By Angie Lee
This quarter, I’m in a Special Topics creative writing seminar called War & Writing. The class was intended to bridge the gap between veterans and non-veterans through the art of storytelling. It is a 16-person seminar comprised of eight veterans and eight non-veterans. It has been the most rewarding class that I’ve taken at Stanford so far. We’ve learned about trauma narratives, discussed why people tell stories and expressed what we expect from a story. Most importantly, we’ve been attempting to tackle the heavy question: Who gets to write a war story?
Is it ethically correct for me – a Stanford student who grew up in a nice suburb of Chicago, a person who has experienced no hardship even close to going through, let alone fighting in, a war – to write a fictional story on the topic of war? At first, I thought no – absolutely not. Who am I to even pretend to know and write about what goes on in a war? Taking this class, however, has allowed me to realize that the answer to this question is not black and white. If fiction writers only had the right to write about things that they had experienced first-hand, there may be no stories in the world at all. It is the duty of a fiction writer to imagine things, to create a world for readers to visit, to move readers and make them think. My professor has been teaching us that the genre of fiction allows writers to write truth without being limited to fact. Okay, so it’s okay for me to write about things outside my realm of experience. But how far does this extend? I still felt a little weird about writing a war story, and I think the question about who gets to write a story doesn’t have an explicit answer.
Nevertheless, part of the course is to write a war story, so I did. And this week, I had it workshopped. Sharing a piece of writing with others and having them read, analyze and critique it is an extremely vulnerable task in and of itself. Sharing a war story and having it read, analyzed and critiqued by veterans therefore was a bit nerve-wracking, to say the least.
I entered the workshop with sweaty palms, ready to get flamed by my classmates with things like “That’s not realistic at all” or “How dare you write that?” I don’t know why I had such expectations – my classmates are all incredibly kind and thoughtful individuals, and such harsh criticisms hadn’t occurred in any of the workshops that came before me. Despite my initial nervousness, I left the workshop with a smile on my face, feeling encouraged.
The workshop begins with people sharing positive feedback, things they thought worked well in the story. Then, they started discussing questions that arose while reading or things they would’ve liked to see more of. I’m not sure if this is how it works in all creative writing workshops here, but for this class, the author of the piece being workshopped does not say a word. You sit there and listen to the class discuss your work, almost like how a book club runs. However, the encouragement I felt after participating in the workshop didn’t come from the compliments I received, though they were incredibly supportive. Instead, the encouragement came from the mere fact that people were taking my writing seriously.
As I sat in the workshop, my classmates talked about my character, John, as if he was a real person. They talked about how they related to how John felt when his grandfather smiled at him, as if somewhere, sometime in real life, John’s grandfather had really smiled at him, and John had really felt proud. My classmates didn’t act as if this was just a silly story for a writing class; they treated it as if it was an important piece worth revising to make a better impact. I can’t pinpoint what it is, but hearing other people discuss my work made it feel real, and that was the biggest compliment I could’ve received.
I would encourage everyone to take a creative writing workshop at some point in their time here at Stanford, no matter what your interest of study is. I guarantee that even if you don’t leave the class feeling like a great writer, you will leave feeling like a real writer – a person whose thoughts matter and are important – and that, to me, is even more valuable.
I can’t wait to get revising.
Contact Angie Lee at angielee ‘at’ stanford.edu.