It is a delusion to think that the rules of society reflect any moral truths about human nature. The same is true about the “rules” for writing fiction. Any paradigm that exists in our collective consciousness is just that—a model of interpretation, or a structure within to project a reality. Any significant paradigm shift will incite anxiety: “If I gave up this reality for another one, would I even exist?” When radically innovative art is condemned by the mainstream, it is often an expression of that existential anxiety. There is nothing more upsetting to the status quo than the assumption that such a thing doesn’t even exist.
When you read a story or a novel, you suspend your allegiance to your own reality and entertain one the writer has created. If its discrepancy from your own reality is too great, perhaps you’ll say, “I can’t get into this,” and put the book down. Or maybe it’s just a bad piece of writing. There’s plenty of that out there. Still, the act of reading fiction is truly magical. The imaginative power to make what is only literarily true feel literally true is a wonderful aspect of human consciousness. It means that we are capable of imagining realities other than our own. Furthermore, a great piece of writing can permanently shift our paradigms. “This book changed my life,” people say.
I don’t like talking about “how to write fiction.” I don’t like “craft” terms. Discussions about craft reinforce what feels to me to be an institutionalized paradigm for fiction dictated by the publishing industry. When I think of “narrative,” conventionally speaking, my mind refers to this: a character (with thoughts, feelings, instincts, will, an archive of experience and habituated mannerisms) appears in an environment. A situation, usually borne out of conflict or desire, presents itself. The character does something. Oftentimes the outcome is compromising. Drama ensues. A new aspect of the character is created out of adversity. The character does something else. The effect births a new reality. The character has been changed. It’s all very reasonable. It’s also very limited. In my writing, I like to use the mainstream paradigm and fuck with it to point out its limitations. I’ve found that this is one way to expand consciousness without alarming people of their own delusions too violently.
A few years ago, when I was very broke, I made up my mind to write a novel that would appeal to a greater audience than my previous work. I deliberately embraced the conventional narrative structure in order to reach the mainstream. I pictured a plausible audience of avid readers as people who live vicariously through books—in other words, people with boring lives. I considered the personal paradigm of a bored, imaginatively escapist person. Boredom is a symptom of denial, I thought. A bored person is a coward, essentially. So I conceived of a character trapped by social mores, who plumbs the depths of her own delusions and does something incredibly brave; I thought that would be fun for the kind of audience I was writing to. Thus Eileen was born. And I did make a little money. I’m telling you this because many of my creative decisions were motivated by the emptiness of my bank account. I looked at the dominating paradigm and I abused it.
And so you could say that I participated in the paradigm I’m so critical of. I drank the Kool-Aid. I ate the shit. But my aim was to shit out new shit. And so in writing, I think a lot about how to shit. What kind of stink do I want to make in the world? My new shit becomes the shit I eat. I learn by digesting my own delusions. It’s often very disgusting. The process requires as much self-awareness and honesty as I’m capable of having. It requires the courage to be hostile and contradictory. My creativity seems to gain traction out of this relationship with reality: I hate you, I hate myself, I love myself, you love me, I love you, I hate you, ad infinitum. I am interested in my own hypocrisy. It provides the turbulence for me to change.
I really don’t know how to teach anybody how to make the art they want. I think the desire should dictate the strategy. I believe in talent and self-education. And a writer needs to be in a position of some privilege to write: she needs time. But time is free. Time is not money, as the bullshit paradigm would have you believe. Teaching craft isn’t evil, but I think it’s dumb to accept a craft strategy whole cloth. A writer should do whatever she wants. If she wants to make money, she should do it. If she wants to spend a year in the woods confronting herself and nature, she should do that. Do whatever teaches you the most about yourself and your work. Go where you are least comfortable. You might find new shit to eat there.
“Make the material personal to you so that it feels real,” is perhaps the most confusing advice a writer can hear. But on the subject of what we write, I like something Slavoj Zizek said in a video about Hitchcock’s “The Birds”: “If something gets too traumatic, too violent, even too filled in with enjoyment [that] it shatters the coordinates of our reality, we have to fictionalize it.” It runs in tandem with advice I’ve given to people who’ve asked me how to write fiction: “What’s your problem?” I think artifice exists as a container for realities that can’t be safely contained otherwise. Think about that the next time you use a metaphor.
So, how can you pull a whole world out of thin air, describe it and animate it with language? I think language itself does a lot of the work for you. I don’t know how to write. I know how I write. And then the next day, I don’t know again. The not knowing is what makes writing interesting and enjoyable to me. There is no one true answer about what good writing is, but I tend to think of good writing as writing I want to read more than once. That means the world of the fiction was so rich and cool, I want to go back there. I want to keep shifting with it.
In thinking about your approach to your own work, you might consider your ideal reader. Write to your mother. Write to your best friend. Write to the love of your life. Write to your worst enemy. I think you’ll discover that the work for the enemy will be of highest quality. It will be the most daring and smart, because if someone is your enemy, she has the power to hurt you, and so you must hold her in very high regard and will take some pleasure in making her fear for her life.
Ottessa Moshfegh is the author of two novels, McGlue and Eileen. Her short story collection, Homesick for Another World, will be published next year.