Notes from Class is a series in which instructors of Catapult’s writing classes chronicle their experiences as writers and teachers. More information about Sarah Gerard and her workshop is available here.
I began writing Binary Star with two assumptions: first of all, that a book about anorexia was cliché; secondly, that I needed to write in a mainstream style to get it published. Before I could finish, I had to abandon both these ideas.
The first assumption stemmed from my lingering notions about originality. As a writer, one fallacy I’ve had to overcome is the idea that I must always write something that has never been written before—that my ideas must be pulled from thin air and should be mine and mine alone. When I was younger, this made it difficult for me to accept that the writing I felt moved to produce, however honest it was, had validity. Was it okay to write about my family, for instance, when so many people have already written about their families? Was it okay to write about keeping a notebook when Joan Didion already did that? Or puberty? Or anorexia?
In Binary Star , I wanted to transcend the common view of anorexia as a shallow affliction, to write about starvation, body image, and addiction. But I was afraid that people wouldn’t get past the subject matter, and that therefore no one would want to hear what I had to say.
Over time, as I saw readers responding positively to my work, I was able to let go of these fears. We can’t help but be influenced by our literary forebears. In fact, the world of contemporary literature is something of an ongoing celebration of our status as heirs to history. At the same time, we’re children who grew up in front of the TV, and in movie theaters, and laughing at internet videos. Surely we’ve learned a lot from these experiences, and must take advantage of our cultural inheritance.
Of course, there’s nothing new about taking old materials and making them new—and writers do it just as often with form as they do with subject. We can use other writers’ work as a kind of blueprint, a ready-made set of instructions. Blake Butler’s method for writing 300,000,000 , for example, was to follow the structure of Bolaño’s novel 2666 exactly, critiquing each line before moving onto the next. In doing so, he created something of a daughter text, which retained the five-part form and rising tension of 2666 , but which exists independently of its parent novel.
Writers can call upon genres and traditions while at the same time questioning them. The act of recontextualization becomes a political one, as the structures that held the original form in place are exposed. Asked in a Reddit AMA why she chose “An American Lyric” as a subtitle of her latest book, Citizen , Claudia Rankine responded:
The use of the word lyric locates the work in poetry and outside of the realm of straight-up narrative. American locates it in this country with our shared history, obsessions, selected memory, privilege, particular low-grade domestic warfare against black men, love of prisons and guns, immigration hypocrisy and democratic freedoms.
Her work exists simultaneously inside and outside of tradition—within American culture while also critiquing it. Asked how, as a black writer, she handles writing in the colonizing language of white America, Rankine continues: “The goal is to put pressure on the language itself. How do you reposition the meaning of a word or phrase so that it reveals its origins[?] is what I ask myself as I write.” The Redditer who asks is an immigrant in America; so, Rankine says, “your origins are now relevant to what it means and looks like to be American.”
When we borrow from our literary past, we borrow not only the text or the form, but also the political and social context of a work’s creation. Doing so, we have a responsibility to either include its values in our own work, or expose and challenge them.
Other writers don’t work inside particular forms at all and instead choose to turn away from the idea of formal boundaries altogether. Eileen Myles puts it well when she says , “I think literary categories are false. They belong to the marketplace and the academy. It’s the obedience issue that I’m saying fuck you to, the scholar or the editor trying to trap the writer like a little bug under the cup of ‘poetry’ or ‘prose.’”
Boundaries may restrict a writer’s creative and intellectual goals. Anne Carson says of her verse-novel The Autobiography of Red that she thinks of the work like a piece of architecture. The original ancient poem of the myth of Geryon and the Tenth Labor of Herakles is at the center, “but there’s nothing I could do with that, no adequate representation of it I could give, so I made up all these angles for it—the novel itself and the interview and the translation in the preface.” That way, she could move “into and out of a room from other rooms in the building,” while giving glimpses of the main room at the center.
I wrote and rewrote the opening pages of Binary Star for weeks, moving lines around, and deleting and retyping them. I struggled to make progress in the story, daily trying to force the lines together into paragraphs that just didn’t want to be there. The result looked nothing like the book looks now: It was garbled and wandering. I felt stuck between what I needed to write and what I thought I should write. Like Carson, I needed a way to approach anorexia by making up different angles for it.
When I finally admitted that the paragraphs weren’t working, and broke them out into lines that looked more like poetry, the text and the story flowed. It had speed and rhythm, and a frantic feeling that mirrored my protagonist’s experience. In addition to the poetry, I allowed myself to incorporate text with a more academic style, which lent the book metaphor and texture. Abandoning the idea that I needed to write my book in a specific style turned out to be the only way I could finish it, and a foundation of its success.
Originality has less to do with making new subjects familiar than with making familiar subjects new. I discovered that if you give yourself permission to pursue what you care about, ordinary as you think it may be, others will care about it, too. It’s much easier to be courageous, to take risks in your writing, when you proceed with the belief that your ideas have a place in the world; you may find, as I did, that you enjoy writing more, too.