Today, we are excited to share this great essay from Assistant Editor Melissa Hinshaw: “Against the Great Sadness of Upper-Middle Class Life.” How can we write what we know if all we know has been written about so frequently? Our stories have become the mainstream. Melissa has some advice on how to write something new while sticking to your experiences, and how to get your story noticed.
The years surrounding the release of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) saw an uptick in American fiction that falls in the vein of what I like to call “The Great Sadness of Upper-Middle Class Life.” It was something writers like Don DeLillo and Alice Munro had done earlier and better, but never something recognized on a sold-at-airport-bookstores scale. It was a great milestone for all of us aspiring young authors who’d whittled away the 90s and early 2000s being either just good enough or just bad enough: We finally saw we could truly do something with our lives. And that something was to find that perfect balance of narrative emoting that managed to be somehow grandiose and terse, languorous and sharp-witted—and then to fill three- to four- hundred pages with it. What was it about? Didn’t matter. It meant something. It was the American experience.
Today, I feel happy to report that in less than a decade this literary trend has slowed down, largely thanks to blogs on blogs on tweets on tweets harping against white privileged authors and their sorry, often sexist or racist plights and calling for inclusion of all types of American authors, young or old, black or white, gay or straight. That doesn’t mean folks like Marilynne Robinson and Jeffrey Eugenides aren’t still pumping out high-caliber work (actually… I could use a 2019-era Gilead), and that doesn’t mean people like you and I aren’t still working on our sense of authorial calling. Even though we cling to our esteemed literary magazines and quirky online publications, we still, as authors, dream of not just one day selling that first novel (and rubbing our clean hands across its silky matte skin), but also getting that Oprah Book Club sticker slapped across its cover. After all, Franzen did it! But what do we have to offer? Our lives are normal: a crushed heart, college, cancer, the occasional affair. “Write what you know,” our workshop gurus say, and we do. But is it enough? Here are a few suggestions for making sure it is:
- Beat the odds. One in three people gets cancer (cancer.org). One in (three, four, or five, depending on which statistic you use — cdc.gov, ncadv.org, nsvrc.org, repsectively) women gets sexually assaulted. One hundred percent of us still die. It feels special to you because it’s awful and confusing, but unfortunately it isn’t unique—and unless you distinguish your cancer story from everybody else’s cancer story, all the important stuff we need to bond and connect over will get lost in the shuffle. Doing this in fiction is so hard I can only recommend Alice Elliot Dark’s “In The Gloaming”, as well as this LitHub chat between David Oshinsky and Paul Harding that gets you thinking about why disease stories tend to fare better on large-scale, epidemic/dystopian planes. We need eccentric characters, weird connections, and coincidences that aren’t arbitrary but which make us think twice to remind us of those same elements that live in us as readers—the things that make us human, but the things which we forget when we are overwhelmed by that sadness, rage, and terror. If you are getting stuck in those primary emotions, then your reader will too. Your story needs to be about something besides or beyond those, otherwise it will disappear.
- Outweird the weird. A challenge of the internet age is all the novelty thrown in our faces on a daily (nay, hourly) basis. We see so much weird shit it seems normal. Being weird for the sake of being weird, or being weird just to get attention, does work in the short term—i.e. you’ll usually get past the first round of the slush pile, but by the second round our readers are on to you. A hook without a line or sinker just kind of stabs a little bit. Once you’ve come up with your own unique element, put some thought into what it’s doing for your characters or in your story, and how you might weave it through the entire narrative instead of just showing it to us to show it to us (sorry, I’ve already seen that puppy video). I recommend Sianne Ngai’s in-depth exploration Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, and Interesting for anyone seeking to differentiate from the norms (but perhaps not quite ready to dive into dystopian fiction or manga quite yet). Authors who have toed this line particularly well are Claire Vaye Watkins (i.e. Gold Fame Citrus, 2015) and Karen Russell (Vampires in the Lemon Grove, 2013).
- Dig in to the tropes: In the event you are too exhausted to come up with something unique or new, then “Match it or beat it” is a good rule of thumb when it comes to looking at what’s already out there as inspiration for your next project. Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife and Madeline Miller’s Circe are great recent spins on ancient legends. If an epic journey isn’t part of the family story you’re sitting on, then try this idea swiped straight from any recovery psychology textbook: Every dysfunctional family (of birth or of choice) has a dependent, an enabler, a hero, a scapegoat, a lost child, and a mascot. There are your characters, there’s six story arcs, there’s your novel—you’re welcome. Just want to write a short story? Pick one and go crazy. And if all else fails, grab a few books on Jungian archetypes. There is a lot of energy living in these old, rich, universal-leaning places, and tapping into them might give a sort-of-flat-feeling piece you’re working on you the extra depth it needs.
By Melissa Hinshaw