What is "experimental fiction"? Or "innovative"? Why does it matter?

I would like to discuss the difference between "innovative" and "experimental." It seems the two words have different connotations: "innovative" fares better than "experimental," for sure. The word "experimental" can be used as an insult. It can be used, offhandedly, to describe anything that looks weird, reads weirdly, makes the reader feel weird. But I don't think any of this can be applied to the word "innovative."

Innovative suggests something new, something radical, something we haven't seen before, a new approach to an old standard, an invention, an improvement, something that will contribute usefully to our human experiences here on earth. I think, seen that way, innovative speaks to the implicit value of worth attached to the attempted experiment. I think, in order for something to be innovative, it must be an improvement upon something already in existence. And that improvement means the experiment succeeded.

Innovation = success! And for the greater good.

On the other side of things, "experimental" now feels much riskier to me than "innovative" — because experiments can, and do, fail.

Experiment comes first. Innovation, if lucky — perhaps — follows. 

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If we run with my proposal that "innovative" suggests improvement or advancement for human beings (and implicitly connotes the successful experiment), and that the word "experimental" signifies only the risk (because the experiment could go either way), then what kind of writers do we want to be?

Risk-takers, outcome be damned?

Is it the experiment that matters? The attempt? The risk?

Or do we want the glory of the experiment's success? And is it OK if the glory only comes after we're long dead and gone? (Keats died believing he was a failed poet. Kafka, Thoreau, Dickinson, Plath, Lovecraft, Poe, Melville, Chopin, Hurston — all of them, appreciated only after death.)

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I have been thinking about this a lot, lately. Maybe because Lance finally approved my Problematic over the weekend, and I look at that document now and think: I could never have written this before I got here.

It is not a creative document. It's a theoretical proposal, which I began drafting in July, about what my core "problem" is — what I read for when I read, what I am trying to figure out as I am reading, what kinds of reading most impresses me because it exemplifies the innovation, is proof of that author's successful experiment, the author who took that core problem (the thing I too am most passionate and obsessive about) to heart and addressed it in a new way. 

My entire way of thinking about craft has changed, since writing that document. I am not the same writer, or reader, I was when I got here a year and a half ago. I now know what I care most about, and I understand why it's a problem — not just regarding the work of craft, but the work of structures, of language, society, and what we think we mean when we think we mean. I have a better sense now of why I want to address my own most "problematic" thing, in my own writing, too. (And so it seems like an amazing gift that for the next year I get to read and focus on precisely those texts that, throughout history, addressed this problem, too. And innovated, again and again. In so many different ways. Thus paving the way for future innovation.)

Not long ago, I revisited the piece I wrote in Lance's Narrative Theory last spring. It was so risky for me — the first page ends on my narrator's "dripping cunt" — and I was uncomfortable with that. But I wrote it. Read from it at AWP. And then serialized it, online, at Necessary Fiction. The text itself is proof that I wrote it. But for some reason, I can't tap into it. I can't revise and expand the thing the way I envisioned I would back in those first-draft days. I don't recognize the writer who wrote it. I want to, though. I want to feel that brave again. I want to want to take the risk.

After I reread my piece from last year, I thought long about the writer who wrote it. She was assuredly braver than I am now, and writing from a place of genuine fear and shame and hurt. What made her able and willing to do that, though? What brought it out of her? What inspired her? And who told her it was okay, to put it down, to try the experiment and see what might come of it? 

I think (besides the class in general) that, more than any other writer on our syllabus, it was Kathy Acker, whose words and images were screaming in my face in the weeks leading up to the day I submitted my piece for workshop. Acker just fucking went for it, you know? And she's dead now. Which matters to me. It would have mattered a lot to me then, too.  

I want to wrap up by saying: We need to write what hurts. We need to take bigger risks. Otherwise, what's the point? I mean, I want my books to be remembered. Don't you? And there's nothing wrong with wanting that, or saying it. I want my books to survive me. I want them to be taught in universities and I want them respected. I wouldn't mind seeing it happen in my lifetime, too. But if I don't? Well, maybe I'll be discovered posthumously. (That's a joke.) Either way, here's the thing. . . . At the end of the road, or tunnel, or whatever, I want to say: I risked everything. I put it all on the page. I never let fear take over, doubt, hesitation, rationality, logic, or whatever else. I took the risks. I experimented. Sometimes I failed. Spectacularly. Sometimes I got it right. But always, always, I laid it all out.

And so my takeaway — what this means to me, right now, in this moment — is: Every line, every sentence, every word. Must. Hurt. Must willingly and actively and purposefully take the risk. Make it personal. With hope for the greater good. 

Liminality, Identity, and Gratitude

Kristina Marie Darling, one of the hardest working women I know, has invited me to participate in what I'm sure will turn out to be an enlightening conversation. If not for anyone else, then at least for me. Today, in our first exchange, I shared something that feels both too-revealing to share and at the same time exhilarating, simply because I have always maintained that my private life is my own. So, I imagine, unless you know me in real life, you probably have no idea if I'm married, single, or dating. I have been especially withholding in that most public private space, Facebook, where I have never revealed even the slightest glimpse into my romantic life. And while I don't intend to start now, I do want to speak up, finally, about my strong personal belief in the freedom and power of sexual fluidity, and my own resistance to being categorized as some troubling label that can't possibly represent who I am and why I love and have loved the people with whom I've shared and given so much of myself.

