10 Stories We Never Need to See in Workshops Again
Several months ago, Indiana Review staffer Joe Hiland wrote a great column about many of the submissions that routinely appear in the I.R.’s slush pile. Its timing was apropos for me, as I've recently felt like an unwitting subject in a perplexing metaphysical paradox: I keep running into the same stories in fiction workshops over and over again.
I’ve been attending workshops in New York City for the better part of a decade. I took an extended break only once, and that was to get my MFA (where, as you may have guessed, I was attending workshops). During this time — and in the course of teaching my own classes after graduating — I’ve read and critiqued literally hundreds of stories. Some of them have been great — a few, fantastic — but there are times when I find myself experiencing these literary Groundhog Day moments. I swear I’m reading virtually the same story I read just a year, sometimes a month, before.
The workshop is where writers test ideas. Some of those ideas are going to work; a lot are going to fail. Writers need as much encouragement as they can get — Lord knows the job market won’t give it to you — so if you happen to cough up a story that sounds familiar every once in a while it shouldn’t be taken as a slight against your creative faculties. One of the obvious pitfalls of writing is that your story will inevitably be stacked up against every story that came before it. We’re a species that looks for patterns; as readers, we’re naturally going to contrast your work with everything we’ve read and grade for comparison. Then there’s the added fact that writers, almost all of them voracious readers, often can’t help but borrow a familiar device, if only subconsciously, when we’re having a hard time getting from point A to point B. That’s when we need the help of fellow writers who can step in and suggest, as gently as possible: this idea has been done before.
Below are the stories I've encountered most frequently, almost without fail, in everything from your garden-variety workshops, to MFA classes, to private writers’ groups hosting graduates of MFA or doctoral programs. And when I say these stories are common, I mean they’re so infuriatingly boilerplate an instructor could put them on a syllabus as required reading for a primer on the modern writer’s workshop. While each of these stories could still be turned into something special, right now I feel I could lead a happy, fulfilled life knowing I never had to read them again.
1. White kid goes to Europe, finds love and/or cultural enlightenment
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I saw a variation of this story during every semester I was enrolled in graduate school, and encountered identical incarnations of the trust-fund-brat-in-a-strange-world tale during workshops around New York City for years prior. Look, I’m sure your trip to Europe was really swell. The problem is, we don’t want to read about it. As writers, we all face the occasional deficit of ideas, and when that happens we’re often wont to draw from our own experiences. The problem is, for most of us those experiences aren’t very interesting. Fiction is at its strongest when readers are placed in dangerously unfamiliar territory, when the abstract is shattered by an anomalous specific. But here the unfamiliar is painfully familiar; the writer is simply sourcing his/her ideas from a relatively common experience and giving it an idealized outcome he/she wishes had happened (see also: your recent road trip, your childhood experiences at summer camp).
2. Everyone has cancer
Why does it seem half the stories in the world of workshop fiction feature at least one character with stage-four cancer? I know it’s a common affliction, but this is ridiculous. One of the reasons cancer is so often used, I suspect, is because of its rich metaphorical connotations (the idea of being subsumed internally, or an obsolescence of the organic body in an increasingly industrialized world), but I really think the cancer card is played a lot of times because it requires little effort and is a guaranteed win for reader sympathy. There are millions of diseases and disorders and maladies out there. Try giving someone Neurofibromatosis or Hallermann-Streiff syndrome once in a while so I can actually learn something while I’m reading.
3. I’m in the midst of an existential crisis
Good for you. Now, if that crisis manifested itself in the form of a real, tenable conflict threatening real, deleterious effects on your main character, we might actually care. Without the high stakes of a pending threat, the existential crisis is empty storytelling recast as high-art posturing. It’s a midlife crisis story for people who engage in pained conversations about Sartre but are too clueless to realize what they’re actually celebrating is basically “Wild Hogs” without a plot.
4. The dead baby
This is one of my favorites (and much to my chagrin, apparently it’s so common someone mentioned it in the comment thread of the Hiland blog). The plot almost always goes something like this: the story begins in media res, with a married couple who lost a child approximately a year prior, usually as a result of crib death, though sometimes by freak accident (strangely, swimming pools are often involved). Invariably, the couple can’t bring themselves to talk about it, and clinically patient therapists are brought in for longwinded, paint-by-numbers counseling sessions. More often than not — especially if the story appears in an MFA program — it takes a cue from “Hills Like White Elephants,” a work often used as a primer for negative narrative space, and the baby isn’t directly mentioned until well after it’s obvious to the reader. Then, there’s almost always this hilarious moment, typically during the dramatic apex of the story, when someone cracks and says to his/her spouse: “He isn’t coming back! He’s gone! Our child is dead!” If you plumb the depths of horrible human experiences, losing a child is probably the worst, and stories involving the loss of a child have been executed successfully many times. However, even a potentially horrendous subject can become cartoonish when the reader is given a backstage pass to watch the writer pull the strings of melodrama behind the plot.
