Cross-posted to the The Asexual Agenda.
Earlier this month, I wrote about some of the trouble I encountered in creative writing classes here [tw: verbal abuse by teachers, domestic violence mentions]. Consider this post a sort of follow-up to that one. It is also my official submission for the March Carnival of Aces, although I think most of what I wrote about this month is on-topic enough to include even though it wasn’t specifically for the carnival.
Last time, my focus was on trouble with teachers, and how as a survivor (and secondarily, as an ace) sometimes creative writing classes are especially difficult. This time, I want to focus on reception of different types of work about asexuality specifically, and mostly from peers rather than teachers.
I first started writing about asexuality in essays, for your basic English 101 class—the slightly advanced version, I guess. This was in 2005, which was well before our movement had gained most of the momentum we now have. It was a basic 101 class, and a basic 101 essay.
In this class, there was only a limited gesture towards a peer-review process. I can’t remember whether only one or two classmates were supposed to critique the essay, but I do remember that very few people actually did the work. My teacher (a grad student) loved the essay so much she wanted to submit it for consideration in the next edition of the (tiny, English-department-run) textbook for these courses. It didn’t make the cut. Whichever peer had to review the essay was very apathetic, scrawling just a few lazy mechanical corrections. I showed it to my best-friend-at-the-time in order to fully explain asexuality to her, and her response was deceitfully enthusiastic. She later went on to tell everyone behind my back that I had a crush on her, even though I had explicitly said in this essay that I had never had anything like a crush throughout middle and high school, and had arbitrarily made a few up to fit in better. We had a discussion about it; she knew better.
Later on, there were a few other academic essays that I incorporated asexuality into. Teachers were generally pretty fond of the novelty of it. But these mentions of asexuality were generally only side notes or footnotes, barely relevant to the rest of the text.
When the creative writing undergraduate program came into existence, I enrolled with a focus on poetry. I really like poetry. I have always been more of a poetry writer than a fiction writer. But the problem is, it’s hard to be really explicit about asexuality in poetry, and even harder to be really explicit about it when you’re writing about your own experiences as a survivor. Or as a person partnered to a trans woman who is only out to a select few. You can’t just share that sort of writing with a whole class full of people—especially not when someone there knows your family, which happened frequently. I use pseudonyms for good reasons. In a classroom setting, though, using a pseudonym is not really possible.
It’s possible to be very explicit about asexuality in a poem, but it’s really not a style that comes naturally to me. I find it too clunky, so I leave it out. I think it needs to be something that is understood about me before my poetry would actually make sense. Asexuality is invisible, so there is no easy way to mark yourself as asexual through description. Readers frequently come up with their own interpretations for poems—that’s kind of the point. But because asexuality is still thought of as an impossible option, most of them don’t even consider my poems in the light that I actually meant them to be read. So unless I’m extremely heavy-handed about that, they don’t really get it.
After getting very frustrated with poetry, I discovered that my university was expanding their classes to include one (and later, more) on creative nonfiction. I had already been blogging for a while at the time, and it sounded like something that would interest me. So I took it, and it was amazing.
I had already been writing creative nonfiction for a long time without knowing that term, I realized, but what I hadn’t understood was the true breadth of what you could do with it. It’s a style that has become pretty popular, although people who are not part of any literary, university, or writer’s groups may not recognize it as such—rather, they tend to think of it in terms of sub-genres like memoirs or literary journalism only. But rest assured, blog readers—you read this genre all the time, even if you don’t realize it. You’re technically reading it right now.
My personal essays on asexuality were very well-received in my creative nonfiction classes. There is something about using scenes to explain what asexuality is that is especially helpful in allowing others to really get what it means to be asexual. In my experience, this genre is uniquely well-suited to asexual activism, because the central tenet is truth. Your peers know that you’re telling it—and if they suspect otherwise, they mostly are going to have to keep it to themselves. The burden of proof is on them if they want to say you’re wrong. Because—if you’ve built your credibility well enough—you’ve already established yourself as a teller of truth. (As we all know, of course there will still be many people who attack your credibility, because asexuality is inherently assailable. But unless they provide proof themselves, their attacks won’t be credible.)
In a way, there’s a level of protection against identity-based attacks built in to a creative nonfiction classroom. But you’re also far more exposed, because you’re putting your own experiences out there in a way that you don’t for fiction—even if there are autobiographical elements to your fiction, readers go into it with the assumption that it’s made up, and that grants you a kind of shield. However uncomfortable it is for me to go without that shield, though, it’s even more intolerable to me to allow readers to go into my work assuming that I’m just making everything up.
I specifically avoided writing fictional asexual characters for as long as I could. But at least one fiction class was required for my degree. I took two—one of them I had to drop partially because the teacher was not nice, but mostly because circumstances accumulated to the point that I couldn’t deal with any outbursts of petulant anger. The one I completed was mostly fine, but still riddled with all these tiny little problems that made the class uncomfortable.
Generally, fiction classes at American universities tend to strongly emphasize that they are not “for” genre writers. They’re for literary fiction only. Fantasy and sci-fi writers are routinely marginalized, but that didn’t stop my peers from submitting that kind of work—one person even submitted a glib Power Rangers fanfic. It’s an unenforceable guideline, realistically, but that doesn’t stop teachers (and students) from putting down genre work at any opportunity, and being smug about their attempts at “serious” fiction.
So, being strongly encouraged to break away from my preferred types of fiction, I decided to see what the class would make of an aromantic asexual character presented in a Serious Literary Fiction type of way. It was an experimental first chapter of a potential story that I have yet to return to. The way it turned out, the character’s aromanticism was a much stronger feature of that piece than her asexuality.
And about half the class told me that they didn’t like the character, because they thought she was unbelievable. One person specifically attacked her because apparently it’s impossible for someone to not know what a crush is—a memo I clearly didn’t get. This person was in both classes and he continued to make reference to that in the second class when something tangentially related came up again. He was especially obnoxious, but he was the voice of the majority. Almost everyone pretty much nodded along with him. I can’t quite recall the specifics, but I’m pretty sure the teacher assumed my character was supposed to be an unreliable narrator.
It wasn’t a total loss—there were a few people who really liked it, and understood about both asexuality and aromanticism. They approached me outside of class time to make that known. Similarly, I found another ace person the same way through my creative nonfiction class—someone I’d already known distantly for several years, because they were friends with my sister.
For those of you who write fiction, finding those few fellow student writers who actually like your work and are supportive of asexuality can potentially make it worthwhile to share in a classroom setting. Gaining even one more person who is able to critique your work intelligently can make it well worth the risk—if you want to write professionally, having those people around is invaluable.