What does class have to do with writing? Everything, it seems.
Last weekend, I attended a workshop led by Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch titled, ‘Cash, Class, and Writing in America.’ Or as Lidia likes to say, “unwriting” America. It was one of those experiences that made me grateful to have access to these artists (not to mention talented classmates).
My interest in attending was based on the fact that class differences are present in almost all of my writing, yet rarely ever discussed openly. I wanted to learn to write about them more effectively. I somehow gained the belief that it’s acceptable to talk about almost anything but class and money. I’m not the only one uncomfortable with the subject. It’s taboo.
As writers we are trained to show, rather than tell. Details reveal character. We build worlds that reveal emotions. We seek to right wrongs, to give voice to the voiceless, to reveal human complexities. We pay attention. But how often have we consciously thought about choices our characters (or ourselves) make concerning class? Are we aware of the stories we tell ourselves?
We started the workshop by looking at stereotypical traits of different classes: what schools would they attend? What would their homes look like, clothes, jobs, health care, fears? How would they fight? What foods would they eat? How would their bodies move through the world? What choices are available? The list took nearly all morning and was quite extensive.
We then delved underneath the obvious to traits that cross class—shame, body issues, family expectations, and more. What we found is that, while class informs a character and can’t be ignored in a good story, members of a class are still individuals with deeply complex stories.
This workshop forced us to examine the myths we all have. The noblest story, the America Dream—I grew up poor, pulled myself out of the gutter, and made myself who I am—turned out to be a common myth, and rather pedestrian in terms of plot.
Rather, nearly all of us were helped by someone.
The story we want to capture is the interesting story, the messy story, the complex story. That story is often the intersection between the myths we tell ourselves, and reality. In class we looked for the intersecting lie. That moment when we realize our story is bullshit and we struggle to resolve it in ourselves (or so do our characters).
The workshop was also designed to help us find the stories hidden in our bodies. As a group we called on helpers, but that’s not something I am going to write about. It was too special and I’m still trying to digest it. As always, the strength and talent of our West Coast writing community humbles me. There’s a revolution going on.
One of my workshop-mates had immigrant parents. He told stories about knowing people in his parent’s village who had deeply opposing political views, yet sat down for meals together. We rarely sit together anymore. Instead, we scream at each other across social media platforms. The stories are missing. Bodies are missing. Bodies have stories to tell. Stories that reveal deep truths about what it means to be human will heal us. At least, that’s my hope.