Yeah and yay are different

If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ve probably met this Flannery O’Connor quote: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” My teachers loved to use these three sentences of O’Connor’s to bolster their sometimes savage approaches to student writing. I’m not a fan of the quote, or the idea that a teacher’s job is to stifle. Writing, after all, is subjective. If a teacher hates your work, it may not be because your work sucks. I hate all kinds of things that other readers love. I find most of the classics tedious and overwrought. Ann Patchett is my favorite writer, though half of her novels don’t work for me, and I get bored by her nonfiction.

When I was in writing workshops, I never savaged anyone else’s work. We were there to learn, weren’t we? I looked for what worked, and tried to encourage what worked to be developed. That was the whole thing. Find what works, and develop that. Writing is a trade; we’re supposed to get better at it. We’re also supposed to take risks. Some of those risks will work, and some won’t work until we have the skills to pull them off. And when you see a work in progress, it’s like seeing someone naked: you had better be kind.

That’s not to say that I’m a judgment-free zone. Years ago, as personnel manager at a bookstore, I was given a huge stack of applications to weed through, and I tossed anything with a spelling or grammatical error. I have an infinite set of pet peeves about writing, and I get upset when people don’t know the difference between possessives and contractions. If someone writes “loose” when she means “lose” I have to stop myself from correcting her. It’s almost a reflex to correct people. But it’s a reflex that I do everything I can to quash.

For me, everything changed when I read Jane Goodall’s biography by Dale Peterson. Goodall is, without question, one of the most brilliant humans of all time. She discovered that chimpanzees use tools and eat meat on her first research trip to Gombe. That was UNTHINKABLE when she discovered it. We had to change our definition of humans after her discovery. Nevertheless, when she began to pursue her doctorate in an effort to give more credence to her science, the gatekeepers criticized her for naming the chimps she was studying. They told her that real scientists are objective. They hated that she was a woman. They hated that she was a terrible speller. They decided that she didn’t measure up to their notions of a scientist. And it was savage.

I read her poorly written letters. I read the many versions of “friend” that she tried out because she just could not spell the damned word. And I realized that hating on people for their grammar or spelling is as shitty as savaging a writer’s work in progress. Or lambasting a student for his attempts at a poem. It’s art! There are rules, but the point is to be moved. And if you are moved by someone who broke the rules, that’s more vital than being bored to fucking death by someone who follows them.

I don’t want to be a gatekeeper. I don’t want to tell other people what they are not. Not smart enough. Not educated enough. Not talented enough. We’re all still learning. My mother had to correct my pronunciation of “machinations” when I was thirty for christsake. If you can’t help someone improve without humiliating them, you’re an asshole.

Is your meaning clear? That’s the first objective. The engine may need work, but you won’t know until you test it.

I make judgments about writing all the time. I love all kinds of stories. Have you ever read Sandra Boynton and not felt your heart lift? What qualifies as good for me, may not work in any regard for you. Like when people tell me they don’t read YA, or watch superhero movies, as though something is only art if it lives at a particular height. There’s beauty everywhere. And natural talent is self limiting. In the end, you have to work hard to improve. Get the work out first, and then get a good editor to help you polish it. Find what works, and develop that. Don’t let people bully you with out-of-context quotes that happen to support their own philosophies. Flannery O’Connor also said: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

1 thought on “Yeah and yay are different”

  1. Hooray, Jill!

    I recently read an article about “your” and “you’re” and if you correct someone, that means you have a lot of privilege.

    Thanks for this. I feel like typos should be banished, banished, I say! But that would mean our educational system would be far more funded/efficacious than it is now.

    Much love, Anna

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Jill Malone

Jill Malone grew up in a military family, went to German kindergarten, and lived across from a bakery that made gummi bears the size of mice. She has lived on the East Coast and in Hawaii, and for the last seventeen years in Spokane with her son, two dogs, a hedgehog, and a lot of outdoor gear. She looks for any excuse to play guitar. Jill is married to a performance artist and addiction counselor who makes the best risotto on the planet.

Giraffe People is her third novel. Her first novel, Red Audrey and the Roping, was a Lambda finalist and won the third annual Bywater Prize for Fiction. A Field Guide to Deception, her second novel, was a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley, and won the Lambda Literary Award and the Great Northwest Book Festival.

Giraffe People

Giraffe People

Between God and the army, fifteen-year-old Cole Peters has more than enough to rebel against. But this Chaplain’s daughter isn’t resorting to drugs or craziness. Truth to tell, she’s content with her soccer team and her band and her white bread boyfriend.

And then, of course, there’s Meghan.

Meghan is eighteen years old and preparing for entry into West Point. For this she has sponsors: Cole’s parents. They’re delighted their daughter is finally looking up to someone. Someone who can tutor her and be a friend.

But one night that relationship changes and Cole’s world flips.

Giraffe People is a potent reminder of the rites of passage and passion that we all endure on our road to growing up and growing strong. Award-winning author Jill Malone tells a story of coming out and coming of age, giving us a take that is both subtle and fresh.

More info →
Buy from GoodReads
Buy from Powells
Buy from Barnes and Noble
Buy from Barnes and Noble Nook
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Amazon Kindle
A Field Guide to Deception

A Field Guide to Deception

In Jill Malone’s second novel, A Field Guide to Deception, nothing is as simple as it appears: community, notions of motherhood, the nature of goodness, nor even compelling love. Revelations are punctured and then revisited with deeper insight, alliances shift, and heroes turn anti-hero—and vice versa.

With her aunt’s death Claire Bernard loses her best companion, her livelihood, and her son’s co-parent. Malone’s smart, intriguing writing beguiles the reader into this taut, compelling story of a makeshift family and the reawakening of a past they’d hoped to outrun. Claire’s journey is the unifying tension in this book of layered and shifting alliances.

A Field Guide to Deception is a serious novel filled with snappy dialogue, quick-moving and funny incidents, compelling characterizations, mysterious plot twists, and an unexpected climax. It is a rich, complex tale for literary readers.

More info →
Buy from GoodReads
Buy from Powells
Buy from Barnes and Noble
Buy from Barnes and Noble Nook
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Red Audrey and the Roping

Red Audrey and the Roping

Occasionally a debut novel comes along that rocks its readers back on their heels. Red Audrey and the Roping is one of that rare and remarkable breed. With storytelling as accomplished as successful literary novelists like Margaret Atwood and Sarah Waters, Jill Malone takes us on a journey through the heart of Latin professor Jane Elliot.

Set against the dramatic landscapes and seascapes of Hawaii, this is the deeply moving story of a young woman traumatized by her mother’s death. Scarred by guilt, she struggles to find the nerve to let love into her life again. Afraid to love herself or anyone else, Jane falls in love with risk, pitting herself against the world with dogged, destructive courage. But finally she reaches a point where there is only one danger left worth facing. The sole remaining question for Jane is whether she is willing to accept her history, embrace her damage, and take a chance on love.

As well as a gripping and emotional story, Red Audrey and the Roping is a remarkable literary achievement. The breathtaking prose evokes setting, characters, and relationships with equal grace. The dialogue sparks and sparkles. Splintered fragments of narrative come together to form a seamless suspenseful story that flows effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

Winner of the Bywater Prize for Fiction, Red Audrey and the Roping is one of the most memorable first novels you will ever read.

More info →
Buy from GoodReads
Buy from Powells
Buy from Barnes and Noble
Buy from Barnes and Noble Nook
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Amazon Kindle