Making it New
“The calling of the artist, in any medium, is to make it new.”
– Jeanette Winterson
Every week when I teach, every course I teach, I post a quote on the white board. For pondering. For inspiration. The one above is in regular rotation. Often, it’s the first one I post, the first week. Sometimes, one of the writers in the room will ask what I mean by it.
My answer usually is some variation of this: our stories should make us feel something familiar as brand new – as a shock, a delight, a horror to our system; they should bear witness to how it is to be alive in our particular time and place. Not, I sometimes say, museum pieces that merely pay homage to what has come before.
Sometimes that answer is good enough. Sometimes it isn’t.
For a guy in my experimental fiction class this term, it wasn’t. “What,” he wanted to know, “does it mean? Should every story reference memes or iPhone apps?” No. It’s not necessarily about the content, the references, the possessions. It’s about the sensibility. How do we – right now today, where we are – face and engage (or avoid) the eternal human questions?
A couple weeks later in class, we were discussing the Tessa Mellas story “So Much Rain.” This guy didn’t like the story. He wanted to know why I did. Why I liked it so much. In the midst of an inarticulate answer, I had an epiphany and shifted gears. I like it, I said, enlightened, because it takes an old story – of three daughters and their missing mother – and makes me feel that loss – that raw, horrible absence – as if no human had ever experienced it before.
That was weeks ago. I was reminded of it today as I read four poems from “the meatgirl whatever” by Kristin Hatch. A writer friend – Ginny – sent them for discussion in our writing group tonight. I was hooked a few lines into the first one, called “Meatgirl Training Shift #1.” I often dream in chicken skin. / like the sun has it on. / like everyone’s faces are fried & i have to bite them off.
I never stopped being hooked. It’s not that I liked each of the poems. It’s that I couldn’t get enough. After devouring them a few times, I ordered the book. Looked back at Ginny’s email to see what she wanted us to discuss. “Help me figure out why I find these so interesting, please.” I get it, Ginny. Because I was thinking about this stuff, I knew why, at least for me, these poems about a teenage girl’s dumb job at a fast-food joint leapt off the page. And I’m going to writing group now with this enthusiasm:
Ginny, she’s making it new. She’s making you (me) feel something all over again, as if for the first time. It’s bracing. It’s exciting. It’s part of why we read.
Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.See other articles by Ron MacLean