Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"I Thought You Were a Dwarf"

There are writers and artists that I turn to, often in the cold and dark winter months, to remind me of why it’s important to persist. Persist in the work of writing fiction, or any work of making something that isn’t particularly profitable. “Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own--not necessarily approving of this state of affairs, of course.

But there you have it: that nagging sense of something that’s “unpaid for” being frivolous. The reason, no doubt, that I devoted much more time to editing and then teaching, from my twenties through my forties, than to my own writing. 

There are ways to make money as a writer, but I haven’t been good at honing those skills. Jokes about “slutting it up” (in my friend and fellow Quaker Rick’s words at a meeting last night) and “inserting a vampire or two” aside, I seem constitutionally incapable of devising hair-raising plots. Or even--in language I’m hearing a lot of lately, as my agent begins submitting a new novel manuscript, with pretty clear trepidation-- “a strong through-line narrative.” I know, I want to tell her: Gone Girl it’s not. I’m sorry, but I don’t really think I can help it.

My impulse is to get whiny and defensive at these moments. Maybe to fall back on the old “They’d never say that to a man” response. (And yes, I can hear how hollow that rings in answer to the charge of a weak “through-line narrative.”) But how about the charge of “too much autobiography”--which, yes, I’ve already heard in response to this new manuscript. (What’s particularly upsetting is that this isn’t even true.)

But a better path, for me, than the angry, arched-spine, “when-did-you-last-say-something-like-that-about-a-male-writer’s-work” posture I’m prone to, is to read someone like Ursula Hegi, in a piece called “Did This Really Happen to You?” that appeared on the Glimmer Train site some time ago. “Giving a character one of my experiences changes the experience,” Hegi writes. “Brings me into the character from an angle I have experienced. Opens up anew the mystery of how it all comes together.”

Give me that “mystery of how it all comes together” over the manipulation of a heavily plotted thriller or vampire story any day. 

And also, please give me Ursula Hegi’s calm and gracious equipoise in the face of repeated versions of the question “Did this really happen to you?” When, after publishing Stones from the River, Hegi encountered readers who told her, “I thought you were a dwarf,” her answer was a simple one. She thanked them. 

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