by Amanda Schuster
We, as humans, like to think of events as having a beginning, a middle and an end--things we can pack up neatly and put away, perhaps to take out to examine when we feel so called. The truth is, though, that many human experiences are not singular or finite. Certain patterns or events originating in the past, such as abuse or chronic illness, can persist into the present, perhaps never being fully over. Sometimes it feels impossible to get the distance required not to have a visceral emotional response. Other experiences, like living with racism or homophobia or misogyny, are continual, and while of course we can expect that a writer affected by these issues might gain a certain degree of perspective, expecting distance from something so pervasive just isn’t realistic.
During my first formal foray into creative nonfiction, I encountered this piece of advice in the textbook assigned by my mentor: “If you’re crying while crafting a piece of nonfiction, the tears will smudge the ink, making your work ultimately unreadable. If your hand shakes with anger as you write, your words will veer wildly across the page with no sense of control or design” (Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, p. 44).
The authors were encouraging their students to use discernment in deciding when they’re ready to write about something, and to leave it until later if it was something that still brought them to tears.
The thing is, I write about things that are intense for me. I write about things that make me cry. In the face of Miller and Paoloa’s words, I found myself asking: should I even be writing about the things I most want to write about right now? Am I relegated to writing only about things that don’t have a charge for me? Or can I find a way around it?
I really didn’t know what to do.
On the one hand, I understand the author's point about the need for perspective to create a work that can connect with a reader in a meaningful way. A myopic rant is not going to connect with a reader in the same way as a measured, carefully crafted portrayal of a situation. At the same time, I couldn’t accept staying away from work that was too emotionally charged, because I believe there are some things — some very important things — from which humans may never have distance.
For myself, queerness and being queer from a conservative background is one situation from which I’ll never have total distance. However, it’s a vital issue to write about, for me personally, and for society at large. When I first started trying to write on this topic, I was bleeding onto the page. Not only was it incredibly uncomfortable to share my work with others, but my writing was unstructured and full of abstraction, and just wouldn’t connect to a reader in the way I wanted it to.
That’s where imitation came in.
I don’t remember where I first picked up the idea of imitation (yes, it is ok to sound like your favorite author, and it’s not to be confused with plagiarism), but it’s a common tool writers use to break into their writing, and has also been taught to me in workshops at the Mile High MFA program where I’m currently a student. To use this practice, a writer chooses a piece of work they want to imitate, and sticks to the form--rhyme scheme, parts of speech, etc.--as closely as possible, but with a unique topic of their own choice.
I was reading a lot of Mary Szybist during this time, and her piece “Entrances and Exits” from her book Incarnadine moved me deeply--it is so full of concrete details and no abstraction, yet still deals up close with the immediate, emotional experiences of looking death in the face in ways both big and small.
So, I chose to use her work as a template for form, using the practice of imitation as a tool to develop my skill with detail, as well as to force myself to channel strong emotion into vivid imagery and ideally something that would convey my experiences in a way that would connect with rather than isolate a reader.
A few examples of lines from her work that I used as a structure for my own:
Duccio’s Annunciation sits open on my desk becomes Alanis Morissette’s Under Rug Swept plays on my computer.
I think of honeybees becomes I think of skin cells
until it is empty, Olivia drinks becomes until it is silent, I breathe.
The pieces are similar in structure, but entirely different in tone and meaning. Not only did I find a way into my writing that allows for strong emotion and lack of distance, it was excellent practice for developing the particular craft skills that I need. After doing this a few times, I tried to write my own piece without imitating; it wasn’t perfect, but it was much improved on my previous, pre-imitation work, with detail instead of abstraction and much more appeal to a reader.
Through this experience, I found that forcing a charged topic into structure the perfect way to create some perspective when distance in time or emotion just isn’t possible. I still cried a little when writing my imitation pieces--the topics I am writing about affect me deeply and presently, and will continue to do so for some time--but the strict form helped keep me focused. As a result, my work became (I was told) more accessible to the reader and, hopefully, began to exhibit a sense of composure and design.
