In one of the later seasons of the now-done-and-dusted 30 Rock, lovable idiot Tracy Jordan goes through an arc where he questions both the person he’s become and the legacy he’ll leave behind. Tracy made his millions with lowbrow nonsense like The Chunks, Who Dat Ninja, Fat Bitch II and Sherlock Homie (I suppose mirroring the career trajectories of Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler); now he wants to reinvent himself as a proper dramatic actor. To this end, he sets himself the goal of getting his EGOT, which is the quadfecta of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.
Bear with me now…. Tracy’s first attempt at proving his legitimacy is the horribly misguided vanity project, Jefferson, a, uh, poorly casted Thomas Jefferson biopic. But this is only a minor misstep, for when he appears in the comically OTT Hard to Watch (think Eight Mile, or Vincent Chase’s Queens Boulevard), critics and audiences are enamoured, and so begins the reign of Tracy Jordan, Serious Artisté.
‘This honky grandma be trippin’!’
What Tracy Jordan’s example did – besides give me an ear-to-ear smile – was it forced me think about how I view myself as a writer and where I’d fit in the marketplace. I’ve been writing for years now, but when people ask what I write I often falter at the question. Short stories, mostly. But in what style? I don’t know – my style? I’ve always thought I’d leave that stuff to the marketers. I suppose literary fiction is my first love. It’s probably what I write most. But that label seems so … restrictive. If I embraced the title of literary author, I’d be denying myself the chance to write comedy or fluff. I love writing humour too, see, and I’m not at all opposed to trying some genre or commercial stuff, like horror, fantasy (albeit not high fantasy) and maybe even romance.
From a business perspective, it makes all the sense in the world that agents and publishers would advise writers to stick to a particular style or genre. That’s, of course, how you create a marketing identity, how you carve a niche. But geez I couldn’t think of anything worse than having to write every book or story in the same vein, especially if it’s just for brand recognition or in accordance with outside pressures. It’s both sad and funny that a creative writer would be advised to squash their creativity to engender sales. That’s not to say one can’t create a valuable body of work writing in just the one style or genre, but I do admire when authors have the audacity to leave comfort zones behind.
At the risk of sounding douchey, I’d say my writing is a reflection of my reading tastes and my reading tastes are wide and inclusive. Maybe that’s how I justify to myself the fact that I’m still not really sure what corner of the bookshop my work belongs. Naively, I try not to think about it. All I know is that writing in unfamiliar styles is fun, challenging and a great way to shake off the cobwebs.
This brings me to my main question, which is whether it’s okay to tailor stories to an individual market. As usual, there’s no definitive answer to this. It’s up to the individual to draw their own line in the sand. Doubtless, many would raise their hands and say, ‘Sure it’s okay! An opportunity’s an opportunity! There are so few available to us, so it’s our right to seize every last one.’ Others might say there’s something unethical about it, that writing that comes from somewhere other than the heart is disingenuous. Both views are valid.
Last week I submitted to Deakin University’s Windmills. The theme of the issue was subversive fairytales and the word limit was a paltry 1,000 words. Besides being brought up on animated Disney films (VHS, baby!), my knowledge of fairytales is far from extensive. I’m pleased fairytale adaptations have had a resurgence lately – particularly the darker stuff – but I wouldn’t say they’re a passion of mine.
So why did I bother writing something for the issue? To challenge myself. Honestly, to me, a story’s a story. Since I’m not well-versed in fairytale mythology, I just treated this set of characters like I would any others – that is, I tried to draw them as realistically and vividly as possible. The greater challenge was compressing a story into the word limit and not having it read like a vignette.
One might think 1,000 words is nothing, that it could be dashed off in an afternoon (the effort being worth the minuscule investment of time). That’s a major misconception, at least in my experience. Short short stories may be easy to write, at least ostensibly, but they’re a damn sight harder to write well. I have great respect for anyone who can pull off micro or flash fiction; it’s truly an art form unto itself. Anyway, whether or not I succeeded with my story remains to be seen, but even if the Windmills editors decide not to include it, I’ll still be grateful for the experience.
* * *
Despite all this positivity, there’s a niggling feeling in my gut. I don’t think it’s indigestion. Does writing something for a pre-existing market make me some kind of sell-out? I mean, if a musician did that sort of thing, the public would hang them by their entrails. Is credibility an artist’s most valuable commodity? Why do we have this innate need to respect the writers, musicians and actors whose work we admire? I mean, it’s not like we know them personally; experiencing their work isn’t some kind of prospective friend interview.
I don’t know, man … I don’t know …
Deep down, though, I think I must be comfortable with it – writing for markets, I mean. For one thing, I know the story I wrote for Windmills is quintessentially my own. It’s still honest; it still sounds like me. The only thing different about its genesis is that I wrote it from a prompt. Responding to prompts is considered a legitimate writing approach. It’s an exercise creative writing classes use all the time. So what makes it more honourable than, say, ghost writing? Is it the lack of commerce? Is it the fact that your response to a prompt is still yours, still genuine, whereas a ghost writer’s impetus is to follow blueprints and adhere to far more rigid terms? It’s interesting to think about
To sum this up, I’d like to confess my own EGOT-esque writing goal. (Hopefully doing so will keep me honest about following it through.) After a bit of soul searching, I can finally admit that I’m just not that interested in writing novels. I’ve tried to be; I understand that writing novels is the most viable and practical road on an otherwise impractical career path. But alas I just can’t sustain interest in a single project. At least not right now. I just want to write short stories. I suppose compiling some of my favourites could be on the cards: y’know, down the line. But for now, I’m content sending work to journals and entering short story contests.
Like the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, I’d love to be represented by all the major Australian journals: Meanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging, etc. Of course, I’m still wearing my ‘emerging writer’ badge, and there’s an almost tangible sense that those journals are for Serious Writers, the ones with experience and something valid and substantial to say. It’s a dumb insecurity, I know. And though it weighs on my mind, I’ll still pitch to these journals regardless. A publication credit with any of them would do wonders for my confidence. Also, I tentatively admit, it would legitimise me, my writing, all of it. I genuinely hold those publications in very high esteem – probably as high as American writers hold The New Yorker.
Still, right now I don’t feel ready, don’t feel good enough. I know that when I finally get around to hitting Send, it’ll be with complete terror in my veins.