still beating.”

Creative Writing workshops are really, really nice. And safe and cuddly. They’re the teddy bears of academic classrooms.

I’m not saying that Creative Writing teachers should be as mean as some of their musical counterparts. For one, musicians learn technical skills easily appraised by experts. Writers tell stories, which are more difficult to evaluate. To make it even more complicated, young writers tend to tell very personal stories. It’s easy to tune a violin. It’s a lot harder to tell someone that her main character, which is based on her childhood best friend who died of cancer, is totally unbelievable. One is a judgment on how much the person has practiced. The other sounds like a judgment on the person as a human being.

However, once I started sending my own work out to magazines, I realized how different the publishing-writing world is to the Creative Writing classroom. The actual writer-world is extremely competitive and almost entirely lacking in compliment-frosting. For publication, the stories can’t be pretty good, or the best story in a room full of twenty year-old writers. They have to be near-perfect.

We need to bridge the chasm between the environments of the Creative Writing classroom and the actual writing world, even if it hurts. Especially if it hurts.

A Critical Take on the Critical Introduction

My time at Eastern Illinois University is quickly coming to an end. And while the other students in my cohort are busy slogging through literary theses chapter by meticulous chapter, diving into subjects like Object Oriented Ontology that roughly 150 people in the country will understand/find interesting, I’ve been drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and writing short stories.

 It’s a tough life.

 In order to keep the Creative Writing students from having too much fun and also because anyone with an English degree needs to write something inaccessible to large segments of the population, English Departments across the nation require a critical introduction to creative theses. What is a critical introduction, you ask? It isn’t exactly clear.

But from what I can tell, there are a couple of different takes.

Option A: Placing your work in context

This is the best option for anyone writing genre fiction. Because one of the interesting things about Sci-Fi, Western, Horror, whatever, is that there are a lot of different and particular conversations happening within these genres. What are the rules? How can the rules be broken? How does your work follow/not follow the rules of whatever genre? And, what is gained by writing within a specific genre as opposed to writing “literary fiction,” which is a fairly unwieldy distinction?

The goal for this type of critical introduction is to demonstrate that you understand the landscape that your own work will inhabit. You know the literary geography.

Option B: Studying the Masters

Not everyone writes genre fiction, and studying the geography of “literary fiction” is like trying to sail the seven seas with a twelfth century world map.

In this particular predicament, it’s best to pick a set of writers that you find influential to your own work, and to study the shit out of them. But this isn’t a typical English graduate seminar paper. Instead of critically engaging with irony or investigating the issue of “empathy” in two contemporary texts, the critical introduction needs to study how certain authors use point of view, or the amount of summary vs. scene, or humor, or the million other things that go into a short-story/novel. It’s a study of craft, rather than theory.

At the end of that craft-study, you show how the craft-choices of those writers influences your own work. What are you copying, and why?

Why do we do this?

This is the real question. Both options for the critical introduction are good for writers. We should know the landscape of our work, and we should be aware of our influences. And articulating this knowledge is a good way to better understand our own writing.

Here’s the thing, though. The term “critical introduction” implies that the creative work itself isn’t critical. It’s like English departments decided that writing “creative” work isn’t tough enough to warrant a Master’s degree, despite the fact that creative writers take literary theory courses. If we’re going to make the creative writers do critical work, shouldn’t the lit theory people have to write some creative work? Why is this a one-way street? I would love for my lit-theory comrades to write “creative introductions.” Maybe they could write poems about the fifty or so people who will actually read their work.

But that’s not even my main problem with the critical introduction. My main issue is that the assignment itself is a hybrid mess of a thing. The critical introduction isn’t a creative piece and it isn’t a seminar paper. In order to pass my thesis, I need to write a type of paper that I have never had to write before.

There are a couple of different solutions to this dilemma. First, we could stop making creative writers do a critical introduction and substitute it for some type of oral exam that would show the writer reads and is engaged with the writing world and whatever else we need to prove. But the other option is to offer creative writing courses that are not workshops, where the goal of the course would be the type of craft-study that would lead into a critical introduction at some point.

And, if we could figure all of this out before mid-March, when my thesis director wants a copy of my critical introduction, that would be great. Thanks.

–Sean Towey