No generation in history has experienced the kind of cultural and societal shift that millennials have, no period so tumultuous, so fervid, so unapologetically modern. But while science and technology have been so effectively forged in this smithy of currentness, the arts have seemed to lapse into the foreground, antagonistic and outdated towards this age of information. But it is in the arts where millennial identity is made, where an antidote to the vacuousness of 21st century can be found.
Every generation has been defined by its literature and arts; the 20’s were encapsulated by Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who defended their Lost generation, showing them still wayward, but not broken, not defeated. What better statement can be found about the state of America (or even the world) in the 50’s than Kerouac’s On the Road or the poetry of Ginsberg, or about the drugs, vapidity, and alienation felt in the bright lights of the big city in the 80’s than in works by McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis? These writers are so essential to their times it would be nonsensical and impossible to understand those times had they not existed, but the beauty of their works is that they are both grounded in and informative of their own times but also transcendent, applicable to our own and the lives of human beings ever after.
This trend of writers and artists dictating the importance of their time is apparent throughout human history, before the novel, before the poem, before the canvas, in oral traditions, cave painting, and song. But this worryingly drops off around the time millennials started appearing. Some are only on the cusp of adulthood, but many have already grown. But there is no millennial novel that we can pick out like we can The Sun Also Rises. It seems millennials may not even have a place in the arts like their forefathers, and perhaps more importantly, they might not care. But while this seems to be the case, it is not and is complicated by significant factors. The STEM trend has long been a worrying one, with jobs in the humanities becoming scarcer and the cost of living for an artist becoming astronomical. This is not to discount the value of work being done in STEM fields, rather it should not be the only mode of existence; “Go into STEM” should not be the prescriptive catch-all it’s becoming. In the midst of our technological living, we are quick to forget that humans are essentially story animals, and storytelling thus the most human action.
Millennials do have a place in art and literature, any generation does as long as they are human, but they are slower to. They find themselves straddling a not-so-distant past and a rapidly approaching future, born at the death of one century and the explosive birth of the next. Millennials therefore, instead of having nothing to say or caring to, have the potential to say so much more than any generation before them. The Lost had a great war, and we had a great war too, a great many on battlefields, on computer screens, in classrooms. Society is a battle zone. Millennials occupy the most fertile ground to draw on for artistic expression, and there too is meaning and significance found. Artists before needed voices to give a voice to the voiceless, now all that’s needed in this sea of noise, where anyone with a keyboard has a say, are voices to unite us, to inspire us, to define us.
I want to share a few favorite quotes and concepts concerning writing – no doubt, some of these will be familiar to you. Surely someone at some point bought you a poster with a likely misattributed declaration that “[w]riting is easy, you just open a vein and bleed,” or maybe a coffee mug that praises writers as machines that turn caffeine into ideas. I’m not here to judge your taste – it’s your office.
The quote I would begin with is uttered by Billy Crystal in the movie Throw Momma from the Train:
“A writer writes. Always.”
Which at its core is sound advice for any would-be wordsmith, much like the plastic label I used to have affixed to my computer monitor that admonished “why aren’t you writing?” or the tacit reminder embedded in my old college email password: PUBL15H1234.
But this sort of feverish, frantic, and desperate encouragement only works in the short-term, and for those among you saying “I’ve been saying that sort of thing to myself for years,” I would ask: for how many? One? Two? At some point in your writing life, you simply must stop typing and come around to what is perhaps the most apt description of the writing process yet coined:
“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in
front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame
and watch the sputter of blue that they made.”
Which, superficially, doesn’t sound like a quote about writing at all. This sentence from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is shortly followed by one concerning the writing of true (nay, truest) sentences, but here I digress from the text for the sake of my own sophistic inclination and because what a writer ought to understand is that the squeezing of peels and the burning of orange rinds is, in fact, writing. It is as much a part of writing as putting ink to paper, mapping out plots, and drinking.
There are two texts I would encourage any creative writer to pick up – texts which may be outside the required reading list of most creative writing classes. The first is Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole which deals with unconventional multi-modal written performances (drawings, dance, ballet slippers) in a composition classroom. The second is Sondra Perl’s Felt Sense which consists of about 50 writing exercises designed to underscore the importance of writing as an embodied process.
These two works, taken together, illustrate what I think is most important about that quote from Billy Crystal (or Stu Silver, if we’re crediting authors as perhaps we should): “a writer writes, always” not because she devotes an obscene amount of time to staring at a blank page or searching through a thesaurus.
