Keynote Speech, April 2005, Miami University Undergraduate Research Forum
A few weeks ago, I was emailed a list of four questions that would serve as good starting points for this talk. I thought they were good questions and worth answering, so I’m going to answer them. But on the email I’ve scratched out the word “research” and inserted the word “writing,” because even though I consider writing to BE a type of research, I don’t consider myself primarily to be a researcher—I consider myself a writer.
So here goes:
Question number one: Why did I pursue undergraduate
The short answer is that my sophomore year at Miami I took an introduction to creative writing workshop taught by Mr. Steven Bauer (who happens to be sitting with us today), and I liked it so much that I took another and then another. I became so enamored with writing fiction that I said, “this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
The long answer is that it’s probably in my genetic makeup to create fiction. I come from a long line of obsessive, neurotic, and depressive people—all traits that come standard with your off-the-lot writer. Kurt Vonnegut writes that we writers aren’t hallucinators or crazy people, “we are [just] overwhelmingly depressed, and are descended from those who, psychologically speaking, spent more time than anyone in his or her right mind would want to spend in gloom.”
There are, of course, a few perks: getting funded to see the world and write about it is one.
But why anyone would want to doom himself to a life of sitting in a quiet room alone with a laptop, tearing his hair out, neglecting his girlfriend, and getting pasty from lack of natural sunlight is still beyond me.
So, I’ll move on to question number two: What has
research writing meant to me personally?
It always puzzles me when my “academic” friends act as though I spend my days finger-painting in the corner while they save humanity, because I think fiction writing is, at its core, a lot like any other kind of research or academic discipline: it begins with a question, or questions, about the world. And lets face it: our answers are all lacking in some way or the other. To me, fiction writing just seems to be the best way to explore my own questions.
What shapes us? What makes us who we are? Is it our families? Is it our geographical place? Is it the chemicals swirling around in our bodies? How can the people who share our blood hurt us so bad? How can we turn around and hurt them back? How can something be so funny and yet be so sad? Is this it?
I don’t write because I have the answers to these questions, I write because I’m looking for them. As the short fiction writer and satirist George Saunders says, “So many people in the world seem so sure of themselves. So there is much to be done by those of us who are sure of nothing, and wish to export this feeling.”
Writers are an ambivalent lot—which is why we can simultaneously come up with sympathetic protagonists and empathetic villains. We don’t know what to think. We think it after we’ve written it.
Question number three: What insights have I gained from my
My ambivalence about life, and the consequential inspiration for most of my work, comes from my upbringing in rural, small-town Ohio—a place that I love (for its traditions, its countryside, and sometimes quiet ways of living), and a place that I hate (for its claustrophobic ignorance, racism, homophobia, and religious hypocrisy). In high school, I wanted nothing more than to escape from Circleville. I would’ve settled for being abducted by a UFO, but I got lucky and ended up at Miami instead.
Miami has been really good to me: they’ve sent me to Chicago, New York, Florence, Italy, Cambridge, England—and the further away from home I’ve been, the more I’ve felt compelled to write about it. An artist is always an outsider—you have to be outside of something to observe it. James Joyce left Dublin to write ULYSSES, Dostoevsky left St. Petersburg to write CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. Exile has long been a part of the writer’s experience.
I believe that undergraduate education is itself a form of self-imposed exile. If a writer chooses to write about his native place, undergraduate can be a time to distance himself from his material, to let it grow and mutate in his mind, and become ripe for the fictional plucking.
I’ve heard it said that liberal education is a way to fit our autobiography into the context of the larger world. That sounds about right. For me, my liberal education has been about learning fit my autobiography into fictional characters who don’t much resemble me, but who explore a world with similar challenges as my own.
So, for the final question: How do I wish to utilize my
research writing in the future?
This country is facing dark times–a surge of stupidity, bullying, and obnoxious aggression fueled by intolerance and bigotry. As a culture, we need to be able to get inside the lives and skins and minds of other people. Good fiction presents every character as a fully developed human being—someone with a story. We hear on TV that a Marine’s been blown up in the desert, there’s a brief flicker of remorse in our guts, but then we flip the channel and see if AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL is on. On the other hand, we read Tim O’Brien’s THE THINGS THEY CARRIED or CATCH-22 or SLAUGHTER-HOUSE-FIVE, and enter the lives and hopes and dreams and stories of these soldiers, and we want to take to the streets to bring them back home.
FICTION MAKES US FEEL.
We need good fiction more than ever.
Miami recognizes this, and they’ve been amazingly supportive of my writing. Through scholarships, grants, and programs like University Summer Scholars, I’ve been able to learn my craft and perform it to the utmost of my abilities free from monetary stress. I think of myself as a living testament to Miami’s dedication to question-asking of all shapes and forms. I wouldn’t be the writer I am or that I’m going to become, without the wonderful resources of this institution.
So for the future: I’m going to sit in that lonely room every morning and crank out the pages. If the gods are willing, I’ll see you in the bookstore.