Writing the wrong
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This is an exclusive Indigo Express essay published by The Indigo Press
Writing the wrong
I teach creative writing, mostly to undergraduate students, and they sometimes come to me for advice and guidance about graduate school. Many of them have never left the state of Arizona, in the southwest desert corner of the United States, and are more eager to have a change in environment than to consider the calibre of a program. Some of them panic over the idea of another set of entrance exams or about student loans. Nearly all of them believe that their make-or-break moment for admission will come in their statement of purpose. They want to know how a strong statement might sound. They want to know if there is a right answer to the question about why they want to be a writer.
Every one of my students is different from the other. I remind them of that, encouraging them to take into consideration what might be different about how they’ve moved in their worlds, academic and otherwise. But one common piece of advice that I give them is to never start their statement with the phrase ‘I’ve always wanted to be a writer’. When they ask why, I tell them that over half of the admissions essays I have read in my time as a professor have begun with that phrase. Not only is the phrase a shallow cliché, so are nearly all of the anecdotes that tend to follow it: the novel that was drafted at age twelve, the cracking open of a first diary or journal, or hearing a beloved author read aloud for the first time. Everyone seeks to tell the origin story. In a way, we as readers keep asking to hear some version of it.
I don’t think I could answer my students’ dilemma any better. Even now, after four completed books in almost twenty years, the curiosity about what started it all is sometimes at the heart of the questions that can come my way. I was, after all, a scholarship kid from a small, rural town in California who landed at Harvard. I could say that I wanted to be a writer then, but I was only eighteen years old. Maybe the idea had grown from seeing so many glossy university catalogues, students studying on the grass or practicing a musical instrument. The captions encouraged me to think of college as a place for exploration. I was used to practicality.
Sometimes, I tell my students, it might be best to write about what almost stopped them from writing altogether. At Harvard, to clear a first-year composition requirement, I took a class designed to appeal to those of us who wanted to be writers: ‘Writing for Writers’, or some odd phrasing like that, which lured me instantly. It was the only class I had that was a small seminar, the room not only intimate but intimidating, just a handful of us working together. All of my other first-year courses were large lectures, where I could easily hide in the back row. We weren’t writing about science or ethics or history, which many of these exposition courses were designed to introduce us to, but about ourselves. In other words, the personal essay, which even my roommates seemed to think would never be of much use.
The course had all the elements of what I had imagined college to be. It may have been in Sever Hall, an imposing brick building at one end of Harvard Yard, where most of my English courses were. It had a large, dark archway as its main entrance, a foreboding cave amidst the green pathways and the leafy trees of the Yard. We sat at a long table, with the professor at the head of it, notebooks scattered about and every student scribbling down some sudden wisdom. It was the first time I glimpsed a workshop, what it meant to share a draft of a work in progress. I don’t remember much of what I wrote in that class nor even if the other students had much to say about it. What I do remember is a long discussion, an interminable one, over my use of the word ‘soundlessly’.
I wasn’t the first person in my family to go to college. My father had taken English language in some adult education courses, pushed along by an employer who had promised promotions and better pay to any worker who could speak English well enough without needing a translator around. My father brought workbooks home and I’d peek at some of the pages, curious to see his handwriting. My oldest sister had taken courses at a community college just six miles away from town. Written communication, or something to that effect, to get better pay at her office job. I had gone along with her to one of her night classes so she’d have someone to walk her safely back to the parking lot. My other sister, only a year older than me, was the first to attend a four-year institution, the University of California at Santa Barbara. She had managed all of the applications herself, no small feat when no one in the family had ever written a college entrance essay or scouted appropriate scholarships or applied for a student loan. If there were rules to follow, she had no map in front of her.
I mention all of them because I sometimes wonder how they faced being in a classroom, how they felt when it was their turn to offer an answer, or how they might have reacted when their effort was deemed wrong. I don’t recall what I could possibly have been writing about in that first-year class. I have only the ‘wrong’ word to guide me. Soundlessly. I must have written about one of two powerful early memories, ones I can summon even now. The first, being out in the grape vineyards during harvest season when I was very young, loathing the heat and the dirt, and sulking under the vines, watching the leaves move here and there in the hot breeze, wishing for an easier life. The other, during the night my grandmother died, being summoned by her in a dream, her hand knocking on a door that wouldn’t make a sound. Who knows what the other students made of what I tried to remember. Who knows if any of them had the grace to approach a draft as only an effort, the first step in a journey where a writer might later take us to a more astonishing place. Instead, it was the wrong word.
‘This isn’t even a real word,’ one of them had scrawled in the margins.