A writer writes, always, because when we understand writing as an embodied practice, that’s all a writer EVER does!
Once in a while, younger writers want to know what I have to say. Not always. Young writers really want to know what J.K. Rowling has to say, or Stephenie Meyer, or Ernest Hemingway. But sometimes, when they aren’t available (for whatever reason), they ask me how to get published. Conspicuously they do not ask me much about writing, or what it means to be a writer, but they have plenty of questions about royalties, riches, and fame.
What they’re really asking me, of course, is how to “make it as a writer,” which means that they are really, REALLY, asking me how to get paid exorbitant sums of money for writing “this one story [they] have an idea for.” This is such a common thought among young writers (especially teens through mid-twenties) that I don’t feel it needs much more explanation since, after all, we’ve probably all had such thoughts ourselves.
But I am not a young writer. I am 37 years old. Just about every part of my body makes a sound when I move: pops, cracks, a sort of bubbly grinding sound, and sometimes a noise so strange that I am positive it is the song cancer sings while it is growing. It’s just what happens. I’ve become very concerned with a nagging pain in my right shoulder, and when I read a nutrition information label, the first thing I look for is fiber.
I am also, on this occasion, thinking about a friend from my past — let’s call him Joe because what the hell, why not? Joe fancied himself a film maker. He shot wedding videos professionally, and he had an idea buzzing around telling him to make a short film about a lawyer. He thought we could work together on it. I was 26, he was 27.
I asked Joe why he wanted to write about a lawyer. He said that he wanted to write about people who were wealthy, successful, slick, and attractive. He wanted to write about people who weren’t us.
Let me be clear: that’s fine. Learning about other people is a big part of writing. That’s exciting! That’s the craft. If we only write about, say, middle-aged alcoholics with torn rotator cuffs and occasional bouts of irregularity, we’ll find our oeuvre painfully limited and woefully under-read.
But my follow-up question for Joe revealed a critical moment for any young writer: I asked Joe what he knew about lawyers.
Joe explained a number of tropes and prejudices with which I was already familiar from watching television: lawyers drove expensive cars and lived in nice houses. Lawyers had sexy girlfriends and paid for those girlfriends’ plastic surgery with elite, no-interest credit cards. Lawyers were also evidently all male, though that may be beside the point. Lawyers have problems that are somehow more interesting than our problems as evidenced by Joe’s plot:
“A lawyer has like a problem with his girlfriend and, like, his world is falling apart. Or something like that.”
I’ve heard worse. I’ve written worse. Hell, when I was 20 I started a science fiction novel about a young space man going off to fight a space war which left him with some sort of space PTSD. It was all nonsense because I didn’t know the first thing about space, war, or PTSD, let alone any combination of the three.
But Joe’s problem, and mine, is a fundamental and critical issue in determining whether an aspiring young writer will become an accomplished old one: is she ready to accept the ultimate humility of the observer? Is she ready to learn the lessons of the world? Is she ready to surrender the self and to remain open and receptive to the world coming to presence?
When we’re young, we’re all Go! Thrust! Jump! Run! Punch! And it’s wonderful! And then after a few years we’re a little more Sit. Stop. Rest. Listen. Wait. That’s wonderful too! For a writer, the two together give us those moments of passion and their recollection in tranquility. Wordsworth figured that out centuries ago and wrote it down, but it’s a lesson we all learn and re-learn ourselves nevertheless.
This doesn’t mean anything bad for the young writer – far from it! There certainly are breakout celebrity authors and exciting young voices, and they are to be cherished. But most of us won’t be them. Most of us will spend our 24th birthday crying on the floor of our kitchens, drunk, borderline suicidal, because we haven’t “broken out” yet, and if not our 24th, then maybe 25th, 30th, 60th…I could go on.
But we write because it is what we do, right alongside suffering, listening, living, and occasionally dusting off an old cliche about writing. The more we write as young writers, even if nobody wants to read it (and they don’t), let alone publish it (and they won’t), the more ready we are when our time comes. We’ll have gained experience and context. We will have found our voice. Best of all, we will have spent our time writing!
