AWP 2019: I’ll Show You

26 April 2019 on Storystorm  

At my first AWP conference, I attended a panel titled “Unrealism: The True Art of Fantastic Fiction,” and I listened reverently as Carmen Maria Machado discussed the origin of her short story “Inventory.” She was in her MFA at Iowa, she said, when a male classmate submitted a story involving BDSM. Machado explained that her classmate’s story was not only poorly written overall, but also lazily irresponsible with regard to its portrayal of this type of sexual relationship. Basically, she said, the story was sexist, and in workshop she told the writer that she thought so. He retorted by accusing Machado of being a prude. Machado was being disingenuous, he claimed, by offering a feminist critique of his story. She was just a prude.

After that workshop ended, Machado sat down to write. In direct response to her classmate, she composed “Inventory,” an apocalypse story about love and loss that is comprised solely of sex scenes. I wrote the story straight through, Machado told us. Hearing Machado tell this story was thrilling. She recounted the birth of “Inventory” with both humor and fierceness. I’ll show you! she seemed to have been saying to this jerk of a classmate. Call me prude one more time! I scribbled an outline of Machado’s experience into my notebook, underscoring those words: wrote it straight through.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about what it means to write a story. When we write we are, on the most basic level, trying to show someone something. I embrace the double entendre here. We want to show the reader a character, a setting, an emotional evolution, but oftentimes we also want to show the critics—the haters—a thing or two about what we can accomplish on the page, despite their would-be detractions.

More and more, though, I am realizing that when I sit down to write a story, I’m trying to show—to prove—something to myself. I want to respond to that voice in my head that tells me I can’t do something, that I’m too prudish, too sensitive, too scared to make the thing I want to make. I want to rediscover the feeling I had as a child, the intensity I channeled almost without thinking about it, that allowed me to write a story straight through—without pausing after every sentence to consider what some hypothetical reader might ultimately think of my work, or whether my writing might be deemed “good enough.” I want to say to my inner critic: Just watch. I’ll show you.

Alexandra Grimm is one of Barnstorm's Fiction Editors.

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