When I started writing stories, at perhaps seven or eight, I never lacked any confidence in my choice of subject matter. Comic books about superhero penguins, page-long stories about gremlins in the garden, copyright-infringing narratives about Bugs Bunny. These ideas were not ground-breaking, and I never knew where a story was going, or even finished a lot of them, but to my eight-year-old mind, these stories were important. They simply had to be written.
Besides, what was the alternative? Ignore all of these ideas? Unthinkable.
If, back then, I had heard the misleading mantra that tells young writers to “find their voice,” I might have proudly declared that I already had. In fact, I might have even said as much as I went through my undergraduate years.
But now, as I near the end of an MFA, I’m not so sure.
This reconsideration came about slowly during the first years of my twenties, and became most apparent when I moved to New York. In the city I found myself falling deeper in love with the world of contemporary literature, while also facing the terrifying realities of the contemporary world.
Through this love and fear I realized that modern writers had a certain power. They could engage with and judge life as it was happening and ease the pain for the reader.
Once I realized this, I was excited. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to hold the world accountable. I wanted to use my skills to undress political realities. I wanted to write something worth writing. I had reached that time in my life, I thought. Gone was the six-year-old who thought his voice was destined for anthropomorphic animal stories.
So, you must be thinking, what a stroke of luck. For writers looking to shine a light on humanity’s foibles, there surely has never been a better time to be alive. Because there surely has never been more abundant horror on which to cast judgement.
That’s true enough. But my problem doesn’t come from lack of inspiration. Gun crime, impulsive wars and pervasive faulty ideologies of the modern era are enough to inspire a writer’s passions twelve times over. My problem is: As a young writer and as a student, do I have any authority to speak on these matters? Is my voice as valuable as the writers’ who have had a fuller lifetime in which to dwell on these things?
Something compels me to say “yes.” This is the same answer I would ally with if any of my writerly friends were to ask me the same questions. But when I do begin such a piece of writing, I find that I am filled with a lingering and heavy doubt.
If I begin to write something to shed light on the Syrian refugees, as Martin Amis did recently, I wonder who in the hell I am to comment on such things, even in fiction. In an age when everyone with a Facebook page can lob their opinions into the devil’s pit of public scrutiny, there seems to me little point in writing something unless it is truly enlightening. And how am I supposed to declare my work such a thing when I am still rushing to finish homework?
I have not been alive and writing long enough to think that what I write is the best it can be. In fact, I am sure it isn’t. I am young and aware enough to know that even by next year it will have changed (and hopefully for the better). So, can I honestly say that I should be weighing in, in fiction or otherwise, about topics such as the Syrian migrants, war, God, the Holocaust and –
As I list things I’m starting to see another problem. I could go on listing things forever, just as my eight-year-old self could endlessly come up with random story ideas.
Like my younger self, I can either write about these things or ignore them completely. Perhaps my writing voice is not yet as valuable as those of the many notable figures who are commenting daily on the state of the world. But writing about things which are important to me at the present moment – war or superhero penguins – paves the way for my writing to grow into something enlightening in the future.
There is no better way of improving one’s writing, and indeed improving the world, than engaging in that tried and tested method of chipping away at it, sentence by sentence.
I still don’t know if my opinions mean anything at this point in time, but I suppose, just like any MFA student or young writer, I must just keep writing the most important thing I can think of until that eight-year-old mindset comes back.
Josh King is a second-year MFA student at Adelphi University in New York, and moved from the UK in 2014. He is curator of the blog As & When for the literary website Village of Crickets, and divides his time between writing fiction and sampling the New York literary scene.