I thought of Joe last year when I had my own dealings with a lawyer
Stan was short and paunchy, his suits looked cheap and his waistcoat (always buttoned all the way down to the bottom) strained to contain the years that had elapsed since the last time he’d bought new clothes. He spoke quickly and told terrible jokes that I’d already heard, and he knew I was only laughing to be polite, but when a man is telling you a joke to make you feel better about your dad going to prison, you laugh, and you acknowledge that he has done you that courtesy. He squeezes your shoulder and, having told you what you want to hear, tells you what you need to hear, and it’s ugly, but he’s learned his trade and how to ply it, not to wring a few more dollars from a desperate client, but to be a better person in the world, to decide, consciously, that he will grant you an unbilled half-hour so that you can grit your teeth, wring your hands, and stare at the wall for a speechless half hour. That unbilled hour may mean the difference between a new suit and wearing the old one for another month. It may mean that he drives a Ford Focus instead of a BMW, and it may mean he stays married to his wife of 27 years instead of running around with a new silicone mistress, but life is not like the movies, where enormous problems are solved in 90 minutes. Life is life. It unfolds over years.
And there’s a story there in all of this. It’s not the one Joe wanted to tell, it’s not sexy or stylish, but it’s honest, and it’s real. I’ll probably be ready to write it when I’m a little bit older.
Every artist has their own individualized workflow and some of them can be pretty strange. Truman Capote and Marcel Proust famously penned their pages while lying down while Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus preferred to write while standing. German poet Friedrich Schiller is said to have kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workspace because their pungent smell motivated him to continue writing. The list of the bizarre routines of creative individuals is a mile long but what about the psychological stages of creating artwork?
Here are the eight distinct stages that I have identified in my own workflow.
Nausea and Terror of a Blank Canvas, Followed by Diversionary Tactics and Despair:
This is the first identifiable stage because it is the first step that involves some kind of action. Indeed, there is almost always a pre-stage where you bask in the glow of your most recent project while you put off starting a new one for days or weeks or months for fear of facing stage one. But when the fanfare (or, more often, self-congratulation) surrounding your latest work dies down, you’re left with the realization that you must start all over again…from the beginning… from scratch. Once you’ve mustered the courage, stage one sets in. Hard.
You sit down, face the blank canvas and, after a half a moment of eye squinting, decide that you should probably make a coffee. Caffeine in tow, you try again but this time the pile of dishes overflowing in the sink catches your eye and, how can you possibly produce your next great masterpiece with last night’s dinner rotting in the sink (you’re no Friedrich Schiller, after all). You complete this ritual sub-phase of stage one only when your bathroom is spotless, all bills are paid, you’ve “exercised”, showered and done the laundry.
Finally, when all known diversionary tactics have been exhausted, you return to the canvas. Panic truly sets in as you think of the wild success of your previous work, in your stage one mind it was an achievement akin to -insert your favorite master work by any dead European artist-. You feel resentful of your past self, cursing that pompous, over-achieving, genius! Overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand, you slither out of your chair, crawl across the living room floor and into your bed where you pull the covers tight over your head. Assuming the fetal position under your down comforter, you remain in what is rapidly becoming a sweat lodge until you fall asleep or have to pee.
The Search for Inspiration.
You finally manage to drag yourself out of bed when you realize the obvious solution to the problem at hand; consult your past self! The past you became such a hero in your mind during stage one that they must have had some valuable insights that your present self can now plunder and take credit for. You consult numerous old, half used moleskine notebooks searching for the genius of your past self. You scour through pieces of poems, old shopping lists and half-hearted doodles before reaching a page with “ideas” scrawled across the top. There are two things on this list:
1) Dog phone solution for interspecies communication?
2) Ask Dad to see his list of ideas.
Instead of being disheartened by this finding, you’re oddly liberated by the realization that your past self really isn’t all they’re cracked up to be, in fact, they’re just like the present you!
Reinvigorated, you consult the Internet to see what insights StumbleUpon or Pinterest can offer. You click a Twitter link to a new show opening at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and BAM…
An Idea Wallops you in the Stomach
It’s all you can think about. You’ve never been more excited in your life but unfortunately, it is now 3 o’clock in the morning and you have to be up at 8. You attempt to quiet your mind (which is doing some kind of wild, flailing interpretive dance inside your skill) telling it “Hush now. You have an idea. Everything is going to be alright.” But, of course, after days or weeks or months of struggling for a new idea, there is no way to turn your brain off now that you’ve found it. You toss and turn as your idea becomes more and more grandiose
Original idea: a life size statue of Paris Hilton dressed in rags.
Evolves to: a four times life size statue of Paris Hilton wearing rags that I will create from the discarded clothing I’ll find in a landfill.
Evolves to: I’ll live in the landfill for a month, all the while constructing clothing out of filthy, discarded rags and then I’ll walk to New York and do a performance as Paris Hilton in the middle of Times Square.
The final, impossible permutation of the idea comes at 6 am when you’re on the brink of sleep. Fortunately, you do not remember the latest version when you wake up.
