5 lovely things writers can learn from pointy, obfuscating theorists.

reading and tea

Last week, I flew back to snowy Ontario from Hawaii because I was invited to visit my alma mater with This Cake. What an honour/trip it was to give a reading and lecture to current students at my old college!

It’s been 15 years since I graduated with my BA in Cultural Studies. I never studied English at University, and in my undergrad, I didn’t take a single creative writing class. My background, believe it or not, is in post-structuralist theory. Yep: the pointy, dense, circuitous, unreadable stuff.

I struggled with theory (I actually dropped out of an MA program in Communication & Cultural Studies after only one week in the program). The jargon! The obfuscation! The egos!

But I loved it, too.

The reason I loved learning theory? It was the magic and grace of my favourite professor, Molly Blyth. She taught us in her living room (the original living room school), with cups of tea and comfy chairs. She taught with music, stories, and a full heart. Rare.

Last week, I learned that Molly Blyth is now teaching my book in her seminar. Whoa.

Today I’d like to share with you the top 5 things I learned from Molly’s class (this is cribbed from my talk at Trent last week). This is critical theory, but it’s also just good sense. Minus the jargon.


5 LOVELY THINGS I LEARNED FROM THEORY:

  1. Language is unsteady. We rely on it as if it’s airtight – as if the words we use to name an experience are actually the experience itself – but the truth is, it’s more wobbly than that. Word and meaning are not fused together.

  2. For writers, that gap between word and meaning is very important. That gap is your workspace. Your laboratory.

  3. A piece of writing is always part of a larger conversation. We are working under the influence of everything that we read, and when we write something, we are adding our voice to the dialogue. Don’t bother pretending otherwise. Embrace influence: this is how you will innovate. If you try to work without it, you risk writing weak imitations of other authors’ work anyway.

  4. When you do work in the slippery, ambivalent space that is located between words and their meanings, it will feel weird and challenging. It’s hard work. It is normal to want to avoid it.  Don’t beat yourself up about your resistance. And remember that writing is not all analysis and thought – your heart must also be involved. It’s important to have faith, too.

  5. The mind wants things to be resolved. That’s all it wants. Not opened up, disturbed, complicated, or unfinished. It certainly doesn’t want anything to be contradictory or unanswerable. So give yourself a break – don’t read theory (or short fiction) before bed. Read something that resolves neatly, like a detective novel, before bed. Give your brain what it craves so you can sleep.

I’m still reeling from the flashback last week: walking those old hallways, visiting Molly’s living room again as a grown up, remembering what it was like to be 20 years old (dancing to The Breeders, getting my first email address, publishing my first short story).

When I was in school, I was so concerned with what I was going to do with my life. I spent a lot of time wringing my hands about what my “career” would be, how I’d make my mark, what I was meant to do.

In hindsight, of course, I can see that everything unfolded exactly as it should have. And maybe this is what 2012 is all about: one cycle truly coming to rest.

Here’s to cracking open a new one.

   


Why you're going to write in 2012.
If your writing strikes you as crappy, you're on the right track.

7 comments

Cynthia McMillan

Lovely my lovely...just thought of you in the past days and after reading this seems you did not lose your whole life in the (broken, dropped) computer after all. Brilliant!
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Frances Phillips

Sarah, Something must be happening in the universe, and whatever it is, I think you have nailed it. Your description of your journey is fascinating. I can't begin to picture you in that MA program. Can post-structural theorists be funny? This blog post is probably my favorite. If you are so inclined to share the full talk, I, for one, would love to read it. I am sewing up a cycle of my own, I believe, having done a BA in creative writing at Johns Hopkins almost 25 (!) years ago and turning away from writing after college to do something more "practical". (Sure would have been practical not to wander around for 25 years wondering why I never liked what I was doing! Incidentally, one of those "wanderings" included starting a doctoral program in Demography (what's that? you say: yes, most do). Anyway, I lasted -- yup -- one week!! (In reality I had decide after 4 days, but who's counting?). Thanks for the laugh... Frances
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Sarah Selecky

Hello, Cynthia! Thank you. And yes, thank goodness I dropped that laptop in 1998! Every broken computer is an open door.
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Sarah Selecky

Isn't it strange, looking back and seeing the pattern that was already there, but invisible when we were in the middle of it? A doctorate in Demography sounds fascinating (and weird). I can imagine you writing about it, now, in one of your stories.
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Mary Alterman

But you did get an mfa, did you not. Today, as opposed to yesterday, an mfa seems a necessity to being successful as a writer. Go ahead. Tell me I'm wrong!
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Sarah Selecky

Well, it depends on what you mean by "successful as a writer"! Many authors get MFAs so they can get a job teaching in a university at another MFA program. That gives them "success" -- if by success you mean a salary. But I think success is also about finding flow and joy in the writing process itself. And an MFA program could be an obstruction to that joy and flow for some people. It really depends, Mary. I do know that an MFA isn't necessary, if you want to be a writer. The only prerequisite for writing is: writing. And, okay, reading.
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Mark Johnson

Derrida, Lacan, DeLeuze...oh, those tricksy Frenchmen! It seems to be fashionable these days to trash the post-structuralists for what many characterize as obscurantism. It is true that, when they attempt to employ the language of physics, these thinkers leave themselves wide open to ridicule by the hard science community. However, as I try to point out to people who poke fun at the p-s thinkers without having actually read them, they are forced to use crazy, made up words because the easy everyday words are preloaded with meanings and act subliminally on the emotions. The message encoded in their admittedly difficult writings is extraordinarily important just now, because, in the U.S. at least, public discourse is a shambles. It is as if we have had a Tower of Babel moment with a twist: instead of everyone suddenly speaking a different language, we all continue to speak the same language, but our dictionaries relating words to their meanings have been scrambled (our signifier/signified mappings are out synch, to resort to the semiotic lingo of the p-s school). This is why political discussions in the U.S. invariably degenerates into the Kilkenny cats. The p-sers were, and are, doctors of language and we, who are suffering from TMS (Terminal Miscommunication Syndrome), desperately need the therapies they have to offer. For the past five years or so here in the U.S, one constantly hears about the importance of the STEM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). I am all in favor of these fields, and am somewhat of a math nerd myself, but STEM without PLASMA (Philosophy, Literature, Art, Social Studies, Music, Anthropology) is a recipe for disaster. STEM gave us the atomic bomb, PLASMA would have restrained its improper use (I recognize that there is a valid argument for Hiroshima, though I disagree with it; there is no excuse for Nagasaki). The newest buzzword is, ironically, cadged from our own world of storytelling: it is impossible to listen to a politician, economist or bureaucrat for more than five minutes without hearing the word 'narrative'. Does this get on anyone else's nerves, or is it just me?
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