Imitation as Inspiration: An Exercise for Writers
Guest Blog: Using Imitation To Learn Writing Skills
Sentence Imitation: Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms
Develop your writing muscle through imitation
Writing Exercise: 3 Reasons to Write Imitations of Your Favorite Authors
Freedom to Write—Through Imitation
Writing is Learned by Imitation
Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism
Imitation Vs. Plagiarism
Creative inspiration vs. imitation – when does copying turn into plagiarism
Imitation is really important, because it’s a very fundamental part of human social interaction
By E.C. Kelly
With the rise of the #MeToo Movement, we have seen many artists fall to their past and present misconduct, a dismantling of their reputations and careers (and rightfully so). But what do we do about the work they leave behind, which are so often works we as an audience have loved and learned from? Is that work, too, now tainted, or can it exist beyond its creators to remain a viable piece of art to cherish and in which to find meaning? Through her experience with the film American Beauty, writer E. C. Kelly gives her thoughts on the matter.
I was 11 years old, and I had been hunting for my brother’s R-Rated movie collection for three months. He was home from college, and when I asked him about it, he said, “Mom made me hide it. You shouldn’t watch stuff like that.”
The night before he left for college, I was painfully aware that there were exactly 13 hours for me to find and watch as many R-rated movies as I could. I waited until everyone was asleep, and then I went through all the boxes he’d packed. All I found were three books on computer coding, a Minnesota Twins parka, and like 35-five New Order albums. No movies.
Then I had a revelation. If I were hiding those movies, I’d want them somewhere near the TV. The bookshelf by the TV in my parent’s basement was filled with books my mother had alphabetized to cope with her oldest heading off to college. I pulled out a big fat book (it may have been a Bible) and saw two DVD covers behind it.
I became electric. Vibratory. I became the raw joy of Catholic rebellion.
I had to stop myself from ripping the books off the shelves; I knew they had to be put back in exactly the same order or someone would know what I’d discovered and what I’d done. I carefully laid the books on the floor and took in the beauty of 20 titles—20 windows into worlds I’d wanted access to my entire life.
I did the math. It was midnight. I could fit in two, maybe three, movies before my dad woke up for work. I picked Trainspotting because my brother had a poster of it, Pulp Fiction because it had cleavage on the front and the guy from Grease on the back, and American Beauty, because I’d seen the picture of the naked girl on a bed of roses.
I put American Beauty into my parent’s DVD player. I got a Sprite, snuggled into the couch, and waited.
Very early in the film, Lester Burnham--played by Kevin Spacey--describes how miserable his life is. He wakes up legitimately disappointed that he didn’t die in his sleep. I watched him fit his feet into cushy slippers and deliver the line, “And in a way, I’m dead already.”
Then the camera cuts to his face, eyes shut, pushing into a perfect stream of water from a fancy showerhead. The camera pans out to show Burnham from the back, and it's clear the character is touching his dick.
“Look at me. Jerking off in the shower,” the voiceover entreats.
I am looking.
“This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.”
This scene represented a turning point in my sex education. Sex Ed Part One was discovering I had a clitoris because of a detachable showerhead. Sex Ed Part Two was realizing I could experience that feeling without a detachable showerhead.
This essay used to include a section where I deconstructed and explained how I felt connected to Kevin Spacey’s character. He wasn’t supposed to find a 16-year-old girl attractive, and neither was I. The difference between us was this: I was an 11-year-old girl repressing her bisexuality, and Kevin Spacey is a middle-aged man who had been sexually harassing young (and underage) men for decades.
I can’t say American Beauty is my favorite movie anymore, because I’m unable to reconcile the film itself and Kevin Spacey’s behavior.
The feeling is similar to how I don’t like to step on the grass in front of grave stones, because it’s impolite to walk on dead people. But what if I didn’t know I was walking over a grave? What if someone planted a tree as a grave marker, I missed the plaque, and ate a sandwich in the shade? If I don’t know I’m dropping crumbs on a dead lady’s foot, then in a relevant way, I’m not dropping crumbs on a dead lady’s foot.
