For many creative writers, we are the greatest foe to our identities.
Similar to many writers, I started writing poems at around 9-years old. I have been writing ever since. No, I was not good at English or grammar. I am still not a grammarian. However, being “good” at English or grammar has little to do with being a creative writer. Go into any library, virtual or brick-and-mortar, and you will find that variations in English and grammar usage are as distinct as people. Formal English is for a job or a profession that is not focused on creative writing. In most cases, one does not want the words on the page to be the focus. In literature, words need to often floor the reader.
As a creative writer, you are the master of words. I am no Stephen King or Toni Morrison. Yet, I don’t think it is fair for us to compare ourselves to them and them, us. Writing has been my whole life. Teaching writing has been most of it, and my fascination with human nature, “deviant sexuality,” and my love of girlhood and womanhood representations in visual and literary art has the potential of making me a master of my own work. In this way, we are all great literary artists.
The key is to accept that we are adequate and legitimate. First, though, what is the difference in genres?
The Distinction Between Literary Fiction and Popular Fiction
There are many genres to list, so I am just categorizing these generally under two, most of which would fall under popular fiction. First, popular fiction appeals to the time and the people of that specific time, the present. This writing often looks at contemporary issues. For example, don’t be surprised to see popular fiction books referencing abortions, since Roe vs. Wade has been overturned. The writing is often clear and shorter, since people are said not to have long attention spans.
There is nothing wrong with this kind of writing, but it follows a general formula that we can call the “Heroic Myth.” We can discuss plot, arc, rising and falling action, and some of these we use in literary fiction, too. However, what is apparent is that there is a happy ending. We have to have two elements: the work must be believable and predictable. Our brains like repetition. Even if our character is a hobbit, we have to believe at that moment the hobbit exists and acts like a hobbit. A popular fiction text can and should have twists and turns. The final act, though, must be predicable. Simply put, our hero cannot die in the end. Our brains like safety and predictability, too.
Popular fiction writers are fantastic. They are professionals. I worked with one that was on the New York Times Best Sellers list. I also did my dissertation on a popular woman writer in the nineteenth century. Popular fiction writers would include authors like Stephan King, J.K. Rowling, Brandon Mull, and many others. This is not to say these authors cannot write literary fiction as someone like Sherman Alexie or Toni Morrison does, but the genres they write in are very restrictive because they follow a template and a tradition.
Rowling could not make Hermione the main character because she is a girl. At the time, the genre did not allow for this. This may be different now; however, Rowling did change the face of children’s literature. We got away from goody-two-shoes good manners stories and moved to a darker reality. Kids often have to deal with danger and darkness. This is a break away from the traditional genre, and I suspect this is why Harry Potter has become larger than life. She took a risk.
In writing there are two things to think about when creating a work: If it hasn’t been done before, you either have a masterpiece, or there is a reason it was not done before. Often, such depends on timing and the events that are out of a writer’s control.
What makes literary fiction or even some non-fiction less approachable and more difficult to read is that it is often artistic. Think of an art gallery. We all have been in a gallery and see individuals there that would rather watch a football game. They have no idea why anyone really likes impressionistic paintings or a Picasso. In fact, it takes some acquired taste to appreciate these works. It is easy to like what we know, but it takes time to appreciate what we don’t understand.
Here is a quick test. Click on this link and look at the book cover for a novel that I wrote. First, acknowledge your reactions. Then put these reactions aside.
What symbolism do you see in this picture? What might the picture be related to (hint: what does blue and yellow mean these days?). How does the picture connect to the story? Who’s holding the snake and why? What does the snake symbolize? The girl? Who is in danger, and who has the power? All of this can be missed if we only react. In this case, yes, even a stock photo can be an artistic masterpiece, just like a popular novel can be. However, it takes time and patience to see what is really behind an artwork. There is a tendency today to rush through and make judgments.
The literary writer’s goal, often, is to have people face the horrors of reality in a creative and artistic way. The same is true for wonderful events. This is what makes Toni Morrison a literary giant. She takes the horrors of slavery but tells it in a literary way mating the beauty and possibilities of language with the ugliness of human nature. Contrast and conflict, gorgeousness and ugliness harbor in the same mind. That is exactly what we see in the book cover above. That is also literary art that often seeks the illusive truth of the human condition.
Popular genres may touch on these, as a stock photo can, but their goal is entertainment; literary fiction is about learning and self-actualization. Reading popular fiction can be fun, while reading literary fiction can be painful but also very freeing. Learning seldom happens if we are comfortable. That is why a Picasso is so important. The very nature of his pieces look very uncomfortable.
