(Note: this is in response to Molly Templeton’s call for submissions for a revised How-To Issue of Times’ Book Review)
I teach experimental nonfiction at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, and my students often fall into a particular demographic: middle-class, middle-aged women who are longing to share their stories. My fondness for them runs deep. Frequently their longing arrives after years of total silence on the page, self-imposed or otherwise. Many of them are frightened that their stories are not good enough, or that they have no value. Invariably on the first day, as we make our introductions, several women confess that what they are working on is “not very good.”
At the beginning of our postmodernism discussions, it can be difficult for many of these women, as it has been for me, to let go of the conventions of form and content, to play with both for the sake of truth and inventive storytelling. Once, a woman came up to me after class with a worried expression on her face. “When you said to write a fragmented essay,” she said, “how fragmented did you mean? Every paragraph? Every sentence? What should it be about?”
When I told her that no “shoulds” existed in the class, and that she was free to fragment her narrative as much as she liked, on whatever subject she liked, her face fell. “I’m afraid I’m not going to do it right,” she said. I said that I didn’t think there was such a thing as right in first drafts, she scrunched up her face and shook her head, as if I had offered her something rotten to eat.
Roger Rosenblatt’s essay, “How to Write Great,” from the latest issue of the The New York Times Book Review,irritated me to no end, and not only because it has the blithe air of a man who assumes that everything he says has intrinsic value. I guess I would just prefer that no older white guy give me suggestions on how to write, great or otherwise, in the pages of the country’s preeminent newspaper. As a young woman writer I’ve become tired of being told what to do, of being groomed to do things right and properly and with the approval of others in mind. Which, coincidentally, – surprise! – is anathema to the artistic process.
If I sat down every morning and gave total credence to Rosenblatt’s opinion that great writers are propelled by “innocence and chutzpah,” are those who “shoot to the sun and leave us blinded, ecstatic,” I am fairly certain that I would never write anything. Listening to anyone’s voice besides our own while making art negates the solitary beauty of our own process, which, for me, when it feels like I’m on the right track, anyway, is less about egomaniacally shooting toward the sun and more about witnessing what is quietly unfolding before me. Rosenblatt is lucky that he has the “innocence and chutzpah” to claim he knows what great writing is, and to suggest ways of doing it to his readers. But on behalf of myself, my students, and so many other women I know who have silenced ourselves because we mistrust our own voice, I do wish that he would keep his opinions on so-called great writing to himself. Or, at the very least, out of this embarrassingly sexist issue of The New York Times Book Review.