The Letdown of the Groundwork
After your sleepless night of imagining all the incredible possibilities presented by your new idea you’re invigorated and anxious to begin your new project. Perhaps you spent the entire day at “work” skirting your responsibilities and instead spending your time daydreaming about minute details and embellishments that you’ll add to your project
I’ll rub decaying apples all over the Paris Hilton rag ensemble to channel the late great Friedrich Schiller… how’s that for a conceptual twist?
At five o’clock, you leave a meeting with your boss in mid-sentence to race home and finally begin work on the idea. Only then do you realize that you still need to stretch and size your canvas, or format your document or mix the plaster for your Paris Hilton statue. This is a great letdown when, after hours of fantasizing about your finished project, you begin to understand that you actually have to make it when all you really want to do is rub decaying apples all over it.
Hitting the Wall
After all the frustration of finding an idea, the ecstasy of fantasizing about it and the letdown of having to do the ground work, now you’re elbows deep in your project. All the prerequisite formalities of setting the stage for your masterpiece are done and now all you have to do is fill it with your amazing idea. The only problem is that a few hours in, and nothing is working the way you thought it would. The Paris Hilton mold you cast is coming out way more Wynonna Judd and the supermarket doesn’t even sell rotting apples. You start to feel completely discouraged as you begin to forget what was so compelling about your idea in the first place. After the emotional rollercoaster of the past few days or weeks or months your brain has short circuited and you fall into a trance-like-state. Staring off vacantly into the distance.
This stage is, in my opinion, the most critical in the entire process and, ironically, it is the one in which you are least involved. Also, I’ll add, it is very tempting to stop at stage five and revert to stage one but DON’T! That path is an endless feedback loop of despair, misery and unrealized dreams and inexplicable miracles are about to happen here in stage six.
As your brain checks out entirely from the creative process, somehow, your hands continue to mindlessly interact with your complete failure of a project. No one knows what exactly happens here at stage six because everyone who experiences it has temporarily become a mindless drone carrying out the initiatives of the Unconscious, or God or the Alien Race of Ant-People. Eventually you snap out of your stupor and begin to see what your body has been doing for the past day or week or month.
You can’t believe your eyes when you notice that the project before you has completely transformed into something that actually has some miniscule flicker of potential. Confused, you look around the room to make sure that no one is playing a joke on you. After you look in all the closets and under the bed, you allow yourself to feel excited about your project again. This quasi-mystical experience had given you back your mojo and you do a little dance to celebrate.
With the new understanding that you’re on the path laid out by your Unconscious, or God or the Alien Race of Ant-People, you resume your work with a furious sense of purpose and drive. Nothing can distract you from the task at hand.
Afraid of the fervor with which I’m working as my wide bloodshot eyes stare fixed two inches away from the computer screen, my husband says something like: “Sweetie, I made you this French inspired five course meal. Aren’t you hungry? You’ve been in that same position for three days…. Honey…?”
I chuckle and reply vaguely: “That’s funny, dear”
You gain a super human ability to work for hours on end without food, water or rest. You don’t notice the passage of time until….
Suddenly, the project is finished. You can’t explain why or how you know, but you have an instant realization that if you add one more embellishment then entire thing will collapse in on itself like a dying star. With a great sense of calm you can at last tear your eyes away from your project. The first clue that something is amiss comes when you notice that a faint layer of dust has descended on every surface of your workspace. Only then do you locate a clock and calendar and, with a jolt of shock, realize that days or weeks or months have passed inside the black hole that is stage seven. You make a mental note to ask family and friends what’s been going on in their lives and in the world, but only after you fill them in on the triumph of your most recent project. Turns out, your sister had the baby, the war ended and Coke came out with a new Diet version that uses Stivia instead of Aspertame.
You do leave your workspace eventually but return every few minutes or hours to stare lovingly at your masterpiece, astonished by your naivety in stage one when you thought you’d never be able to top your previous work. That work was terrible, you think, this new piece is the pinnacle of my creativity. And with that one, small, innocent thought your project becomes the property of your genius past self and you stare, horrified, down the barrel of stage one.
“I cannot say what cannot be said, but sounds can make us listen to the silence.” R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience
Having just graduated from a research university, this seems like a convenient forum to reflect on the intersection of what became my main fields of study: literary theory and creative writing. What has struck me most profoundly after my four years (and what this article is in reaction to) is that philosophers are better creative writers than the creative writers are. I would levy a guess that few people could find more beautiful lines written, think what you will of their theories, than those of the first chapters of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. And is there a writer—literary, creative or otherwise– who has ever conveyed the sublime joy of linguistic play better than the dense complexity of Jaques Derrida? While this list could be endless, after four years of studying literature, I came to be left with this question: How is it that those who wrote about literature became superior to those actually writing it?
