February 4, 2011
I’ve been working on a novel for a while now, and I’m nearing the end of a solid (though flawed) first draft. But in my academic and public life, I haven’t told that many people about it. In fact, I only mentioned it on Twitter a few days ago, and I still feel reluctance at claiming the fiction-writer status, since I’m unpublished. Mostly, though, I’ve been afraid to “come out” as a fiction writer because I’m an academic.
I was afraid that being open about writing fiction would hurt my chances on the job market. (Silly me! I should’ve known that being a feminist pop music scholar was enough of a barrier toward getting a tenure-track job!) Academic employers could see my blog and say, “Well, if she’s working on this fiction thing, will she be able to keep up a steady stream of publications toward tenure? Won’t she be distracted?” The only way to counter that is to point to my record of publication, which continues to grow, and to note that I’ve been doing a lot of research in the past six months on a new project. But would a committee think my commitment to academia was strong enough?
This imagined search committee’s doubt about my potential to publish represents an attitude that pervades academia, and it leads to its own line of fears and stresses. In academia, you must always work, work, work, the dominant discourse asserts, so you can secure tenure and never have to work again. The big secret of academia, though, is that most people spend far more time worrying about their work instead of actually doing it. They/you/I fret over every deadline, rue every conference paper, freak out about sending things off to journals. Worry leads to procrastination leads to rushed deadlines leads to more worry.
In short, being an academic is an exercise in perfectionism gone wrong. It isn’t productive. It isn’t helpful. It isn’t sane. Writing fiction has been my way out of this cycle.
Last spring, I started research on a project about feminism and popular music since 1990. I won’t go into it much here, but I love it. The first chapter focuses on Riot Grrrl, nostalgia, and historiography, and I spent a lot of my summer interviewing women about their relationship with feminism and popular music. But my focus on actually writing that chapter kept being interrupted by, well, more research. I didn’t feel like I could sit down and write something deeply analytical until I had some perspective on the material. And because I was finding more research material, getting more interviews, and branching out to more interlocutors than I originally thought (what a problem to have, right?), that day kept getting postponed.
Just in case you think this is another form of procrastination, I have done a lot of work on the actual writing of this chapter recently. But back in October, when I felt overwhelmed by research, I also felt the compulsion to write something else. I needed a break from the intensity of research proposals, book reviews, and conference papers. And so I turned to fiction.
Writing fiction frees up my brain. When I sit down to work on academic prose, I feel the pressure of perfection, as though every paragraph, every sentence, every phrase must emerge fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. I leave myself no room for error. But when I write fiction, I’m OK with the knowledge that I can, should, will have to revise. And that revising is not only OK, but expected. And so I can, and do, write about three times more quickly when I’m writing fiction. Is it any good? Probably not! But I can and will make it better.
I’d forgotten this aspect of fiction writing in my sojourn away from it. But it’s a valuable lesson for an academic to remember. It’s helped me so much over this past semester. When I had to do a series of research proposals over the winter break, I wrote in a much more organized fashion than I’ve experienced in years. It’s still to early to know if they’ll bring me any funding, but the feedback I got from my mentors, who can be blunt and pointed with their critiques, was shockingly positive.
In the end, whatever happens in either my fiction or academic career will happen. But I think that both are mutually beneficial. And for how my academic writing helps my fiction… well, that’s another blog post.
February 3, 2011
Over the past few months, I’ve been obsessively working on a YA novel in my spare time. I’ve also started obsessively reading YA literary agents’ blogs and tweets, and noticed a surprising consistency on pop culture: Don’t use it, as it will make you seem ooooooooooold, because by the time you get to print somewhere in 2015, the Biebz will no longer be famous, or Lady Gaga will seem soooo 2009. And I get that.
But what if you use pop culture to fill out a setting, or to create a sense of time and place?
Unfortunately, the consensus still seems to be, “It’ll make you sound oooooooooooooooold.”
Here’s where I, a pop music scholar in my day job, disagree. And where I finally get to the story that gives us the title for today’s blog post.
I started teaching pop music history in the spring of 2008, shortly before I finished my PhD. In the first few classes, I felt like I was struggling to connect with the students, especially the few girls (9 of 31 students). They sat quietly and respectfully in class, but none of them said anything. I started to blame my teaching, and maybe the fact that the music was really oooooold. Hell, most of it was from over 20 years before I was born. How could students born in 1990 relate to it?
And then came the Girl Group class. Or, rather, the day before the Girl Group class. I was, at the time, also teaching a music history intro at another university on alternating days. I often put on music from non-classical artists before class, and that day, before my 8:30 class, I chose the Shirelles. What happened next surprised me, mostly because it was very loud for 8:25.
“Oh my god! I love this song.”
“Yeah, it was in Dirty Dancing!”
“I love that movie!”
“I have the soundtrack!”
So, here we have a movie from 1987 about the early 1960s, and the girls are going CRAZY about both. It gave me an idea about how I could approach the Girl Group class.
When I went in to class the next day, I took a cue from Dirty Dancing and Susan Douglas’s essay “Why the Shirelles Mattered.” Instead of giving a history of girl groups, or the Brill Building, I started by asking them to imagine themselves as girls in 1958, when some of the first “Girl Group” songs started to chart. What could they do after school? Where were they allowed to go? What kind of jobs could they hold? What kind of dates would they go on? What weren’t they allowed to do? What were the differences between “bad” girls and “good” girls?
And then, after we listened to the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” I asked the students what the song is about.
“It’s a one-night stand,” a girl answered. She’d never spoken before in class.
“Will he love her tomorrow?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“How do you know, from the music or lyrics?” I asked.
“It’s not in the lyrics,” another girl answered. “You just know.”
“How do you know?” I asked again. I wasn’t letting them off the hook.
“Because of her voice,” yet another girl said. “She’s sad.”
And so we had a discussion about voice and performance and sexuality, and from there we moved on to how other Girl Groups negotiated these treacherous shoals in the early 1960s. It became an enormously successful class and a moment of clarity for me about the importance of getting the class to relate to the music in a genuine way. The Shirelles resonated with the girls because, well, what teen girl doesn’t at some point or another fear that the person she just made out with (or went “all the way” with, as the song seems to imply) won’t love her tomorrow?
So, what does teaching a pop music class have to do with writing YA fiction with pop culture? In short, it’s all about voice. Writing a YA novel is about getting teens to relate to your characters and plots in a genuine way, just as I try to get students to relate to teen girls of the pre-women’s rights, pre-pill, pre-Title IX era. Pop culture can absolutely be a genuine part of your writing, as long as it fits the voice of your characters, their plot, and their times.
Most problems with writers sounding ooooooooold when they use pop culture arise from issues of voice. Their characters won’t seem filled out and real because they used pop culture as shorthand to create reference points that the readers won’t get because they weren’t even born yet. Or they don’t sound authentic because the pop culture isn’t an integral part of the characters’ lives, and so a toss-away reference to Soundgarden just seems stupid and out of place and very, very dated. But I’m guessing that writers who treat pop culture this way probably have other problems with voice, too, like saying someone was “going with” a boy instead of dating or hooking up or whatever.
All of these are huge pitfalls, and it’s easy to blame pop culture. But pop culture isn’t the cause of bad writing. When it’s used well, it can help to open up a whole new world, like Roddy Doyle’s almost-YA The Commitments or Judy Blume’s overlooked classic MG novel, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. Without the references that date these books, neither would create a fully realized world.
I get a lot out of the agent blogs and Twittering I read, and I appreciate them all. But as a pop music scholar and aspiring YA writer, please do me a favor. Stop blaming pop culture and start pointing out the real culprit: lazy, sloppy writing.