I used to write short stories. Then I stopped.
I’m tempted to end this essay right there. For my tastes, it’s the right length, has good balance, and folds the (probably boring) narrative into a suggestive blank space. But in this case I’ll go on, because maybe in this instance I have something to say. This essay about craft aims to highlight the experience of writing in a voice, or voices, that suit your needs, and how that can liberate you from the expectations heaped upon genre forms, not to mention your own identity. In other words, this is an essay about voice, genre, and gender, by way of personal experience.
I’ve written throughout my life; at times, it has felt like it flowed from me, like an aftereffect of living. At other times, it has felt like a big put-on. Over the years, I have embarked on different and varied projects, filled up legal pads and notebooks, amassed digital files and folders, even threw out a bag of Moleskins when an abusive ex promised that our relationship would be better without all my writing lying around the house. I can’t separate my attempts to be a writer from my misguided, enforced attempts to be a man—and likewise, my struggle to find a voice in my writing has coincided with me freeing myself from the gender I was deemed to be and the fitting behaviors it imposed on me. Ultimately, my lesson here will be not to let your genre (or gender) determine your voice. Listen to your writing needs, and write in the context, form, or structure that will enable you to find a voice that is fit, flexible, and free. And remember, voice doesn’t have to be singular or consistent from work to work. But many of us, when we sit down to write, put on a writerly/literary voice that ultimately betrays the piece that might be.
My writing origins began in a pretty typical way for someone like me, coercively assigned male at birth, who showed an artistic sensibility, a penchant for writing, and a certain kind of precociousness.i I was the first “son” in a Jewish family, too, so I got attention lavished on me in a particular way, the “little mensch,” always either reading or telling long rambling stories, and always a good boy. In high school, I started on James Joyce (my mom gave me Portrait of the Artist when I was first hospitalized for ulcerative colitis) and every night from midnight to four a.m. I scribbled out my stream of consciousness manuscript with no characters and no plot, waiting for the world to be ready for it—probably after I died and my writing was discovered. This manuscript amounted to a few hundred pages when I typed it up, which left me feeling pretty accomplished. When I got to college, I let my Proust teacher and eventual creative writing mentor read it; she was a French woman, a novelist and journalist. She somehow found something nice to say (“It’s like a whirlwind,” I think), then invited me over to her house to follow a recipe.
“Let’s bake biscotti,” she said.
We didn’t talk about writing that afternoon. We read the recipe, gathered ingredients, followed the instructions assiduously, as you must with baking, and turned out some mediocre biscotti, which we snacked on with coffee afterwards. I left knowing I needed to write short stories.
I took everything academically, especially if an elder mentor recommended it. If I was really going to follow what I imagined to be the writer’s path, the recipe for the greats—established by such masculine prodigies as James Joyce and Philip Roth, another man pushed on me by my mentors—I had to perfect the story before I could actually graduate to the grander achievement of that baggy monster, the novel, as Henry James called it. (And he would know.) A short story is writing with a recipe; a mastery of the ingredients can allow you the freedom to invent.
Now I want to take a couple beats to give an aside on gender and then on Proust vs. Joyce in my so-called masculine brain… because at this time I was still trying to be a man, even though the work of doing so twisted my insides (often literally, given my chronic gut illness) and turned me into a righteous jerk to those around me. By the time of puberty, the endeavor of masculinity no longer seemed like an avoidable choice, though as I proceeded I got angrier and angrier with it. As an 80s child, raised in full media and politics-induced panic of the AIDS pandemic, I had been cautioned that boys shouldn’t kiss boys or else they’ll die. When I was with boys, I felt like a girl; when I was with girls, I felt like I could be anything—or better, nothing. (And perhaps non-coincidentally, nothing is the experience I seek when writing). I had long hair, got called ma’am; I was chubby and got comments about my breasts. Puberty thinned me out and made me furious and confused. My parents told me I wasn’t gay, but how would they know? I got chased down the hall and called faggot in high school, but I was also deathly afraid of men’s touch and attention, which I did get. To escape it all, I went punk and made my presentation decisions to shock. Mostly, I wanted everyone to leave me alone. But I also liked to dress up, wear makeup, go glam.
Oh, and I got sick. Really sick.
