When Guernica asked me to guest edit a portfolio of fiction, I thought I’d approach a few of my former students. I saw it as a chance to catch up with some people whose writing I was reading a couple of years ago. Writers in the Columbia University MFA program, perhaps as in most, tend to be young, and these five were no exception. It’s interesting to see people working out who they are as human beings at the same time they are working out who they are as writers. I was curious to see what shape their fiction was taking now that they’d been out of workshops for a while.
Friends often ask me if I’m the type of teacher who makes a point of discouraging beginning writers who don’t show much promise, who don’t have “it.” Many fervently believe in this cruel-to-be-kind approach. If you are honest with people about their lack of talent, the theory goes, you save them a lot of future heartache. Plus, there is still time for law school, or therapy.
I’m sympathetic to the notion, but it doesn’t quite square with my experience. I wrote a lot of awful stuff before I wrote anything I thought was decent. Well, I wrote some decent stuff by accident before that, but once I really threw myself into the idea and practice of fiction, once I gained a solid sense of what might be possible in the genre, that’s when I truly started to suck. It took a long time for things to flow again. I think a lot of writers experience this phenomenon, so I never say never. I figure as long as you are alive, you’ve got a shot. I’m not talking about a career, or a publishing contract. That’s pretty much out of anybody’s control. I just mean a shot at making work full of fresh language and insight.
The writers here are doing just that. The truth is they were all strong writers when I was reading them, and time has only made them better. I’ve asked them all for short pieces, excerpts, quick takes from their ever-efflorescing worlds, and I’m excited by the results.
Vivien Drabkin’s “Aide” is the opening section of a longer story, and it is a good illustration of what I admire about her work, the combination of humor and fury coursing through her characters as they try to wring some emotion out of their surroundings. “Warmish,” by Alex Waxman, is a strange and wonderfully propulsive piece about a love affair, or, perhaps, more about the song it sparks in this alternately swaggering and vulnerable speaker. “…French kiss…French kiss…Old Dominion…then Puerto Rican sluice blast,” writes Waxman, and though I do not understand with any certainty what the fuck he’s talking about, I believe him. From the sinewy sentence deformations of Waxman we move now to the droll office compressions of Dave Englander. The workplace is a frequent dramatic locus these days for the simple reason that more and more of our waking hours are spent there, and Englander’s Jameson is a fascinating addition to the subspecies of cubicular witness. He’s compelling as both half-numb participant and half-appalled observer in the land of office parks, over-lit gyms, soggy, chain restaurant nachos and slick, desperate men who fly around trying to “sell work.”
Rebecca Schiff has already begun publishing her sharp, funny fictions in journals like n+1, and her piece, “F=ma” (are these signs of a mathematical trend in magazine and story titling?) is a tantalizing example of her gift for wedding coiled, witty prose with genuine empathy. Jeff Bender also writes in a deadpan, quick-tempo style, perfect for this brilliant slice of jock pathos. One of the hilarious effects of this piece is watching Bender’s wrestling coach narrator trying to keep pace with the implications of his observations, not to mention the bizarre code of his colleague, Regan. Just another night at the Tank, I guess.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy these writers, their charged, distinctive voices, and become as hungry as I am for more from them. - Sam Lipsyte