On Teaching Speculative Fiction

In a few months, I’ll be starting a new semester teaching creative writing at Lycoming College, where I graduated from. More importantly, I was so mentored and trained at that school, that stepping into my fiction professor’s shoes is both an honor and a little nerve-wracking, mainly because I will be a different type of professor than he was.

One loose rule he kept about his workshops was no genre writing–he was teaching us to be literary writers. Then I came along and only wanted to write speculative fiction and convinced him that’s what I should be writing. First, he read a piece of literary fiction I wrote, then he read a piece of fantasy I wrote, and I think he understood that my passion for the genre made me a better writer.

I don’t intend to continue with this rule, and I hope to teach students to write in multiple fiction genres. Nobody should be forced to limit themselves to a single genre, whether it’s science fiction or literary fiction. Even so, I understand his rule. It forced students to wrestle with the current world and use what they had around them. In my experience as a student, that prompted a lot of stories about divorce, sex work, homelessness, and “coming out.” The students were digging into what they had experienced or witnessed, and–in certain cases, had been sensationalized by the news.

And I get why that sense of concreteness can be useful to a young student, even if it’s not what they want to write in the moment. When some of those students changed their topic to a fantasy story, it became less concrete and helpful to them as young writers.

What I’m getting at is that I understand that a young writer’s divorce story can be just as unhelpful as another student writing a princess in a tower story. One is not better or more helpful to a young writer if there’s nothing there (other than going through the motions, which can be good enough practice on its own occasionally).

Looking back on the stories I wrote during that time (some of which have since been published), it becomes clearer to me what I was wrestling with. Back then, I had very little interest in writing literary fiction because my childhood had been limited to poverty, a low-level cult, homeschooling, and disability. I didn’t know how to write about those topics in a way that made for a good story, not in terms of literary fiction.

But I was able to talk about some of it through fantasy. In my first fiction workshop, the first fantasy story I wrote for my mentor was called “Trickster Shop” and introduced the character Mary, a young woman trying to gain power by making deals with the gods. Over the course of a handful of workshops and an honor’s project, I wrote a collection of stories detailing her struggles with misogynistic, patriarchal gods and the sacrifices they demanded. Sometimes she outsmarted the gods, but usually, they overpowered her. Even so, in the last story I wrote during that time, she was full of power, tattooed by Odin, a follower of Loki, with a quickdraw magic system based on the runes she had researched over a decade of searching for power.

At nineteen, I could not have dealt with my understanding and current situation of still being in a low-level cult through literary fiction. Some young writers could have, but not me. I needed that filter, that distance, especially since I was still drinking the Kool-aid until I was in my mid-twenties.

Some of those stories still trouble me for the misogyny and sexual violence the main character experienced or was threatened by. I wouldn’t write these stories the same way, now, but at the time, I was literally being told every Sunday that marital rape was God’s will. That a woman was a non-person. That God hated sinners. I refused to believe those ideas, so I wrestled with them in my short fiction as my main character tried to trick and steal from male gods who saw her as a sacrifice to their sexual appetites or as a follower they could control.

As a young writer, I had no idea this is where these stories were coming from. Only a decade later can I see the threads from my personal experience weaving into my fiction.

This is what I hope to inspire in my students, whether they write literary fiction or speculative fiction. Of course, inspiration doesn’t have to come from trauma or life experience, but I hope my students wrestle with something on the page. I want them to understand it’s not just about a beginning, middle, and end–the divorce plot or the princess in a tower plot. I want them to find the heart, purpose, drive, reason, struggle, push of their fiction and to keep at it.

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