Wake Up and Smell the Formula

Okay, I’m getting frustrated. This professional writing thing might just be too damn hard.

This year, I have heard fascinating stories from my MFA peers about the types of rituals they perform in order to stimulate their Muses. One of my classmates has explained her need to walk around her house while she is thinking of what to write; the kinesthetic activity unplugs her lyrical juices. Another has admitted to carrying around whatever novel is his current favorite wherever he goes, and copying down passages from it to absorb the magic of the author through written recitation. A young woman with whom I took my fiction workshop first semester would associate a specific song from her personal music collection with every story she read from our class, and would play the song in the background as she critiqued the manuscript that had summoned the connection for her. Some of my fellow writers can only handwrite first drafts, because their words in print look too “published” and therefore give their creator permission not to revise. Some jot down sentences on pieces of scrap paper and arrange and rearrange them on the floor or on the wall. In my case, I must squeeze in ten minutes, two minutes, an hour of writing throughout my day at work—when my students are taking a quiz or meeting in small groups to answer discussion questions—and in the evening hours when I am home, while my daughter and son watch t.v. or play games. I follow no funky ceremonies in order to inspire myself; I don’t have the time. I type rather than handwrite because I’m a perfectionist and prefer the streamlined clarity of black text against a white background no matter how many times I have cut and pasted words and phrases—a landscape unmarred by smudges, the ghosts of pencil markings poorly erased, or shredding strips of correction tape. Reading over my work from physical sheets of paper is crucial, though, as the permanence of lasered ink, its power to influence someone that will never see or hear that text another way once he or she has read it for the first time, frightens me into going back and endlessly tweaking.

In his essay, “The Place of Creative Writing in Composition Studies,” Douglas Hesse, founding director of the Writing Program at the University of Denver, identifies what I have now come to notice as an affected, provincial quality of the culture of fiction writing: “Of course, just as composition can suffer narrowness, so can writing wax parodic in self-help books and workshops and colonies promoting the trappings of authoring, drinking the right kind of tea and the right kind of pens, having the right angst, the right contempt for bourgeois culture, or, alternatively, the gumption to market words” (33-34). For the most part, since September, I have hung longingly onto every word of craft instruction that my fiction workshop professors have uttered, feeling at every millisecond so thankful and humbled to be in their brilliant presence, knowing that they have “cracked the code” of how to write stories that literary magazines will devour and praise. And I do still feel this way, having reached the close of my first year in the MFA program. However, a small part of me is starting to get wary. Sometimes it seems as though story-writing, which by nature should really allow for strokes of originality, rule-breaking, and free expression, is limited by the same kinds of structures and objective techniques that analytical or composition writing appear more clearly to operate on.

For example, I have come to understand that one of my professors has little tolerance for too many words in a descriptive sentence. Her specialty is editing down prose to its most economic state, and a stunningly fine specialty it is (she truly is awesome). My style, however, has always luxuriated in the detail of sensory-rich imagery. While I have learned to curb my prosaic enthusiasm to my own benefit, I also feel a little miffed that there seems to be one standard for writing literary short stories, and that my individual style doesn’t fit into that standard. It makes writing a touch less fun, to be honest, and much more daunting. Will I be published in literary magazines only if my piece contains “the right angst” (Hesse 33), the right amount of urgency at the right junctures, the right kind of pithy, meaningful sentences in the right order? Our MFA professors have warned us that editors will not continue to read a story that mentions bodily fluids on the first page, or that begins with a line about “waking up.” What if I write the most moving story in the universe, but the first line has a character waking up to the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, the knowledge that she has given birth to a stillborn baby, or a group of aliens performing procedures on her? Nope, sorry—my story fights against the checklist.

I guess that while I am thrilled to learn methods to make my stories full of movement, rich characterization, and “texture” (in the details of a protagonist’s world), I am also surprised to find out that this genre of study threatens, in my opinion, to go too far in the other direction: “Of course, craft is not nothing, but at some level it raises the specter of the tawdry, the world of popular writing for profit and its promise, for a fee, to provide ‘the secret of publishing [fill in the blank],’ what Michelle Cross terms ‘commercial pedagogy’ whose memory many ‘serious’ academic writers have sought to bury” (Hesse 36). Just as fan fiction thrives more on its plot-driven excitement and less on language quality (e.g., The Hunger GamesTwilight, Fifty Shades of Grey), the genre of the lit-mag-short-story demands its own algorithm, which seems to include, among other things, snappy, cerebral dialogue, minimal imagery, and some deeply resonant but obscure moral declaration. I am beginning to think that I will never guess the exact right formula for writing a story in order to have it published in Tin House or The Missouri Review, and I don’t want to feel that way about a craft that has filled me with satisfaction and affection since I was five years old. How depressing.

Work Cited: Hesse, Douglas. “The Place of Creative Writing in Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication 62:1 (Sept., 2010), pp. 31-52.

Categories: WritingTags: , , , , , , ,


  1. It is strange that the formulas for short stories and marketable novels seem to be opposite. I’ve found so many short stories to be incredibly depressing but also filled with feeling and a much different writing style than the novels that are written just to entertain.

    • I agree. And I am on the verge of “selling out” as a short story writer to try my hand at a popular novel…the literary magazine community is so exclusive. I figure that I could dash one off this summer. : ) (Not really.) The idea of trying to sustain a reader’s attention for hundreds of pages is also overwhelming!

      • That’s what I thought too. 🙂 But then my short story writing style ended up sneaking in there anyway – even when I tried to write a simple novel – and I’ve been revising it ever since. I hope you have more luck with yours!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: