A friend was horrified to read the first writing assignment in her just-started class. It read, “Write a story about a 20-something telling his/her parents, who are having their own marital problems, about an impending marriage to a much older partner.”
My friend’s initial reaction: “What the flying fuck?”
I agree with her sense of horror and outrage, but not with the embedded tone of confusion. I’m not surprised by the assignment, because such stories are exactly what most people want to read.
Family, family, family! If it’s not about family dynamics then the characters are “not well-developed.” Birth, ageing, sickness and death; marriage and its failure, sex in all its vicissitudes, and kinship relations – especially, who is your real father/mother? It’s as if that’s all we humans have on our minds. And mostly, that is correct, judging from current popular fiction, both stories and novels. But nothing could be more banal than these topics.
There are so many interesting topics to explore beyond the family. Love, for example, and its frustration. Remains of the Day is a masterpiece of psychological exploration. Regret: Mrs. Dalloway comes to mind. Loss of meaning – The Sheltering Sky. Otherness is huge, and here I think of Coetzee’s Barbarian. These are just random examples off the top of my head of gripping human stories that do not involve the question, “Who was the real father?”
When it comes to sci-fi, the stories are all about the idea. Very left-brain. (If you have to be reminded which is which, the answer is that yours is “right.”) Sci-fi focuses on development of ideas – about space, time, and gravity; technology, war, ethics, and a hundred others. The psychology in sci-fi doesn’t go very deep. It’s often cliché. Mystery and thriller genres are similar in that regard. But at least they do not revolve around the question of who was the real father. For god’s sake!
I think writing teachers like to focus on family dynamics, especially for college students, because that’s what the students have experienced so far. Many college students are barely out of childhood, barely escaped from their families. Yet it does them a disservice to focus on that context. Even adolescents and youth have some thoughts about courage, friendship, idealism, sacrifice, loss, and even world affairs. Maybe not to Shakespearean levels, considering the tender age, but why make them wallow in the muck of family relations?
Because the “real stuff” is in that muck, the writing teacher would say. The deep emotions that are difficult to confront, you must find, in order to write something honest and develop your true voice. Well I say hogwash to that. For many of us, family memories and their emotions are unpleasant even after they are all sorted out. Moreover they’re not subtle, not novel, and not interesting. To me.
I went to a lecture on human immunology last night and I found it vastly more interesting and exciting than knowing who anyone’s father is. I think I’d enjoy a story from the point of view of a cytokine.
But then, I’m half-android and people often say they can’t “connect” with my characters. Well, I think I know how to fix that.