Last year I decided that, no matter how much I loved literature, I would never be a good novelist. After ten years of writing bad stories I was too embarrassed to share, after struggling to finish even one work that I could be proud of, I acknowledged the obvious: I simply wasn’t talented enough as a writer to compete in a market with too many writers and too few readers.
At a younger age, I would’ve viewed this as a pathetic concession to my own insecurities or the criticism of my peers. Before I left for college, I’d written the first 200 pages of a terrible adolescent novel, and through college I studied creative writing with the goals of finishing my novel by the end of college. But studying creative writing at school seemed as much a check on my creativity as it was a help.
Of course that had nothing to do with it.
I’m not saying that our creative writing workshops were ideal. I expect my experience isn’t unique: a room full of strivers not very interested in each other’s work, professors who were either too blandly supportive or vaguely critical, a shared preference for highbrow obscurity.
But the limitation was my own. When push came to shove, the problem was that my stories were bad. My straightforward stories bored my classmates while my obscure stories provoked questions and discussion. For a young writer seeking validation, this sent a message (not the correct one). I tried to write difficult, complicated stories that came our meandering, disorganized, and ponderous. The best thing about this period was my exposure to hypertext literature. The worst was that I didn’t learn that the purpose of language is to clearly communicate ideas to the reader, not patronize her.
During my senior year, I took a workshop with Robert Coover centered on game-oriented creative writing. I signed up for the class in order to study with Coover, not to fulfill the class’s goals. Instead of coming up with a new project (as the other students had done), I tried to incorporate my on-going thesis into the class. When we first met to discuss my possible inclusion, Coover was unsure whether to allow me to take the class. He let me enroll against his better judgment.
My project was an utter failure, on the classes and its own terms. Throughout the semester, I attended his office hours. Coover understood my work and its shortcomings better than I would’ve liked. In his gentle understated way, he tried to level with me, about my scattershot project and my participation in his class.
Toward the end of the year, I presented my hypertext project at the annual thesis reading, hosted by my mentor Bob Arellano. In front of an audience of friends, peers, and teachers, I read selections from my submission. A oral reading is not the ideal format for a hypertext work that depends so heavily on links, visual information, and context. I’m not sure I would’ve told my friends about it had the creative writing department not postered the campus.
As I read I looked from one friendly face to another with the same sympathetic, confused expression. I wanted to defend myself with another adolescent flashback to Prufrock:
That is not it at all.
That is not what I meant, at all.