Monday, September 18, 2006

we don't need no education

Today at work our 19-year-old intern mentioned that one of her professors advised her never to write about anything outside her own experience. I emphasized, and emphasized again, that that’s a bunch of bullshit. Or, as my co-panelist Tod Goldberg said Sunday at the West Hollywood Book Fair, “The old ‘write what you know’ thing makes for a lot of stories about 21-year-old Cal State Northridge students.”

One bit of slightly more valid conventional creative writing wisdom is that the more specific your story is, the more universal its appeal. Paradoxical but true. Here, try it out—which sentence makes you sadder?

1) There was a war and thousands of people died.
2) During World War I, a boy named Franz who really liked movies and had tried smoking once but was bad at it, died when the army took over his home and he and his mother were forced to live on the streets, where they both got, um, cholera.

Okay, bad example. Neither sentence is sad because the first is generic and the second, while specific, is sappy and probably inaccurate. I’m realizing that I know very little about World War I. Still, you get my point, right?

Except sometimes that point is as wrong as “write what you know.” Take my other co-panelist
Charles Yu’s Third Class Superhero, which I just finished reading. It’s a collection of very universal—self-consciously, intentionally universal—short stories that contain sentences like: “Pretty Girl and I moved in together, spent a couple of years in Mental Environment, Urban Utopia Variety.”

His stories have titles like “Man of Quite Desperation Goes on Short Vacation.” They convey stuff about consciousness and identity and branding that would make my CalArts profs proud. The problem with a lot of what I read at CalArts—not all, but a lot—was that it ultimately sort of lacked heart. Charles Yu’s writing does not. His stories are clever, yes (sometimes too clever to read back-to-back), but they are also poignant and sweet and funny and sad. It’s sort of like he knows all of us too well and isn’t going to give us the luxury of pretending it’s some specific character named Lucy who’s wistful and selfish and bad at dating. We have to own up. We’re all Lucy, and he’s onto us.

He broke a big rule, and while I’m not sure that such rule-breaking would sustain a novel (and who says he wants to do that anyway?), it makes for some of the most distinctive writing I’d read in a long time.


Charlie Yu said...

Hi Cheryl!

Interesting post. Of course, by responding here, I am probably outing myself as an obsessive self-Googler, which I am. But glad to have found your blog. And great meeting you on Sunday.

Charlie Yu said...

Oh, by the way, I didn't see you at the signing booth after the panel, so I had to go look up your book on the internet at the City Works website. Just ordered my copy, looking forward to reading it.

Charlie Yu said...

Okay, this is getting ridiculous, I realize. I should have combined all of these into one comment. But I was just looking at your myspace page and realized that you went to CalArts, and I was thinking, hmm...I wonder if she knows Alanna. And lo and behold, there's Alanna as one of your myspace friends! Whoa! I went to camp with Alanna back when we were in high school. So weird.

Anyway, I just got one of those automated emails from Alanna inviting me to a show this weekend. I can't make it to this one, since I'm doing a reading at Skylight this Saturday (my very first and maybe last), but maybe I'll run into you at a future Fascinoma/Mindy Chiu show.

Cheryl said...

Hey, thanks for stopping by the blog!

(And I self-google enough to know that there are Cheryl Kleins out there who are real estate agents, competitive runners, and one who made a page devoted to her weight loss journey. And one who's a fairly prominent book editor. I hope someday she'll be my prominent book editor, because that would just be cool.)

Have a great reading on Saturday, and I'll tell Alanna you said hi!

thelastnoel said...

You guys google yourself, too! Oh, and I prefer John Rechy's advice: "Write what you feel."

Dean said...

I don't know, Cheryl. That second sentence was pretty sad. I'm still a little choked up over, uh, what's his name's plight.

Cheryl said...

Franz! Franz's plight! Alas, he didn't live long enough to google himself.