You Do Realize That You’re Baring Your Soul To Me, Right?

I’d heard from others that teaching Creative Writing to undergrads, one tends to see things that those students don’t or can’t express anywhere else. In Canada, I recall hearing classes tended to have to wade through story after story of students’ first sexual experiences, of their best or worst sexual experiences, of imagined sexual experiences, and of course the perennial fantasies of sexual violence (mostly by male students).

Well, I am happy to report that this isn’t my experience in Korea. I’ve been teaching creative writing for a semester now to some really bright Korean undergrads who have pretty good English, and who seem to be getting a lot of what I talk about with them. Their stories are getting more and more nuanced, interesting, and powerful with each exercise, critique, and revision.

But… as with Canadians, it is also providing me with a very unusual, and sometimes slightly unsettling, look into the psychology of my students. I don’t mean to suggest I’m reading all the stories as if they all correspond to my students’ thinking, fantasies, or whatever. But it’s more about the deep orientation of one’s mind that shines through in one’s writing.

For example, in my own writing, there is an undeniable and unmistakable anti-authoritarian streak: characters are always fighting against some kind of big bad system, organization, or problem. They are almost never “working within the system.” They are almost always oppressed by the system personally, but pushed into it by the oppression by the system of large groups of others. They often blow shit up, or do things that are called, in mainstream society, terrorism. I don’t always approve of what they do. I often sympathize with their being at wit’s end in trying to figure out how to kill the Big Evil Elephant in the Room That Everyone Else is Trying to Ignore.

Being that I’m conscious of this, I’m of course working on diversifying my character types. “Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic)”, in Shine, was an attempt to move past that virtuous rebel character to a character who (a) is fighting alongside others, (b) is fighting a systemic problem which is not represented by “bad guys,” (c) mistakenly identifies some bad guys, and (d) ends up realizing way more people want an outcome like the one he wants, and he can work with them to achieve it.

I’m currently working on a story featuring a character who is, well, probably a borderline personality or something. He’s not a sociopath — though there is a sociopath in the story, and he recognizes that individual for what she is and it scares him — but he’s not all that sympathetic, not all that much of a crusader. He’s more a guy with pretty weak levels of compassion and altruism, who is nonetheless fighting for his survival  in a world gone mad. (Or suddenly sane, maybe.)

As I often say: once you notice a habit in your writing, you need to try move away from it.

Well, in my students’ stories, there are some very interesting fixations and anxieties showing up. I feel as if they’re giving me a glimpse of their concerns, whether it’s the degree of racism present in (white) American society (though racism in Korea is curiously ignored, even when implicitly depicted); sexism and the sense that Korean society is becoming more violent (regardless of whether it’s true, many Koreans seem to believe that their society is growing more violent now); questions of sexuality/sexual identity/gender and their explicit social functions, and of breaking out of strict molds for any of these aspects of personality; the status of Korea on the intenational stage; notions of physical beauty and desirability of women in the eyes of men; and tensions with North Korea.

Oh, and of course, stuff any psychoanalyst would have a field day with: so many dead, dying, or murdered fathers; so many orphans; so few scenes involving a meal (unlike Korean cinema, where every narrative must include at least one meal)…

The last one has me wondering whether meals get written a lot in Korean fiction or not, actually. I don’t think I’ve run across very many meal scenes in the many translations of Korean stories and books I’ve read, come to think of it. Hmmm.

It’s been interesting. But I think next semester, in Creative Writing 2, it’s going to be poetry. I ran a poetry course a few years ago, which balanced readings and writing, and held a reading at the end of semester. It was great, we even did up a little chapbook. The poetry class was an evening class and got dropped from the roster, but I will try resurrect it in the second Creative Writing course. (And try get them specifically labeled: CRWR 1 is prose, CRWR 2 is poetry. We’ll see: if it affects enrollment, maybe not. But the poetry class was big… and great!)

2 thoughts on “You Do Realize That You’re Baring Your Soul To Me, Right?

  1. Ben,

    The oeuvre crit is a very interesting idea… certainly sounds useful, with the right mix of people.

    I probably didn’t quite phrase my thoughts correctly in the post. I think there can be profitable forms of self-repetition: themes, story problems. To take an example from my own work, I am constantly exploring what good people ought to do when confronted with a system that is unfair, unjust, ruinous, or otherwise deeply problematic. I think asking this question thematically is something that can be repeated time and time again without it getting too boring or familiar. After all, it’s descriptive of a lot of situations that a lot of people spend a lot of time confronting, as any kid in high school will tell you of his or her own experience.

    But at the same time I think that there was a negative form of repetition in my stories, concerning a lone hero/avenger/crusader type who essentially engaged in Don Quixote-styled jousts with those windmills, occasionally taking them down somehow, and other times failing.

    I’ve come to realize that the lone hero crusader figure is one I want to move beyond. In “The Bodhisattvas” I made it more of a struggle with oneself to forgive one’s ancestors (us); in “Sarging Rasmussen” it’s more about realizing one needn’t work alone — even if the masses are tuned out to the real issues, those who do care and want to do something certainly aren’t alone in this world, and the Internet has done a lot to help those people connect with one another.

    (And “Sarging Rasmussen” is, I’ve also come to realize, a kind of refutation of the theme in Asimov’s Foundation books, where the Foundation is of course a symbolic representation of SF fandom in an anti-intellectual society ; the Foundation stands in for the enlightened geek elite that is the hope of our world… in fact, there are others who care and are working for the good, beyond that little ghetto, if one only cranes one’s neck out to see them.)

    So maybe I’m agreeing with you on one level, because my point is about another level.

    I guess I’m saying that if fundamental story problems remaining comparable is okay if one is working on characters that represent different solutions to those problems. The more abstract the thematic resemblance, the less problematic it is… and the more concrete the repetitions are, the more problematic they are. If every protagonist in an author’s stories speaks in the same lingo, or has the same daily habits, or hair color even, it’s going to stand out. Thinking of the best short-story collections I’ve read, there are deep-thematic resonances that unify the collection, but also lots of differences between those stories — some of them cosmetic, and some of them concerned with how story problems are solved or dealt with.

    In the long run, I think even at the most abstract level, one who is telling the same story again and again in different ways isn’t doing something that I think is important in writing… and, indeed, in living. One has to push oneself to grow, sometimes. And such pushing is probably good for the genre too.

    (A couple of story ideas that occurred to me today have come out of trying to look at Korean society — the aspects I don’t like or feel comfortable with — in terms of what social purpose they serve, or what social need they seem to fulfill. I think it’s imporrant for genres to do that too… to explore different solutions that those we all know… and new problems? Well… my understanding of the intellectual history of the Singularity has kind of exploded and I think it’s not at all new, except in the form of a synthesis of older problems and anxieties in much closer form than has previously been acknowledged… so new problems, I think, are something like a once-in-a-century thing, maybe.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *