For this final Writing Wednesday post, I’d like to tell you about one piece of writing advice that has shaped me profoundly as a writer. The advice might not be applicable to you, but I hope that it’s helpful to you regardless.
For now, take a moment to just relax, put up your feet, and picture the following:
Me, in my second year of college, trying to revise my first intermediate fiction assignment.
And feeling a little bummed.
To give you some context, I’d just written a story that wasn’t like anything I’d written before. At this point, all I’d ever written about were talking horses and wish-granting candy canes — the kinds of things that kept me at my computer every weekend, the childlike, whimsical stories that satisfied my craving to write and didn’t let me worry about things like craft and scope.
But after taking beginning fiction, that childlike wonder disappeared. I was forbidden from writing so-called genre fiction in that class, and in response, I turned to the intellectual and psychological. I wrote about a young man’s fear of crows and about another who had agalmatophilia. No magic, no dragons, no wish-granting candy canes, no talking horses. Later, I’d learn that was one of the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
But at the time, I was not happy. In intermediate fiction, I felt like the kind of writing I wanted to write still wasn’t allowed. I wrote another story that satisfied me on an intellectual level, but not on an emotional level. It was sensual, violent, dark, and immature.
And it was also super-cliched.
It was about a woman named Dalia, who in high school, was quite promiscuous. And in the first draft, I had her wearing a red dress in some of the flashbacks.
Yup. The old “short-red-dress-wearing promiscuous girl” trope. Here are a few examples from the rough draft, to give you an idea:
Yet, unlike Dalia, the broom didn’t bother trying to get into college. It didn’t wear red high heels, shorts that were too short, and shirts weren’t enough of a shirt.
…She sat across from him, lifting away her red coat for reveal the small red dress underneath. A thin oval was cut out from the top of the chest.
I knew this cliche. I knew better than to write it, but I ended up writing it anyway. I even called out a peer’s promiscuous character in their story. I knew about gender stereotypes and how they could be detrimental, but when it came to my own work, I was having a block and couldn’t see what was wrong with it. And I think it was because I didn’t feel like I could be vulnerable and, as Brene Brown puts it, “tell the stories I wanted to tell with my whole heart.” So, out of frustration, I wrote in shorthand. I wrote what everybody knew and was familiar with just so that I could finish an assignment.
I got a B on the first draft, but I knew I could have done better. I didn’t dig deep enough.
And my teacher knew it, too.
An Epiphany in Office Hours
In the class, all the students had to sign up for office hours to discuss our first work and any plans for revision with our teacher. So, eventually, my turn came up, and I sat outside the campus Starbucks with her, going over her comments and making notes.
I don’t remember all of what we said, but I do remember how I felt: lost, frustrated, angry, realizing I’d driven myself into the mud only to drive myself deeper into it. I didn’t like the story, but at the same time, I liked the story and was having trouble seeing what was wrong with it and making it better.
And my teacher, bless her soul, recognized those feelings in me and gave me the perfect medicine: “Ban red. Go weird.”
The phrase is mine, but the advice she gave me was all hers, and I’m thankful that I remember it. She helped me see the trope for what it was — shorthand that did no real work, but also pointed to my work’s strengths and unique qualities like the descriptions involving ocean-related imagery in relation to Dalia. Rather than using red dresses and stale language, I could explore Dalia’s sexuality in a more fresh, compelling way. Here’s a bit of the beginning of the memo I wrote to my teacher to accompany the revision:
Dalia’s characterization is much more fluid and unique now that I have her work with the color blue and ocean-related inventory. I still keep the idea of her being promiscuous in high school and looking for “floundering freshman”, but I keep that language going so that the story is unified by her interiority [sic] as an aspiring “zoology major”, as the story’s POV is third-person warm on her (3). Instead of saying that her memory of Robert simply came to her, I write on page 5 that “A forty-foot tsunami of a memory flooded Dalia’s conscious” in order to emphasize the enormity of hearing his name as Mr. Burns mentions him.
Character, plot, unity, theme — All of the elements that eluded me when writing the first draft were now coming to me in the revision, thanks to her advice. By banning cliches and going “weird” — using blue instead of red, I was finally starting to hear my own voice and see my own potential.
And I’ve carried that advice with me ever since. I’ve always tried to strive for the weird, the speculative, the strange, and the otherworldly, because of it. Sometimes, I miss the mark, or I just want to write a plain vanilla piece, but if I do write a “plain vanilla” piece, I’ll be sure its language still does work.
But overall, it’s helped me strive to be original and dig deeper regarding the stories I want to tell.
Vulnerability, Not Originality
Don’t get me wrong here. I know that I’m talking about cliches, tropes, and originality here. But that’s not what this is about. It’s not a bad thing to want to be original and fresh and new. We all want to be the shining star from time to time.
But in order to be that shining star, we have to be authentic. We have to be honest about what kinds of stories we want to tell and how we want to tell them. We have to be honest about the things we love, the things we hate, and our influences so that we can pay attention to them.
Dalia’s love for zoology and the ocean didn’t come from nowhere; it came from me. I loved collecting sea shells as a child. While doing research for the revision, I enjoyed learning about mollusks and how bivalves are a particular kind of mollusk. And I used that old love and connected it with a new love of mature stories.
Being weird is not about being abnormal. We’re all a little weird, and that weirdness makes us “normal.”
Being weird is also not about being original. I haven’t met anybody who liked collecting sea shells as a kid, but I’m pretty I’m not the first and only one to do it out of the 7 billion people on this earth.
Banning red and being weird is about being willing to be wrong, being willing to to speak up for yourself rather than someone speaking on your behalf, and being unafraid of the naysayers that say you can’t do it.
And no, I don’t literally mean “ban red.” If you want to wear a red dress, go ahead. I’m not going to stop you.
But don’t mind the one who wears a blue one instead.
Anyhow, that’s it from me. See you on the final Flash Fiction Friday post.