Literary Writers are Stuck with Their Craziness
The themes I write about can put off many people if not much of the public. That book cover is my book cover. I can do some things to make my work more approachable, but I really have to accept that I write about girlhood through the gaze of a male artist. I’ve been called names. I’ve had folks read something I wrote and call Child Protective Services (this really happened), but as an artist I cannot change my own inspirations. I am stuck with them and believe they have value.
My goal is not the exploitation or subjugation and abuse of young girls. One the contrary, I am arguing for the gorgeousness and beauty of girlhood in spite of our attempts to over-sexualize and de-sexualize them, making them all but illegal. That is true hypersexuality. I don’t care what people say. I am interested in what they think about in their most private spaces. I am Alfred Hitchcock’s bird forever pecking on the reader’s one sore spot. In this case, I get attacked because people are afraid of themselves. Such has little to do with me holding a mirror up to them.
Sherman Alexie notes in his conversation with Bill Moyers, the literary writer’s mindset. Alexie says that in order to write great work, authors have to be “crazy.” He notes Sylvia Plath and his own struggle with mental illness. In fact, many Victorian writers were high on opium when they wrote. Being “crazy” means that we strip away boundaries and face the darker thoughts within ourselves. Only then can we really see reality, and that can be done through art. Alexie is one of the major writers of our time. He got through insurmountable odds to become a writer.
Moyers’ interview with Alexie is so important in understanding a literary artist’s mind. As writers, we have to understand our minds and goals, too. As Alexie will tell you, he sees the world as a poet. I do, too. Popular fiction entertains, while literary works teach us about the human condition and its complexity through the diversity of art.
I see my work as a calling, and it’s not always a calling I want to share with readers because it makes me vulnerable to attack, and who likes being attacked unless we are a fighter in the ring. I may not be the kind of writer that many people will appreciate, but I do think readers can learn a lot from what I write. I will upset people, have my work banned, and have Google try to blacklist some of my work, but I know my heart is in a very good place. Moreover, I know what I am doing. I invested my life in my work.
After many years of destroying hundreds of my poems, essays, and creative works, I realized that I have to accept myself and what makes me write.
Unlike popular fiction writers, making money on literary fiction is even more challenging. In the United States, artists get no support, so I drive buses. I love my job, but making $600 on a good week for 10-12-hour days is tough. Yet, at this point in my life I want to do two things, drive and write. I just cannot do anything else.
My point to writers is simple. Make a commitment to your writing and make a schedule to write and stick with it. Most MFA programs fail because once students leave the program, they get on with their lives and never write again. While you do not need an MFA to write, just check out your local library and Stephen King’s advice, I find it to be invaluable because I have community and a schedule. But an MFA does not make you a writer. You do.
I decided that no matter what people think of me for writing a book about a man struggling with his attraction to girls and women that such a work did prove to be critical because four young female sex abuse survivors told me so. If they approved of it, then the book is successful even if I never make up the cost of publishing it. Great works don’t always make money or have a fan base. They change lives and free those that chose to read them.
I am a literary artist. In the past I would tell all of you, “This is where you are supposed to laugh.” I told people I am not a real writer because I felt embarrassed. But being a literary artist or a creative writer or painter or dancer is not about how popular you are. It is who you are.
It is part of who I am. It is how I see the world. I am a teacher that has done everything from driving school buses, to working in prisons, teaching at college, serving on the alter of a church, shoveling cow poop, milking cows, delivering newspapers, fueling trucks, and helping men attracted to children find that they are not the monsters everybody says they are. They just have different challenges and problems than you do. If we avoid our problems, we may hurt ourselves or someone else. We can face these challenges in literary works and by using creativity.
Once we accept ourselves as writers, we can be more open to shaping our work so that it can have a larger audience, that is, if we want that and feel it won’t compromise our work. Whatever writers do, they should not change their calling or inspiration. It was put there for a reason. Literary fiction takes time to like and understand. This is why we teach literary fiction because it can be so difficult.
My one criticism about all of us is that it’s not that people have short attention spans. That is an excuse. It’s that we lack discipline and want to hurry through everything. I don’t think that hurrying through life is a good idea. Keep writing but know that your creative works are on a journey of their own.
Earl Yarington was a professor and social worker. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years. As a social worker, Earl focused on human sexuality and child sexual abuse prevention by working with those at risk which included those with sex offenses, pedophilic disorder, dual diagnoses and other comorbid factors. Earl now writes literary fiction, poetry and non-fiction and often incorporates difficult subjects in his work.
He drives buses for a living.