I think I’m saying I wish I could eat a sandwich on a dead lady without knowing I was eating a sandwich on a dead lady. I bet there are some people who can still separate Kevin Spacey’s work from his serial assaults. That’s certainly what Roland Barthes would do. “The Author” (or here, “The Actor”) “is Dead” he claims. The important bit is “The Observer.” The art isn’t art until someone (not the artist) holds the piece to their heart and feels something. That’s the creative act. That’s the ball game.
But I can’t hold American Beauty to my heart anymore. So I’m ending this essay with a message for filmmakers and script writers. There’s a space in our hearts that needs filling. We need a suburban, dead-inside woman to experience an awakening. We need middle aged moms flipping off their bosses and masturbating in showers. There is space in our hearts for you to fill and 11-year-old girls that you can save.
When I think of genre, I think of a color-by-numbers coloring sheet. I think of borders that are imposed to contain identities, whether that be an association to a country, a religion, or a culture. I, for one, was raised Catholic by a Maronite Catholic father and a Ghanaian-Lebanese mother who went to Catholic boarding school. My mother was exposed to the beliefs of her Asante heritage, and her father was a Lebanese Muslim and her mother was a Ghanaian Protestant. That meant I had relatives who were practicing Catholics, Muslims and Protestants. It meant for my mother, designing a faith for herself that made room for all. Because of that, when it came to religion and faith, I had no borders or lines dividing the shapes on my coloring sheet. It meant I had no choice but to be human first, before being a race or a faith or a gender.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a mixed-race woman who doesn’t fit into one race that I find the idea of genre challenging. As a writer, I find myself sometimes adhering to publishers’ restrictions on length, form, content, and I want to write more and more for a world that publishers will not let exist. When determining what kind of journal Inverted Syntax should be, I found myself frustrated with the different genres we must impose on readers because we are all in this world of controlled categorizations. As readers, we have memorized frames of references and schemata that we draw upon to help us make sense of content and context within literary works, but that background information only makes sense within certain spheres, a limited group with similar experiences.
Genre restrictions also perpetuate the idea that because things tend not to be created to fit into multiple overlapping categories, human beings who are able to fit into multiple identities, whether by gender or race, are opposed by a world that struggles to accept them because they don’t have a designated genre space on “the bookshelf.”
The idea of genre in literature and the arts, like with the idea of borders, not only minimizes our humanity but also restricts creativity to a fixed system of comfortable patterns while trying to contain artistic impulses within the bordered spaces that is allotted for our creativity. Can creativity be restricted? What art can be produced in a world of genre restrictions? If we continue to adhere to these outdated writing and artistic rules, we will not transform our world but instead allow the corruption of our humanity.
Throughout history our world has changed because of hybrid thinkers, those with competencies in multiple areas: Da Vinci was an inventor and artist; Benjamin Franklin was a politician and a scientist. Genre categorizations become a bigger issue than simply whether a piece of writing is more poetry than prose, they become an affront to creativity, to invention and innovation, to humanity, to identities, and to the boundless possibilities that exist when hybridity is allowed to thrive. For some, genre categorization feels playful and safe as when one colors within the lines, but for many others, it is a suffering that restricts invention and creativity to imposed lines.
Much like borders, genres are a construct. And the publishing industry, much like politics and government, controls the lines and often rejects cross-categorization. In a world where bookshelves are structured around what is the most marketable, crossing genres creates a problem for the publisher.
But real life is not neatly composed to genre. Our lives are disjointed and disconnected. Sometimes I think in poetry, speak in prose and dream in fantasy, and I’m still learning how to write this voice. Hybridity thus is inevitable, because the act of writing and making art is an identity-making act. And when you bring yourself to literature and art, you arrive multifaceted, in broken and fractured parts. How can you not cross genres?
We break the genre rules so as to write ourselves, so as to write and paint across the genre coloring lines until there is no “genre” but instead a new space for brave new works.