So what does all this gender trouble mean for my writing, which was something I did constantly, as an activity that allowed me to take myself seriously and think that my painful life might be redeemed; but also one where I wrote myself into the positions that had been declared for me, in spite of and disregarding my deep needs and feelings? In my aspiring genius man side—the part I learned to play—Joyce was king. It was symptomatic, though, that in high school I only read (and re-read) the first three chapters of Ulysses—the Stephen chapters, which are the most dense, difficult, allusion-filled stream of consciousness chapters—and never made it to Bloom and the relief of humor and sex. I had a big Stephen complex, or maybe just a crush. Yet, when I got to college and read Proust describe his childhood bedtime plight, recalling my own childhood traumas that revolved around bedtime, which could only mirror my issues with gender and sexuality, I actually felt touched, understood, almost held. And still Proust was grandiose and theoretical, so he fed that ego need that comes with performing a certain kind of masculinity. I kept trying to put on my austere cold Joyce, but I was the sickly queer Proust child inside. And in fact, my endless notebooks of writing probably had more in common with Proust’s sickroom and the eternal editing—not in greatness mind you, but in my attempt to write my life into something. Granted, neither of these authors are good guides for craft: they are untouchable, and who would want to reproduce them anyway? And it turned out the novel I was trying to turn my life into wasn’t actually the right story line.
So, after the biscotti, I started writing short stories. Of course, I knew Dubliners and Hemingway. I read up on Raymond Carver but also Junot Diaz, and I got a subscription to The New Yorker. I learned the experience of reading a short slice of life and scratching my head and feeling ennui or the manly feeling of a restrained emotion. In my story workshop, I was still writing too “experimental,” and no one in the class really responded to my writing in the way I wanted—I was pushed towards Burroughs and Kathy Acker, two authors who dismantled the novel, syntax, plot; two authors who made more sense for me, though I couldn’t get there yet.
But for the most part, my foray into the short story became a series of attempts to come to terms with masculinity. I wrote about bad men. Bad straight men in bad relationships, being jerks to their partners, and I tried to write about the way these men can’t actually imagine women’s interiority, or anyone else’s for that matter. I got good at the shape of a story, the pacing of the plot, the subdued emotions of characters, the inability to say what they mean. When I had plumbed the depths of the masculine short story, this was my discovery: the ultimate confinement of being a man, the inevitable atrocities men commit even unknowingly, and the prison house of cis-straight family and marriage (which is actually what most realist stories and novels written by straight men turn out to be about).
When I was writing this collection of case studies of masculinity, I was married to a woman, living the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? life, and really trying to write myself out of my marriage, my job, and my manhood. And then, I was offered an escape route from the life that I was coming more and more to realize was a costume I was wearing. Getting dressed felt like a kid going to his Bar Mitzvah every day, to become a man; writing felt like taking on a man’s narrative voice, bending myself into its position, fitting its predetermined story lines, and losing my actual voice in the process.ii
After amassing a sizable collection of man stories, I realized that I actually hated short stories, mine above all. (Same goes for masculinity.) Of course, I’m being a bit cheeky in simply dismissing short stories; not so much, when it comes to masculinity. There are amazing beautiful stories—and tellingly, the authors I love the most are not cisgender men, save a few gay men. I’m drawn to the poetic prose of Amy Hempel and Grace Paley, or the wry, condensed pieces of Lydia Davis. There is more and more prose by trans writers, like Jordy Rosenberg, Rivers Solomon, Kai Cheng Thom, and more—though I’ve tended towards novels over stories (and memoirs). But let’s just take The New Yorker brand of story. It became ever more apparent to me that these stories, like the workshop rules that framed them—since mostly these were either graduates from the right MFAs or distinguished teachers—purveyed the type of boring normalcy that I felt trapped within in my daily life. I could equally say this for the realist novel. All you had to do was read something like Franzen’s Freedom to feel completely unfree, like life was the utterly empty projection of some man’s boring life. The plots determined a narrow life depleted of possibility—and that melancholy tone was celebrated as realism, literary seriousness. Don’t even get me started on David Foster Wallace, to whom I’ve always had a sheer aversion. The error and horror of cisheteronormative marriage-aimed relationships is the bread and butter of the short story and the novel—realist prose—that leaves you with the emotion, “huh? I guess so,” and then you resume the mundane life Thoreau called “quiet desperation.”
