I picked Jeff up from the airport. We’d met online and chatted for a few months. Newly divorced, he said, about fifteen years older than me. But he was normal, and he was from somewhere else. I’d spent hours…
I’ve written a couple of unpublished novels and a handful of short stories. Only this one is (loosely) based on something that happened. I thought one or two events I lived were interesting enough to write fiction about, so I did.
I asked for feedback on this piece from two writer friends—both men—who I deeply respect. To my dismay, I got more than craft advice. One asked if this was what I thought of men, and of him. Another said he found it hard to read because he’d been through a divorce. He sympathized deeply with Jeff, the divorced man from early in the story, and how he was portrayed.
I’m not of the opinion that rattling people is necessary to good writing. I like men. If I show my fiction to a man prior to publication, I probably hope for his approval as well as his feedback. But the kind of man I am good friends with hears this specific story as a critique, a gut punch: so this is what you think of me?
As I have gotten better at polishing the mirror that is my work, people see themselves in it and respond. This isn’t hit dogs holler; nobody’s the bad guy here. We must all contend with the violence of being perceived—both when we portray, and when we are portrayed.
Here’s what I hear about myself: the choice to base a piece on real events is frequently dismissed as mere transcription, as if reality itself decides the shape of a scene and the arrangement of the lines within it. The story’s in the oft-maligned (in lit fic) first person, concerning a sneered about topic—women working out their issues via sex. I was drafting this story just as “Cat Person” came out, and I was excited and chagrined by what I perceive as parallels in subject matter. I recall the subject matter was dismissed as trivial, both because it was about a woman, but also about one without “real problems.” I recall the strange, rambling, needy response essays from men who identified with the man in that story and who confused Kristen Roupenian for her protagonist. I worried I’d hear the same on a smaller scale if I ever sold this story. And then, on top of all that, my own piece hurt the feelings of the exact men who I’d hoped would understand it. It’s a story that shouldn’t be told, written in a manner it shouldn’t be told in, and it hurts people I love. So what’s the point? Seriously, what am I doing here?
Here’s what the story is about: me. It’s about not settling for being merely what other people need from me. It’s about how my view of men is more complicated than one 3,500-word story, or even my entire body of work to date. I am more than what I commit to fiction. And maybe others don’t have to assert that they and their writing are ends unto themselves and not about anyone else. Maybe that’s not something they wrestle with when they sit down to write. I do. For me, that’s ultimately the most difficult discipline of writing: continually asserting, through practice, that I have something to say and I deserve to say it.
M. K. ANDERSON is a queer writer from Austin, Texas where she lives with her husband and pet finches. Her short stories have appeared in the literary horror anthology series Nightscript and Alternating Current’s The Coil. She also writes nonfiction. Her essays on the intersection of socialism, trauma, and eugenics can be found in Protean Magazine and the Institute for Christian Socialism’s The Bias.