Last week, Kaitlyn Greenidge, the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin, 2016), visited us to talk about her path to publication. Currently she is a contributing writer to Lenny Letter, Lena Dunham’s website, and a professor at Bennington College in Vermont (this fall, a professor at the New School as well!). If you want to read her novel but can’t afford to buy it, check out the copy at your local library.
For those of you who couldn’t make the session, here’s an undoubtedly inadequate recap. Kaitlyn started her story across the street from our classroom at Barnard College, though she ultimately transferred to Wesleyan for her history major. The start of her writing career was fraught with ambivalence. On the one hand, she loved researching history, especially oral history, and considered being a Ph.D.; indeed, she applied to and rejected offers from programs more than once! But she was also stumbling upon prestigious offers in the writing world– the chance to intern at The Atlantic, and, ultimately, to enroll in the Master’s of Fine Arts program at CUNY’s Hunter College.
Kaitlyn Greenidge chatting over pizza with K-scopers:
At Hunter, Kaitlyn got the chance to work as a writing assistant for Colson Whitehead, whose novel, The Underground Railroad, won the 2016 National Book Award. In the end, her own novel took about eight years to finish– six years of active writing, two years of waiting for printing after the contract was signed. But earlier this year, she sold the novel’s movie rights, so keep an eye out for it in theaters for the next few years!
Of all the instructive writing advice Kaitlyn gave, here are a few favorites I wrote down:
- “Once the heat of being excited cools away, it’s time for objectivity.” Take a step back– or even better, two weeks– away from your project so that you can come back and reassess your work with a clear head.
- “Be concrete in your criticism,” whether you’re critiquing your own work or someone else’s; in other words, identify specific moments, phrases, and ideas to rework, not big-picture generalizations about whether you think the piece is “good” or not.
- Read widely, as much as possible, and especially from other countries (as we’ll be doing for the next six weeks! Aren’t you lucky?). Kaitlyn pointed out a statistic I didn’t know– that only 1 percent of the world’s literature is translated and available in the US, which means we have way less access to ideas from other places than they have to American literature.
- Distinguish between realism and cliche. Just because a story’s been told before doesn’t mean your telling of it won’t be authentic. A familiar story that explores the complexity and dimension of a character, and makes the reader feel the emotional impact of a conflict on the character’s life, may be a realistic story, but it does not have to be a cliche.
- If you are worried about cliche nevertheless, remember that cliche is a language problem– a repetitive phrase that has no original meaning, like “it’s raining cats and dogs.” If you keep your language fresh, your story will also be bereft of cliches.
- “A novel is just a big book with a lot of mistakes in it.” So don’t get hung up on imperfections! Just keep generating the material.
- If you’re feeling stuck for how to start, create an outline and then leave behind the introduction to tackle another scene that you do feel able to grasp right now.
- Let your readers figure out some things on their own. Don’t feel compelled to demystify every complexity for them.
- When you go to edit a draft, print it out in a different font so that it feels like a different story! You can also print it in landscape format with two columns so that it looks like an actual book.
- If a character starts to feel boring, research experiences they would have had; “looking at images of a place” can also “prompt the imagination.”
- Never worry about being offensive. Kaitlyn herself “doesn’t believe in likable characters.” The character who’s messing up is the one who most likely reflects our own complexities and imperfections!
Once Kaitlyn bid farewell, we devoted our last hour to discussing two of three readings for this week. Lysley Tenorio’s “The Brothers” follows the kind of unlikable character Kaitlyn vouched for; the protagonist, a Filipino adult, is called home to help manage his brother– now, his sister– Erica’s unexpected funeral. Erica has died from an asthma attack and had undergone gender reassignment surgery– a source of shame for his traditional family, and which they try to suppress. However, exposure to Erica’s closest friend, Raquel, prompts the transphobic surviving brother to rethink his disgust for his sister’s gender identity.
Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” heralds from Antigua and is taught in high school classrooms with increasing frequency (finally!). This flash fiction tracks a young girl’s growing, internalized aggression as she withstands belittling commands from her family’s matriarchs to act, think, and be a certain way as a woman.
The text we didn’t get to discuss in person was Lee Mokobe’s untitled poem about being a transman in South Africa. View his spoken word here! Only twenty years old, he is the youngest TED Talk speaker in history and, impressively, also the founder of Vocal Revolutionaries, an organization that empowers young people to speak out against injustice in Cape Town, South Africa. He is also the newest addition to the Kaleidoscope syllabus, so don’t miss his video.
Tomorrow, we gear up to discuss language politics in three poems from Myung Mi Kim, Sandra Maria Esteves, and Carol Lee Sanchez. Here are the writing prompts and the packet of readings if you want to join in!
Sandra Maria Esteves, “Not Neither” (US/Dominican Republic/Puerto Rico) | Write a free-verse confessional poem about your relationship to your language, whether you identify primarily with English or not. Remember, in a confessional poem, the speaker exposes something deep and honest about his/her own relationship to the topic (which, in this case, is language). If you speak languages other than English, consider interjecting non-English words at key moments in the poem. You might also insert “insider” cultural references or non-standard English into your poem. Don’t worry too much about whether your transitions “make sense;” just go with the flow of your own language!
Carol Lee Sanchez, “Tribal Chant” (US/Laguna Native American Tribe) | Write your own song about who you are and where you’re from. If you speak languages other than English, feel free to mix two or more languages together. Consider incorporating a refrain to repeat the sentiments that are most important to you.
Myung Mi Kim, “Cosmography” (US/South Korea)| Write your own conceptual poem about your relationship to language and culture. Remember, conceptual poetry defies the logical, linear conventions of narrative form; you can string any words, phrases, and rhymes together to make meaning. Use blank space and order your words in unique, visual configurations to catch your reader’s attention. Consider including another alphabet if you know a language other than English.