Even the CIA knows well that literary fiction serves the purposes of replicating cultural ideologies and propping up the status quo. We have to remember that the Iowa Writing Workshop, which set the pattern for American literary culture and pedagogy post-WWII, along with the literary journals like the Paris Review that standardized American postwar fiction, collaborated with the CIA to keep radical politics and dissenting points of view out of literature.iii The CIA maintained a cultural war to promote certain types of art over others, and to blacklist the more politically oriented writers. So my problems have a broader political root than my own taste and my own gender struggle. The funding and belief in creative writing workshops in the US is ultimately traceable to Cold War attempts to instill certain values in American culture. Therefore, we might wonder how much of the literary conventions we take for granted are only apparently depoliticized attempts at propaganda. Writing workshops have turned the short story, and perhaps the novel too, into highly typified cultural forms that work on us in very specific ways. I don’t think it’s too bold to claim that the stories we consume determine for us the horizon of possibilities we consider in the world.
When I teach a workshop (including those in the Great Smokies Writing Program), I don’t see it as my job to impose rules and conventions, since this work is already being done in every reader’s head, every time they read. I communicate about conventions and the manipulation of them towards the writers’ own needs. I want to help them imagine into being the worlds they want to see, not just the worlds that “literature” acknowledges. Above all, I see my task as creating a space where the writer can connect with their voice, whatever that might mean (I have no expectations). Sure, we may write to get published; it’s a joke to say we write to get paid. However, my philosophy is that if writing simply wears you down and disciplines you into misery, why do it? Instead, allow the blank page to be opportunity to try on whatever you want. Personally, I’m all for using it to think through things being better. For this reason, I favor workshops with shorter length texts that sit in between genres, allowing writers to move from poetry to memoir to story to fragment. The real work comes in the writing, the sharing, and the feedback—not an inherited set of rules made fifty years ago by writers, instructors, and journal editors. When it comes to publishing, you can aim for prestige, but your work will end up where it belongs, where others are trying to do things in ways that fit your aims. Or you can just publish yourself, make your own book. Do it differently—publishing is a market among others, those cursed things; still a boy’s club; so why try too hard to participate in it?
When I moved to a new state for a new job—and a new life, one where I could live my gender, my non-gender, my transgender—I made the conscious decision to try a new way of writing, one that would feel, craft-wise, freer of the restrictions and expectations that plot, story, character impose on the imagination. I already had reams of writing, but never had a voice that felt right. I was either trying to be experimental, trying to be literary, trying to get published in the machinery … I realized the way that worked for me was prose poetry. I didn’t really mean anything by that genre term, except to think of a kind of poetry that wasn’t necessarily lined or structured (not that I don’t write lined poems or invent structures), or a kind of prose that’s not confined to narrative, story, character, plot, or realism. The genre term mostly gave me a sense of freedom. Each piece could explore an idea—the kernel of it gives the piece its own logic. How short it will be. What imagery and tone. It’s easy to slip out of first person, into second person, or make up characters. It’s supple and open. Each text is an experiment that sets its own hypothesis and rules its own outcome, most often unpredictably.
I do believe, as some great writer has said, that the prose poem (or whatever you want to call it) distills literature’s essence. I do believe that the novel form (and the short story too), as others more credentialed have claimed, may have exhausted its relevance for us, being an outmoded artifact of the rising bourgeoisie in the time leading up to and through industrialism. We suffer a different kind of oppression now, and therefore seek a different kind of expression. My voice comes out genreless, but I can tinge it with beauty, I can weigh out its rhythms, and hint at profundity, while avoiding the straitjacket of plot or character, which maintains the humdrum lives of men and women and children, those lives that no longer exist, that we don’t want anyway. As for my literary taste, it has become entwined with my “political” commitments.iv Why write the world back into its shackles, when the freedom of writing allows you to imagine the liberation of all people, the creation of new worlds, the destruction of forms and styles of oppression? I go for the books that question reality and therefore realism. And I challenge other writers to take this ethical stance too: craft your work to match the world you’d like to live in, not to mirror back the world that keeps you down.