I tell my students all the time that writing is a confusing world of perceived rules and intimate codes, a place where you might be lauded in one circle for breaking boundaries, but mocked in another for not knowing its currency. I think about that scrawl in the margins of my draft, how I went to the library to look up the word for myself. I was secretly relieved when I found it on the page – it existed! – but it didn’t change anything. I didn’t know how to counter someone who was so sure of how correct he was. Looking back on it now, I see that he must have heard some teacher say that adverbs were to be avoided or minimized, but he wielded that in a way to critique and exclude. A rule where a single word was more than enough cause to dismiss a whole story. The damage was done. I didn’t say a whole lot in class thereafter.
The Consequences is my first book in eleven years. The stories were difficult to write for a variety of reasons, but doubt played a big part. The editor of my novel, upon receiving the first draft, had responded with a brief, if curt, ‘This is too cerebral.’ Some version of that student’s dismissive scrawl was in that comment, but I was older and more experienced. I didn’t need to point to any dictionary. I could point to the authority of my imagination, or at least I felt I had earned the audacity to do so. Still, the sense that I had not met some expectation – who I could be as a writer – kept me at a remove from so many of my drafts afterward. Surely, I was doing something wrong. Surely, there was a wrong word in there, some misstep. Surely, this wasn’t the story I should be writing.
What story should I be writing?
I think back to my father’s half-finished English workbooks. I wonder why he didn’t keep up his studies. The answer might be a simple one – he got the course credit he needed and the pay cheque bump, even if his English remains halting and uncertain to this day. Or my sister, who typed out her essays on a baby blue Corona typewriter, who couldn’t be bothered any more with being bone-tired in those long evening classes after a full day of work. My other sister would’ve been the first person in our family to graduate from college but had health complications that prevented it. When I picture them in their various classrooms, I see them amongst people who were there for the same reasons. Other fieldworkers, like my dad. Office clerks, young women in their early twenties, like my oldest sister. Valley kids on scholarship, like my other sister, settling in among the palm trees and the bicycles of a seaside campus. Everyone looked like them.
Starting with that first writing workshop, that’s never been the case for me. I stood out. What I wrote about required explanation. What I wrote about wasn’t familiar. What I wrote about couldn’t be probable. I don’t know why I persisted back then. To a certain degree, I don’t know why I persist even today. None of the usual answers satisfy. Not the triumphant story of tenacity nor the defiance of proving the doubts false. Why do you write, the question is asked. Why did you want to be a writer? The question keeps coming and, more often than not, the answer always makes me feel wrong.
I tell my students to try their best to get at the essential mystery, not of their writing, but of their persistence. What kept them on the path? What could have pulled them in another direction? What made the expression so invaluable? For me, it is the only way I know to access the reservoir of feeling behind so much of what I have seen. I have had no other way to shape it, but perhaps by reading with depth and breadth, I could keep learning to do so. I might learn what to do with the empty space of my father’s half-finished English workbooks, what to do with the crimped and unsteady markings of his handwriting. I might know how to make something of the box of neat, expensive onion-skin typing paper that my sister kept for her essays, the hesitation she had in committing something to its page. Or my other sister, when it was time to acknowledge she could not continue her studies, shelving her books within eyesight, just in case, maybe one day.
Or maybe I write because one story, however hard-gained, is better than none at all, and there’s some value in working through the glimpse of a moment to gather what it might mean. Witness: one of my first summer jobs out of the fields was as an office clerk in a county job placement centre in my small town. I was in eighth grade, lanky and studious and big-headed and mild-mannered. Adults trusted me with responsibility. I was tasked with archiving old paper applications into file folders. The applications needed to be alphabetized and separated by job placements, each one in a separate folder with the last name written neatly at the top. Janitorial work in nursing homes, here. Shipping and receiving in fruit-packing houses over there. Clerical work in that pile. I worked my way through them, until I got the ones that were only a single slip of paper. No skills, or so said the bottom of the page. A folder for each one of those applications, each of those pleas, each of those asks for assistance. I made my way through the M’s. I found my mother’s. I didn’t need to read it to know what it said. She had never made it past the third grade. I made a folder for it, wrote the last name on the file tab, and added it to the archive box. Soundlessly, as it was a quiet room, with only me in it, standing in the stillness of all those files, putting the true story together.
About the author
Manuel Muñoz is the author of a novel, What You See in the Dark, and the short story collections Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, which was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He has been recognized with a Whiting Writer’s Award, three O. Henry Awards, and an appearance in Best American Short Stories.
A native of Dinuba, California, he currently lives and works in Tucson, Arizona.
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