For those of us unfamiliar and those of us repelled (perhaps rightly so) from theory and philosophy by its urgency or self-importance, ‘literary theory’ predicates a multi-disciplinary basis of insights (philosophical, sociological, linguistic) centered loosely around language. In university literature programs, it functions in so far as pursuits in knowledge parallel to literature can draw a critical focus on how a reader experiences language (for the act of reading is at essence an experience of language). At its best, theory in the context of literary criticism belies the question: what of my experience (of reading) belongs to me (of course, what am I?) and what belongs to the words themselves?
Hardly approached, the question remains. What is the use of literary theory for a creative writer?
Few neither before nor since have made the point more radically than Julie Kristeva, a French semiologist: literature does not exist. There is only language. In The Ethics of Lingustics she approaches the linguistic community with an object of ‘poetic language’ (i.e. language which does not assume first and foremost communication as its goal) and follows by positing that from this view, all language is always already-poetic .
Suddenly, walls fall. Ernest Hemingway runs screaming through Tucker Max’s kitchen. Sigmund Freud is washing his hands after taking a shit in Ariana Huffington’s bathroom. A how-to manual is telling a joke to a poorly written blog post while standing in line behind a coffee table book about pop art. ‘Poetic language’ is the ambiguous line at which language approaches but never meets meaning absolutely nothing. ‘Poetic language’ is a kaleidoscope through which all writing, especially that which makes such pretensive strides at considering itself ‘creative’ writing, becomes exactly what it is: nothing-but-language.
We creative writers should be (and sometimes are: http://poeticjabberwocky.blogspot.com/2010/06/my-favorite-legal-terms-that-sound.html) looking on in a jealous rage at the rate at which scientists and lawyers create language in their everyday pursuits (‘dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane’ pulled from a schizophrenic need to find this chemical distinct from that chemical, ‘habeas corpus’ kept from the linguistic grave that is ‘dead’ language).
Creative writers! Do not fall prey to genre-writing, forcing language between some minimum and maximum point at which it is allowed to mean anything. Creative writers! We are the linguistic scientists of our time. Let us allow our vast, oft-loved and romanticized empty pages become the playful laboratories of language itself. And as we, childish scientists, send language through our experiments, meant to prove nothing at all, only valid if results cannot be repeated, creative writing becomes all that it already is and ever hopes to be: language. Not stories or narrative or characters (not that these things need to be avoided) but tone and rhythm and rhyme and meter and lineation and alliteration: just language. Beautiful, playful, surprising language. Nothing- but-language.
Mai-Quyen Nguyen is a junior at Arizona State University, majoring in English with a concentration in Fiction and pursuing a certificate in Technical Communication. She is a Fiction Editor for Superstition Review, which is her first role at the online literary magazine. Not only is she seeking to gain experience with the editing and publishing industry, but she is also hoping to develop relationships and build networks.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area in California, she moved to Arizona to study nursing. However, her career plan changed when she fully realized her passion to write and edit. Language and words are multifaceted; people communicate through both spoken and written words and she wishes to affect the lives of others through her own.
What Mai-Quyen finds fascinating about writing is the bond it creates between the writer and the reader. Regardless of how deeply literature is read, people take away different meanings. Writing searches for the truth, a concept that humans sometimes find difficult, and Mai-Quyen seeks to find who she is through literature.
One story that has changed her life is “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison. She enjoys not only the works of contemporary authors such as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Stuart Dybek, Jim Shephard, and John Irving, but also those of John Green and Ernest Hemingway. Inspired by Hemingway, Mai-Quyen is interested in exploring his theory of omission, or the Iceberg Theory, in her works.
Aside from writing fiction, Mai-Quyen likes to compose lyrics and on occasion, poetry. She grew up as a performer: she sang in her elementary school and high school choir, swing danced in elementary and middle school, acted during middle school, and took piano lessons for seven years. Although she is no longer committed to those activities, she continues to play the piano in her spare time.
After graduating from ASU, Mai-Quyen plans to apply to Columbia University to earn an MFA in Fiction. She aspires to become a book editor and a literary fiction author. She dreams to have her work published and read across the world, evoking a positive response on her audience who will gain valuable lessons from her stories.
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