5. Person enters abusive relationship, leaves a stronger person
It’s infuriating how often redemption is used as a storytelling device. There are entire seasons where virtually every Hollywood film at the box office offers a redemption component. It goes like this: (A story) seemingly innocuous character is beset by challenges, inhabits a world that shuns him; (B story) crazy bad unexpected thing happens to outside world, further challenges character already set back by aforementioned ineptitude; (C story) character finds something in him he “never knew existed,” uses it to overcome said invading force, and is finally validated by outside world. The fact is, this is the storytelling formula for 90% of Hollywood movies at any given time, and tens of millions of Americans sadly pay good money to see what is essentially the same story play out over and over and over again.
I digress. Look, I’m not saying redemption is itself a bad thing — far from it — but fiction works best when you make things uncomfortable for the reader, when you imply that things could always go either way. In the case of the abusive relationship story, the writer has the potential to investigate some of the most unnerving storytelling material ever. There are just so many questions: can you love someone who hurts you? Can some people not love without being hurt? This is fascinating stuff, but instead most of the “abusive relationship” stories today deign upon themselves the entire cannon of Lifetime movies as their direct competition. Women are battered by beer swilling clichés until they finally decide to stand up for themselves and walk out. Here’s my question: why does there always have to be a redemption component at the end? Why does the abusive relationship story always have to resolve in a manner akin to an after-school special? Is it simply to comfort the reader? If so, why are you so hell-bent on comforting the reader anyway? Have we collectively decided that the role of storytelling in modern culture is to serve as a mass anesthetic — even when the alternatives are far more haunting? I mean, if someone entered an abusive relationship and decided to stay, or if they left that person and followed it with another abusive relationship, it would paint an awfully dire picture of the human condition. It would also be more realistic because, let’s face it, that happens.
6. You killed my partner/mentor/wife/husband/child/mother/father
Another redemption story. Here’s the thing: anger is a boring emotion. One of the reasons anger is boring is because it’s a translating emotion; it’s often used as a substitute for what the person is really feeling, simply because it’s easier to display anger than it is to admit hurt or loss. Revenge, the common means by which anger is manifested, is equally boring. The odds are really against you when you write stories like this. First there’s the mountain range of clichés you have to hurdle just to convince us this isn’t the same story we’ve read a hundred times before. Then there’s the fact that the ultimate takeaway — revenge! — isn’t very interesting, simply by virtue of said emotive limitations. Okay, he kills a bunch of people. So, he gets the bad guy. Got anything else?
7. History is really romantic
There’s also a futurized version of this I call “The future is really awesome.” Look, historic stories are great, but the only thing worse than romanticizing the future — We live for hundreds of years! And cars can fly! — is romanticizing the past. Needless to say, if your story takes place in the 1920s you’d be remiss to populate it solely with café fly flapper girls and square-jawed hucksters who run booze for Capone. The world didn't evolve in a carnival of convenience, and treating history like an Instagram snapshot shows a lack of nuance and reveals a writer with a grossly obtuse eye. It’s nostalgia for an era that never happened.
8. Outcast faces torment, finds community of likeminded outcasts. Watch out world for awesome cadre of outcasts.
Teenagers like this brand of underdog story because it’s cathartic. In order for adults to write it however, they have to wade through a brine of clichés. The thing is, I’ve read this story so many times I’ve now been conditioned to hate the underdog, because while the underdog used to be an agent that broke clichés, now the underdog is the cliché. At this point I’m waiting for a story about a roving band of dumb jocks who beat up nerds with impunity, get the girls, and discover some boundless elixir of chicken wings in the Amazon. Because even though that story would suck, at least it would be different.
Seriously, it’s 2012. Enough already. And when I say vampires, I also mean …
The only thing worse than the corny “zombies take over” concept (or the “zombies become a metaphor for consumerism” trope, which would have been poignant 40 years ago) is its twee hipster equivalent, the I-know-I’m-writing-a-story-about-zombies-because-I’m-making-a-comment-about-zombie-stories. Look, you can make a “comment” about whatever you want, but the ultimate take-away is that in the course of doing so, you just wasted a considerable amount of your creative life for the sake of giving the world another goddamn zombie story. And yes, my qualifications for a zombie moratorium include zombie love stories, zombie noirs, zombie mysteries, zombie teen lit, zombie westerns, zombie dramas, zombie comedies-of-error, and zombies with cancer. To say these are over-fished waters is an understatement. The lake dried up a long time ago. I mean it. For the love of God, please stop.
Given everything I’ve said — just because the stories I've mentioned are wearingly, painfully familiar — that isn’t to say someone couldn’t hypothetically come along to offer a new twist on an otherwise tired tale (yes, even stories about zombies and vampires). The problem is, in choosing to initiate another conversation about well-worn topics, you attach to your story the suggestion of every near-identical preceding work, thereby giving yourself a significantly deep hole to climb out of just to get the story started. In other words, you have to convince us that this zombie story isn’t like every other one before it — you have to convince us that the world needs another zombie story — just to get us to the point where we would be automatically if you had come up with something original to begin with. Understanding this, I hope you’ll see my larger point here: storytelling's preferred currency is always new ideas.
Find out about Jon Gingerich's Fundamentals of Short Fiction class, which begins Jan. 17!
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