How to Not Write Fiction:
A Personal Guide to the Last Half Century
By Julie Benesh
Start early. In third grade, take it to heart when your classmates pronounce your stories (multiple installments on blue-lined wide ruled paper, on the nuanced relationship between a girl and her puppy) “boring.” Listen to everyone else laugh at everyone else’s high-concept, madcap escapades that all sound the same, as you lapse into absorbing reveries about …a girl and her puppy.
Pounce on your Scholastic book order, the largest stack of anyone’s and marvel at how they somehow combine madcap escapades with nuanced relationships. When it comes to reading, you are the best: the fastest silent reader and the most expressive out loud. The teacher cuts the others off, but you read and read and read. One time you read “Fog” by Carl Sandburg and the whole class bursts into spontaneous applause. How can you be the best reader and the worst writer?
Content yourself with after school stream of consciousness performance art for your mother… and the dumb confessional poems your teachers submit to your high school’s literary magazine.
Pets and grandmas die, acne and boobs blossom, and bullies flick the back of your head one year and grab your ass the next. Fall in love.
Push that shit down deep ‘cos no one wants to read about it –it’s not madcap and there’s no plot and no resolution.
Major in English at Wash U. and love it. Enroll in a famous writer’s* short story workshop. Feel perplexed when he goes around the room asking for everyone’s idea for a story, glad you are sitting at the end of the big U surrounding him. Idea? You just want to learn to turn the kind of thing you like to think into the kind of thing you like to read. Hear him reject idea after idea. Wrack your brain for something to say. (A girl and her …mom?) No one seems to mind his dismissiveness as you start to panic, your knees pointing you toward the door. He finally likes one guy’s idea, something about a dead friend calling up a live one. Except he wants to change it to the dead person’s point of view, which he riffs on for about ten minutes, like it is now his story. Feel singularly blessed when he runs out of time, you don’t need to speak and you can drop the class you felt so lucky to get into.
Get married, graduate and get a job in a bookstore in Naperville. Become a gourmet cook and balance that out by working out obsessively. Love your husband—also obsessively. Study management and learn about cost-benefit analyses. Intern at a not-for-profit and decide that being an activist is better than being an artist—just ask Grace Paley! (At this point some will find it helpful to pop out several children, but this is not necessary for you personally.)
*the late Stanley Elkin’s
Say good-bye forever, in this life, to your beloved mother. Move to a town you despise downstate where you watch your husband morph into a sullen doctoral student. Work three jobs at his insistence that you pay fifty percent of all the expenses. (Did I mention he is a software engineer?)
Get a divorce and move to Chicago. Work at subsistence wages at the not-for-profit you interned at by day, teaching prostitutes, drug addicts, and welfare moms to get jobs and realize they are just like us. Nights and weekends date a trust fund baby—also just like us. Consume the stories of everyone you meet—stories are free.
Get a better job. Lose the trust fund baby and fall in love with someone… challenging, in mostly good ways. Start seeing a Jungian analyst. Get enraged when he suggests you write a novel. You are a consumer, not a producer; an activist, not an artist. Decide you’ll prove it to him with an epic failure--aversion therapy.
Tell yourself that you’re just getting it all out of your system when you start taking every writing workshop in town like the literary slut you seem destined to become. Continuing your strategy of taking everyone’s ridiculous advice write a story made of small sections, to mirror the linked story collection you wish to fail to write. Send it out to collect over 100 brutal rejections and an acceptance to Tin House. Where they later include it in their first anthology. While it may feel good to complete a thought…never forget--it’s essentially Not Worth It!
Run out of discouraging local workshops and consider the bigger league of discouraging MFA programs. (Nothing like obligation and performance anxiety to kill motivation.)
Everyone agrees that you will never get into any that you’d want to go to.
Get into the most rigorous one you applied to. Perfect!
When your dad dies during your first MFA residency, execute the will, inherit a lot of cats. Move, finish your MFA, and take the drastic measure of applying for a PhD. In social science. Success at last as you manage to not write fiction for several years while writing a dissertation!
Continue the fiction non-writing success trend as you lose your comfortable job and get a super uncomfortable new one befitting your PhD. Write a lot of papers, proposals, emails that are not, technically, fiction.
When tempted by the fiction bug, take writing classes populated by Millennials who accuse you of serial cultural appropriation. And some teachers who say, “Are you afraid to bore us? Your writing is a bit…decorative and superficial.” (Forcing you to resort to teaching fiction writing, part-time.)
Some find overly particular housekeeping to be an effective deterrent, but that’s a bridge too far for the likes of you.
1.Your Stories are Trivial. 2.You’re a Consumer, not a Producer. 3.You’re Better an Activist than an Artist. 4.The ROI is Unacceptable.
When all else fails
5.Surrender. That terrible old joke: If fiction-writing… “is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”