The Kentucky Women Writers Conference is the longest running literary festival of women in the nation. An annual event launched by the University of Kentucky in 1979, it has become a premier destination for the celebration of women’s arts and letters.
Like all authors, I face an interesting paradox when I travel to teach and read in my hometown—or, in this case, my home state.
I am grateful that the hometown aura will bring in listeners, both to my class and to the reading I will give next Saturday.
We are all curious about people who grew up near us, or are our age, or nearly, with the expectation of a shared point of view (and prejudices)—or at least shared experiences.
Since I am teaching, and reading, short fiction, these expectations will, inevitably, be disappointed. I don’t write from my own point of view, I don’t write about my own experiences (and I hope to avoid my prejudices),and I very seldom place my fiction in Kentucky, where I have not lived for twenty years, a period of enormous change.
Still, I am grateful that these audience members will come, and I hope that their initial disappointment will be replaced by a sense of something gained.
I am teaching, again, the importance of “writing what you don’t think you know”: escaping the iron bonds of one’s own point of view with its inevitable limitations.
I’ve found that when I begin to write a short story from a point of view similar to my own, I become tired within a few pages—and I assume my reader would become tired, as well. There is something “stale, flat and unprofitable”—to use Hamlet’s words—about repeating what I already know too well; and I can hardly pretend, always, to bring something new and fresh to something so familiar.
Since I will be reading at my grandson Michael’s middle school next week, I’m going to experiment by reading six pages from one of these “tired” stories, called “The Floating World”, which I know I’ll never finish.
It’s about a hitchhiker who intervenes, or tries to, in a mother-daughter argument; I will ask these young men to imagine an ending . Who knows what may come out of that?
In Lexington, though, I’ll use the fascinating sentences my class of twelve sent me a few days ago, sentences answering my question: “List three points of view you would never believe you could write from” in short fiction.
The answers varied from predictable to astonishing:
- “A man wrongly accused of raping a young girl, found guilty, and so imprisoned.”
- “From the point of view of the Ohio River.”
- ”What it’s like to give birth. I never have.”
(I’ll suggest that Molly read some of the essays of Mumia Abu-Jamal)
(I’ll suggest that Alice read Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
(I’ll suggest that Susan read “Anywhere You Send Me”, a story from my new collection, “Mending: New and Selected Stories (Sarabande Books 2011)
I’ll also suggest that they read a rather extraordinary anthology, Imagine What It’s Like: A Literature and Medicine Anthology edited by Ruth Nadelhaft, published by the University of Hawaii Press (2008), not least because it contains the title story from my new collection, “Mending”, as well as little-known work by Susan Glaspell, Joy Harjo, Maxine Kumin, Mikhail Bulgakow and Tori Derricott, all bringing the reader into the point of view of unusual people living through unusual and frequently challenging experiences.
After we’ve discussed twelve different points of view, from these students’ lists, and the comparative readings I’ve suggested to them, we’ll go over some of the basics of writing serious fiction: choice of title, choice of words (adjective, verbs, metaphors), use of dialogue, building character, and so forth.
Since I find it’s most useful for writers to hear themselves read their own work—and to have the experience of reading in front of a bunch of strangers—I’ll turn the second of this two-day workshop over to reading the assignments I’ll give them, based on two recent news stories from The New York Times:
- Write from the point of view of the brother of an Afghan journalist, shot in Afghanistan by an American soldier. Twenty journalists have been murdered there up until now, shot when they were covering stories.
- OR write from the point of view of a governor of a Japanese province who is accused (not proved) of urging his employees to send emails to the government asking that the nuclear plant in their neighborhood be restarted in the midst of growing concerns about nuclear safety after the recent disaster.
- They can write an internal monologue or a dialogue, but no omniscient narrator viewing it all from above.
- And they are limited to one paragraph.
We’ll see! Above all, I want us all to have fun.