When Dorothy Allison asked our Goddard M.F.A. class "How do you get your writing done?" I should have kept my mouth shut. "I bribe myself with decaf soy lattes," was not the answer she was looking for. She chuckled, shook her long brown hair, and called on the woman to my right. The next reply, "I just force myself to sit down and do it," wasn't the right answer either.
I had the pleasure of being accosted by Ms. Allison, author of best-selling books such as Bastard Out of Carolina and Trash, at our July creative writing residency where she was the visiting writer. Her class, billed as "Character Driven Fiction," displeased many of my classmates who didn't appreciate her uncut style. Perhaps they expected to hear a lecture on the technical aspects of plotting a novel by using character development. But Allison wasn't interested in giving us what we expected. She's out there. Openly lesbian and flamboyantly southern, she uses the "f" word when she talks about sex. She talks about sex frequently, and when she's not talking about sex, she uses the "f" word about everything else she is talking about.
"I'm here to tell you what no one else may ever tell you about writing," she explained to our startled group of students, faculty and staff. She proved more interested in developing our character as writers than in helping us develop the characters in our books.
"What is the book you most want to write?" she asked. We mumbled answers. Her volume increased. "Are you writing THAT book?" A few of us nodded, but most looked down at their spiral notebooks. When Allison's fist hit the table, I jumped. "Why The F**k Not?" she shouted. The room expanded with the silence that followed.
She continued, calmer, confident that she now had our full attention. "What is the one thing you know that it seems the rest of the world doesn't?" This she said is the story we must tell before we die. In a tone that bordered on pleading, she urged us, "Find a character you love and a story you must tell. That is how you write."
Her gritty manner notwithstanding, Allison's class came at exactly the right time for many of us. After six days of listening to our excellent Goddard professors teach the meat and potatoes of the writing craft, Allison's sermon rolled like a salty gale waking us from our exhausted slumber.
Toward the end of her talk, Allison openly discussed her abusive childhood. "If you had a violent past," she said, "make peace with it. You've got to be sane to do the emotional work of writing a book." A quiet life supports the sanity it takes to write. Then she chuckled, pushed her hair back from her face, and said, "Move to the suburbs. It worked for me."