The Worst Question in the World

Below is a transcript of the speech I gave as the Popular Fiction representative of the Stonecoast MFA graduating class of Summer 2017.

Thank you Justin, Robin, Matt, Dean Tuchinsky, and all the family and friends who have come out here tonight.

I’d like to take a moment to talk about Hell.

I have this theory about Hell, I believe that Hell exists on Earth, not in one location, but as a collection of bounded areas that flit in and out of existence, little bubbles of ultimate suffering popping up all over the world in locations and designs of our own making. The BMV. Improv sketch comedy shows. And certain social events, where people find out that I write, because it means I get asked the absolute worst question in the world.

They say, “Janet and I were just reading [and here they name some incredible serious writer who writes heartbreaking dissections of suburban malaise]. What do you write?”

What do you write? It’s a question that sends shivers up my spine, because no matter what, I sound like an idiot, and I feel like I not only fail to provide an adequate explanation of my writing, but in fact make the entire world of literature just a little worse for my role in it.

I feel like this is a common experience, a kind of anxiety unique to writers, where you have to mount an impromptu defense of your work, especially if you’re a genre writer and you have to explain to your parent’s work friends that you write about vampires suffering from personality disorders. Their eyes glaze over as you struggle to explain yourself and your shameful lifestyle. And you seize up and think Oh God, they’re going to find out I’m not really a writer.  Am I a writer? Do I own enough turtlenecks? Do I use the word “quotidian” enough? Have I ever even read a book? Why won’t Kelly Link return my calls? What is magical realism even? I think I got magically real once in the 80s, does that count?

Perhaps it’s because even the most unreal writing is highly personal, scratching some festering rash of the soul that keeps growing no matter how much literary ointment we apply. Not to say that all writing is just therapy, but writing can and often does act as a shield to protect ourselves from the rest of the civilized world. It’s a retreat that is blissfully free of analysis. It’s a part of ourselves we don’t need to worry about. To be asked about my writing is like being asked why I’m ugly. I don’t know, I just am, and I was quite comfortable with my ugliness before you subjected it to your scrutiny.

The thing is, writing is a reflection of identity. And for a lot of genre authors, it’s hard to admit that your identity involves libertarian robots. Well, maybe it isn’t, depending on the circles you run in, but in general, it can be difficult. There’s a fear of not being taken seriously. There’s a fear that you lack some depth to your soul, that you don’t write about the struggles of raising a pair of obstinate identical twins because you can’t, because you don’t possess the emotional and intellectual wherewithal to talk about “real” subjects. There’s a fear that the emotions you’re working out through your writing are somehow less legitimate.

But I want to take this opportunity to say: it’s not less legitimate. This fear, this anxiety, is only as real as you want to make it. You know the depth of your writing. You know the import it has to your life. When the disappointment registers on Stefan and Janet’s faces because they wanted to talk about crises of faith in the works of Annie Proulx and you just told them that you write about sexually-repressed leprechauns, be proud. Speak directly. Look them in the eye as you explain the difficulties of finding a pot of gold after age 40. Because you get to decide what kind of writer you want to be. Make sure you’re a fearless one.

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