Tell Hard Truths, But Go Easy on Yourself: Advice from Glimmer Train Writers


There’s always something inspiring and insightful in the email bulletins from the literary journal Glimmer Train. Each issue features interviews with fiction writers who’ve been published in the magazine. These two articles particularly resonated with me.

I think I’m a reasonably upbeat and entertaining person to be around, but darkness predominates in my writing. My novel protagonist is a gay fashion photographer with a laid-back Southern approach to life–what could be fluffier?–but after four years of working with me, he’s often found lying on the beach in a drunken stupor, crying for his dead boyfriend and worrying about his soul. “Be more funny, Julian!” I berate him, like Homer Simpson talking back to “Prairie Home Companion”.

After all, my so-called logic goes, if my book doesn’t make people happy, I won’t be able to sell my ideology to the masses, and the whole idea that I’m doing Something Important for the World is called into question. Then I start to feel guilty that I’m not using my law degree to bring about social change instead of writing gay erotica. (Or sitting at my computer blogging about my literary self-loathing instead of writing the damn book!) I once wrote in my diary, “I don’t want to sing the blues that no one wants to hear.”

Jenny Zhang, winner of Glimmer Train’s April 2010 Family Matters Competition, understands this fear. When she was a young girl in China, her parents left for America to get an education, and she sent them cassette tapes recounting her adventures in kindergarten. Only problem was, her upbeat tales weren’t actually true. She missed her parents and felt like a misfit in school, but created an alternate storyline for the adults to hear. To protect them? She isn’t so sure. What she does know, as a grown-up storyteller, is this:

…I have come to realize that as fiction writers, the easiest thing we can do is to invent, to lie, to make things up, to imagine, to create fictions. I know this is true because there is nothing more natural and intuitive than the impulse to dream. The difficulty lies in telling the truth. We will always have opportunities to tell stories that are meant to comfort, to delight on dark days when light is needed, but where else and when else, if not in our fiction, are we going to tell the stories that comfort no one, the stories that we often don’t tell out of love or pity or compassion or simply because it is unpleasant? If not in our fiction, then where else can we tell stories that say: I’m lonely. Or: I fear I may matter so little to this world that I can cease to exist and no one and nothing would mourn my disappearance. I know it isn’t much to say: Tell the truth! But it’s the only thing I have, and it’s the only thing I can offer you.

Zhang’s essay reminds me that my approach to writing can become too instrumental. I fall into thinking of my book as a way to change what other people do and feel, when perhaps it would be better understood as a way to name and reflect the experiences that they already have. In other words, my job is to give my readers a way to make sense of who they are, not force a new identity or agenda on them. My excessive need for control springs from the fear that I may not be heard by the people I most want to reach, because they are unwilling to recognize themselves in Julian and his friends, no matter how charming he is or how clever I am.

In the same bulletin, Nic Brown advises writers to “Make It Easy”: use whatever simple tricks you can find to turn your book-length project into a manageable task that you can get your mind around. In his case, it was structuring his story collection like a 12-song musical album with A and B sides. “Make it easy, however you can. It’s not going to cheapen the work. It will improve the writing. It will keep you from hating the process.”

This essay recalled themes from my earlier post on resisting compulsive revision. Writers need to overcome insecurity that we’re not doing real work, because to the untrained eye, we seem to be lying on the couch daydreaming. But being kind to one’s self is the necessary support for telling those hard truths.

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