“It is dangerous and illegal to walk on the highway.”
—Quote from the Michigan driver’s ed manual 
I grew up in Detroit, Motor City, and so my delight in carless transportation has always seemed a bit perverse. But anybody who is a writer knows the feeling. What we do might not be dangerous or illegal, but it can sometimes look a little crazy from the outside.

Risky Writing (Or What I Learned in My MFA, Rated R Version)

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I have a reputation. I am the middle child of three, and when I was little, I overheard my mother’s best friend explain our family dynamic: my brother Lou was the smart one, my sister Pat the pretty one, and me? I was . . . the nice one. Still am. (Be careful what you whisper: it could scar a kid for life.)

My uncle recently recounted a story about my brother dropping the F bomb. The only thing that would have surprised him more, he said, would have been to hear me swear. He obviously hasn’t read my fiction.

I survived a difficult childhood by trying not to be—well, difficult. As a daughter, wife, mother, and friend, it’s worked for me. But as a writer, it doesn’t. I can’t seem to stop doing things the hard way.

When I arrived at Pacific University for my MFA program’s first residency, I knew no one. The safe thing would have been to lay low until I’d deciphered the strange, exotic culture of MFA Land. Instead, I signed up for the first student reading and dropped the F bomb. Repeatedly. My uncle, who worked on the Alaska pipeline for much of his life, where every other word was an expletive, who saw combat in Vietnam that rivals the most horrifying zombie movie, would have dropped his jaw.

The story I read, Cyber Anniversary, is a first-person account of an agoraphobic man having online sex with a prostitute who had deluded him into believing he was the love of her life. The piece is a mix of creepy and funny, one of the riskiest kinds of writing.

Lucky for me: the audience was warm and welcoming. I knew immediately that if I could get away with taking such risks—and even be applauded for it—I’d found my literary home. My first advisor, John Rember (who has since retired), was in the audience, and he told me later that he chose to work with me because of my bravery.

I worked on a number of short pieces with John: one about online dating between a cowboy and a librarian, or at least that’s what they pretended to be. Another about a boy who grows so hairy during puberty he actually turns into an ape. And a third about an elderly man who stares at a Georgia O’Keeffe painting until it becomes a giant vagina that swallows him up. John was the perfect guide to this risky subject matter. You don’t write a book called Cheerleaders from Gomorrah without a keen sense of the absurd.

My vagina story was supposed to be tender, hopeful, a little magical and a lot sexy. Which brings me to a risk I’ve taken all four semesters. “I don’t think sexual explicitness is a problem in fiction,” John advised me. “The only thing to look out for is when it’s so loud or obtrusive it gets a story out of balance. . . So let the good times roll!”

Another lesson John taught me when I was a newbie: “Forget every essay you wrote as an undergraduate and see your reading commentaries as travels in unexplored territory. Think of them as having narrative lines, like intellectual adventure stories.”

Intellectual adventure stories. John made our required commentaries sound so sexy. I thought they were just craft essays about books. And anyway, hadn’t I entered my MFA to write fiction, not write about fiction?

But John was correct: my commentaries took me on a wild, unexpected ride. I was able to turn many of them into published book reviews. More important, learning to be an acute reader taught me to be a controlled and conscious writer.

For my second semester, I was lucky enough to work with Pam Houston, whose funny, cerebral, innovative, sexy work I so much wanted to emulate. I not only wanted to write like Pam, I wanted to be Pam. You know, smart, witty, and, above all, fearless.

I worked on a story with Pam that took a sacred subject—September 11th—and gave it a profane treatment. To gain popularity, a teenage girl lies. The lie grows bigger and bigger and her mother decides to play along, to even make a documentary about the September 11th lie, pretending it’s memoir.

Pam helped me take other sacred subjects and blow them up. I had not planned on writing nonfiction during my MFA, but I’d started a blog, and what do you write about on a blog, but your life? I sent one of my posts to Pam, and she surprised me by saying I had a gift for memoir. She helped me transform my blog post into a full essay, which was published in The Rumpus. The most important advice she gave was to not to be coy by holding back any details.

I worked on some other personal essays with Pam, and this advice from her was startling at first but now seems utterly common sensical: “Tell me something I don’t know.” “I don’t want to say to myself: how true! how true!” she told me. “Instead I want to be thrown back in my seat, saying: Really?”

The greatest risk I took, beginning that semester—and all nonfiction writers know this, especially if they write about family—is the risk of hurting people’s feelings. The first memoir piece I published appeared on Father’s Day last year, and many have appeared since then. Even now, when I publish a piece of nonfiction, I’m filled with the twin reactions of dread and excitement, grateful for the professional acknowledgment, yet worried about the personal consequences.

For my essay semester, I hit the Jack-pot: I was able to work with the inimitable Mr. Driscoll, poet laureate of all fiction writers, the troubadour of the Midwest. For my critical essay, the simple thing would have been to choose one book and write about it in depth. But I chose six. The sensible tactic would have been to write about coming-of-age stories, since I was writing one myself. Instead, I chose books about elderly people. Just because I wanted a challenge.