A small group of local writers I know gather regularly for Queer Family Dinners, and I am honored to be invited to share these meals. Sometimes I feel like a beige and boring J. Crew ad in the midst of more exciting personalities exhibiting exquisitely individualized styles. But never once have I felt anything with them but safe, comfortable, heard, appreciated, understood, cared for, trusted, respected, loved. This is my family away from family, the family I see every day. These are the people who can actually get me out of my house for social interaction. And today it feels necessary to publicly honor them. And my own place within our circle. 

It has been a long day, actually, of so many questions and answers. In addition to the exchange I had with Kristina, I also returned a completed interview to an MFA student at LSU, who will be presenting in class on a number of topics, including craft and process concerns, publishing fears, cross-genre writing, and Asian American women writers. I was uncomfortable, to be perfectly honest, answering the question about my Asian-ness, because I have no idea what it means to be Asian. Adopted from Korea at the age of two, I am unable to identify as either Korean or as a properly assimilated American. I am in-between. Just as my writing is in-between. 

Coincidentally, my first attempt at answering that question about my Asian-ness actually prepared me for another set of questions that came along later in the day for a different audience. Here, I began to fall apart. I deferred to other writers of color. I let their words speak for me. I needed their words to open the door for me to even be able to think about responding with stories of my own experiences. But why? Are my experiences not worthy of being shared? And why have I felt, for so long, that to have any experience at all is fraudulent, if only because I feel no allegiance to any sort of racial identity? 

One interview answer I'll share a small excerpt from is in response to Claudia Rankine's CitizenThe book opens with a classroom scene that brought up long-buried memories for me about my own invisibility, which was never more obvious to me than on the first day of every school year: 

During roll call, I hear my name and raise my hand. The teacher says my name again and doesn’t see my raised hand. She continues scanning the room for Molly Gaudry. When the teacher does finally see my hand in the air, because there are no others, she is annoyed that it is there. I must not speak English. Yes? What do you need? My hand goes down. 

I have never liked talking about race. I realize now that it's quite reasonable to assume that nobody likes talking about it. But it is necessary. And we all have important contributions to make. Mine, oddly enough, is less about race than it is my own sense of racelessness. I feel nothing. I do not feel Korean. I do not feel my mother's Russian and Hungarian lineage. I do not feel the French Canadian roots of my last name. And actually, I don't know if it even is French Canadian. It's always been as good a guess as any. I certainly don't feel the Irish history behind Molly. Or the Chinese name my parents wrote in as my middle name, just in case I wanted a more Asian-sounding name when I grew up. Regarding my Korean name, I feel even less of a connection. The girl with that name was someone I have never known how to be. That girl died on the plane from Korea to America. 

Many years later, I would return to Korea, thinking I might dig up that girl, her family, her roots. I was lucky, in contrast to so many other adoptees hoping for the same, because I did reunite with my biological family. I met my paternal grandmother, many aunts and cousins, and I accepted the invitation to live for a while with my biological father and his wife and their two children. One night, after many shots of soju, that man said I was not the "virtuous girl" my birth name signified. He then renamed me, right then and there. The new name, which I have forgotten, means something like "woman from the sea." 

Identity is a slippery thing. I find myself, surprisingly and suddenly, at 33 years old, though, finally confronting my own reasons for having always turned away from these discussions and self-interrogations. Trapped in the liminally charged space of my own culturally liminal subjectivity, I am saddened to see it now for what it is. And I am saddened, too, that I have no desire to create even an imaginary homeland. I feel nothing. I feel no need to look back. I feel no need to look anywhere but into the faces and hearts of those I love most, and find myself there. 

What I want to say now is something I am very grateful to be able to say. I would not have come to any of these realizations if not for the three different sets of interview questions I received today. I would not have revealed here in this post what I, on principle, do not wish to ever share with others because it's none of anyone's business but my own. And I would not have made these connections if I weren't already neck-deep in critical essays on Liminality. I have resisted Liminality for months now, I have rejected the obvious implications of how it appears not just in my formal genre-blurring projects and hazy, magical realism-inspired landscapes, but also in my sexual and racial histories, too, and so many other aspects of my constantly shifting and sliding identities. 

It seems, though, that ultimately Liminality is it. I'm going to finish Problematic proposal once and for all, and when it's finally approved I'm going to start reading. The texts I read over these next few years will all, I hope, help me to further interrogate myself, my histories, my now. And maybe these findings will have a significant impact on my future. Not only in my real life, but also in the writing that might emerge. So much remains to be seen. But so much, today, has begun to be said. And I am grateful. 

And it's back to the drawing board. Again.

But I don't think I have to totally ditch the stuff from my previous posts. It's just that those things aren't necessarily the most useful foci for now. I think? 

So I started over again.

I read a lot of critical essays, and I think I have a better handle now on things like the postcolonial and diasporic writer's liminal location, the liminally charged space of culturally liminal subjectivity, liminal identities, liminal landscapes, erotic liminality, and embodied liminalities, etc.

So I'm going to try to write this proposal tonight. And I will not stare off into space wishing I were floating on my back in the ocean at sunset like it's summer. 

molly gaudry