Sunday, October 15, 2006

Nature versus Nurture

By Susan Helene Gottfried


I am a novelist. This fact, even though I don't have a novel in print and on bookstore shelves and available at Amazon, is indisputable.

Notice of this problem of mine began when I was a graduate student. An MFA candidate in creative writing, I'd walk into our writer's workshop armed with what I thought was a kick-ass short story. I'd hand it out the week before it was due to be critiqued by my program-mates; nine other hand-picked students of varying ages, backgrounds, colors, religions, and mindsets.

Invariably, the comments were the same. Lukewarm, at best. The structure was bad. The pacing was off. Where was the epiphany at the end? Didn't I know, there was supposed to be a mind-blowing epiphany?

One day, in a fit of pique, instead of handing around my latest attempt at a story -- a form that never felt natural and, frankly, still doesn't -- I handed around something I'd been working on in the privacy of my basement apartment.

It was the opening of a novel. Not my first attempt at a novel, either. No, my first attempt had been shelved after one of my undergrad professors had liked it so much, he'd sent it to his literary agent -- only to have it come back with the message that my talent needed to mature.

This was my third attempt at a novel, as my second attempt was well on its way to being my Master's thesis and therefore something I had to keep away from the prying eyes of my program-mates. Third time's a charm, the cliché goes, although in most cases, it's not true.

It was this time. Everyone loved it. The students told me they hated workshopping novels in class, but they'd rather see my novel-in-progress than another lame story. My professor told me I was clearly working within my talent. I was, he proclaimed, a novelist. He told me to go forward and not look back. I fully intended to.

Summer intruded, and with it the chance to enroll in the poetry workshop. Summer was the only time that fiction writers got to try their hand at poetry, and that poets got to get wordy with short stories. I was hoping to learn different poetic forms. Instead, we were just to write poems.

So I did. And what do you know, but the criticism I got was exactly the same.

In confused voices, the poets informed me that my longer poems, broken down into shorter stanzas, read like novels. They'd give each other quizzical looks at my peals of laughter, not sure if they had offended or needed to call the nice men with leather restraints and sedatives. I'd reassure them it was all good, but they, too, were relieved when fall came and us fiction writers were returned to our wordier forms.

Since then, I've worn the mantle of novelist quite comfortably, maybe a little bit proudly, even. After all, why fight your nature?

13 comments:

Penina said...

Yes Susan, you are a novelist....never fight your nature.

Always in your corner,
P

Cathy said...

Susan,
An insightful view into the world of a novelist. I never before considered that one form might be more "me" than another, but writing novels is a lot more fun.

Thanks for sharing.

Di (of Di's Book Blog) said...

I have just decided that I am going to define myself as a writer. I guess I always have (even in my working career days, I was the one everyone came to if something needed to be written). So I told my husband that if anyone asks, "What does your wife do?" he can now officially answer, "She's a writer." I write a blog, I'm working on a non-fiction account of my battle with depression and eventual use of ECT to overcome it. So yes, I AM A WRITER. It just sounds a little pretentious to say that when everyone knows I'm "just a stay-at-home Mom".

Nancy said...

I am the world's worst short story writer. Can't do it. Not enough pages. Not enough space for my characters to roam around in. But a book? Sure, I can bang one of those out in a year's time.

Di, giving a name to your disease is half the battle, right? If you're fighting depression, you're already on the novelist's path! Welcome to the ranks.

Great blog, Susan.

cheesygiraffe said...

Nice blog post Susan.

Janelle Martin said...

Fascinating, I had never considered that a writer can have a definitive voice in one style and not in another. I guess I always assumed their voice would carry-over.

Thanks for the insight!

Annette said...

Short stories are HARD! You get it where you want it only to discover that you have to trim 1000 words to fit the market you're shooting for. They do teach you write lean and mean, though. Still, I'm with you. Give me the wordier novel to write and I'm happy.

Rebecca Drake said...

I love the image of you laughing in the poetry workshop, Susan!

Short stories are tough and I have great admiration for authors who are masters of the short form, like Alice Munro.

Yes, I agree with you that you don't have to be published to be considered a writer--you just have to write.

Anonymous said...

Very insightful post, my friend. I never gave it much thought, but it makes perfect sense to me.

Heading back to WoM now to see what's new there!

melinda010100 said...

It makes perfect sense that one form of writing would be a more comfortable fit for your personal style than another form might be! Like some of the others I had never given it much thought.

But, my novelist friend, you DO write nice blogs entries!
Hugs, Mel

musie said...

Susan, you are a novelist. We just can't wait unti we can say you're a published novelist.

I am published in a couple of very small things, but am no way a writer.

Keep being who you are, and don't make it nature verse nurture, nurture your nature. Oh, keep writing. =)

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Wow! I kept checking in all day and seeing 0 comments and getting all down about it and... boom! Lots of you have been commenting. Thanks, guys! This was a great way to start contributing here.

Many of you know me in person; you know how hard it is to shut me up once I get going ... 'cause I'm in the middle of a story.

And yes, Becky, wish you'd seen the poetry workshop. I scared those poor poets something fierce! (btw, I still have those poems, too. I CAN share them!)

Lee Morrison said...

Great blog Susan!