That semester, I finished one of my most unorthodox stories: a long piece in five parts, from five perspectives. Many novels switch point of view, from chapter to chapter, but I have yet to see another short story that switches point of view from section to section. Far from discouraging me, though, Jack said: “I’m hugely attracted to alternative forms by which the writer unifies, such as montage or pastiche, and how these separate independent sections coalesce to completeness. An arrangement in which the story flows despite the POV shifts, the dance or choreography nonetheless made to appear effortless. I find this to be a pleasing form.” Then came the punch line: “Yet it does create its own hurdles, doesn’t it?”

I also wrote an Amy-Bloom-inspired story about a transgressive marriage. For my last story of the semester, I wrote “Half,” a “we” story in three parts, which spans several decades. There is a mixture of sex and violence, which Jack not only didn’t caution me to tone down, but wanted me to ramp up. “It gets the blood—and the imagination—pumping even more, and the desire/curiosity of what all this means accentuated,” he said.

Benjamin Percy was my last workshop leader. His comments on my workshop story began this way: “Risk is good. You take risks in this story, in style and content, and I like that.” I knew then I had to work with him.

But what would I work on? I’d entered the MFA program with the draft of a novel, the one that is now my thesis. I’d set it aside, hoping that perfecting short pieces would teach me how to revise longer work. But when I looked at the novel at the start of my last semester, I barely recognized the writing. Had I really become such a different writer during the course of my MFA?

Ben, who peoples his fiction with bear hunts, Big Foot, and bats, wouldn’t let me cower in the face of my big, bad, pre-MFA writing. I could use all the knowledge from all my professors and workshop leaders, from all the craft talks and classes and readings, he said. I could put all this erudition and magic to work in revising my novel. Then I’d be “off to the races.”

I sent him my first stab at revising my book, and this is how he responded: “You know it’s funny what you said, that this is the novel you were capable of writing a few years ago. That feeling will never leave you. It’s normal. You will always feel that your work is expiring, that you can do better. That’s healthy. That means you’re in a constant upward swing, always improving. If you ever feel completely satisfied with something you wrote a year ago, that mean you’ve reached a plateau. Then you should worry.” In other words: keep taking risks.

Ben, the master of momentum, taught me how to cleanse my novel of “story cholesterol,” text that doesn’t move the action forward and thus clogged my narrative’s arteries. He also taught me: Get into a scene as late as you can, get out of it as soon as you can. Balance the stacatto of dialogue with the legato of exposition. Three metaphors in one paragraph? Are you kidding? You’re only allowed three per page! Give your character more agency or she’ll disappear. Remove all transitions; never put a character in a car, just get her where she needs to be. The best parts are when your character is in physical danger. And, finally: Whenever there’s a possibility for an uncomfortable situation, force your character to confront it.

Ben also informed me that—surprise!—I was doing something else risky, without even realizing it: writing “partisan” fiction. By this he meant writing about political and sexual issues in an unabashed way and showing no tolerance for intolerance. I was flattered that he compared my work to John Irving’s, but daunted that, yet again, I was trying to do something so tricky.


I mean darn!

I didn’t just fuck up and swear, did I? Tell me you didn’t hear any bombs drop. I mean, I wouldn’t do that, I swear.

Maybe in my stories, but not when I don’t have a fictional persona to cover my ass. Geez, I’d better stop while I’m ahead.

As I said, I’m the nice one. I’ve got my reputation to think of.

9 Responses to “Risky Writing (Or What I Learned in My MFA, Rated R Version)”

  1. kitty says:

    I love “Balance the stacatto of dialogue with the legato of exposition”—good advice…

    …and a thought —the “pretty” for sure doesn’t last…the “smart” may or may not but the “Nice” actually does stick even through an MFA and the lessons of life, the blood, the gore…take it from someone else who knows.

  2. Sharon says:

    Thanks for the kind words. So you’re a “nice” girl, too? I wonder how many of us are out there?

  3. Tia says:

    I’ve never really been called “nice” probably because I come from a place where swear words are used as conjunctions. This was a great critical introduction and I wish I could’ve been there. It just gave me an uplift for guilt I give myself for my upward swing. I remember that first reading. It has always stayed with me. Congratulations.

  4. hope says:

    sharon, i’m late commenting on this, but i’m so bummed i couldn’t hear you read this in person in june. it’s so “you”—this jumble of nice, complimentary, kind, sexy, fucked, true and brilliant. excited to watch the further unfolding of your writing career.

  5. Julie G. says:

    Hi Sharon. I found you by googling “how I survived my MFA program.” I loved everything you said. I’m just heading towards the end of my first residency and about to meet with my mentor , who scares the fuck out of me. I am a NF writer and he is both Fiction and NF. He is brilliant , famous and a bit of a dick. I know I will learn so much from him, but I have to come up with a contract for the next project period and frankly, I don’t want to dissappoint him since I’m a newbie. Isn’t that stupid? Your blog really helped me. I do want to push the envelope and take risks. I just realized, reading this, that I was worried about impressing him instead of trying to take my work and stretch it way out there, which is where I think the real brave writing that I need exists.

    Thanks for this post, you just saved me. I’m going for it! – Julie

  6. Sharon Harrigan says:

    Wow, that might be the nicest blog comment I’ve ever gotten. So glad my words helped!

  7. Arabella says:

    It’s true, under your “persona”, you are a risk taker, with a lot of guts. Makes for good writing.

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