Writing from joy
Or the inflatable man
It’s no secret by now that the publishing industry rewards writers from marginalized communities for writing about trauma. But it’s also no secret that there are more and more writers from marginalized communities pushing back against this trend, telling or calling for stories of joy.
As a queer, genderqueer Jew, I like to count myself among them. For marginalized people, to claim and share joy is a powerful act, because it challenges the dominant narrative that to be queer or transgender or female or a person of color or disabled or old or fat are qualities to be pitied.
Far from it.
Yet even though I agree wholeheartedly that it’s important to tell joyful stories, my own writing has always come from a place of difficulty, be it trauma, mental or physical illness, or struggles with my gender identity and sexuality. These are simply the experiences that have inspired me to put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard). I never felt the impulse to write when I was happy.
Then two things happened.
First, scrolling Facebook, I stumbled across a photograph of an inflated man propped up in a dumpster. Actually, it was more like a tall, white, very narrow egg with a photograph of a man printed on it. He was white, middle-aged, and smiley — and exceedingly ordinary. I wanted to understand what the heck it was, but the caption said only something like, “I found this weird thing in the dumpster, haha.”
Reader: this thing played on my imagination for over a year, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Then the second thing happened. I took a workshop on writing transgender characters with Foster. For one of the exercises, Foster guided us to tap into queer joy and then do some freewriting from that place. They set a timer, and off we wrote. The first thing that came to my mind was the inflatable man, so I went with it.
What emerged both delighted and excited me. The narrator receives the inflatable man as a gift from their girlfriend, and as the story evolves, the inflatable man inspires the narrator to think ever more expansively (and joyfully!) about their own gender. Feeling encouraged, I continued to work on it beyond the workshop, and eventually it became a flash-fiction story titled “Our Man,” which was published by Hobart in August 2021. (If you’re interested, you can read it here.)
I had so much fun writing about the inflatable man that I decided to write a second story about him: same man, completely different story, equal amounts of queer joy, with a dose of feminist strength. But I couldn’t figure out an ending, so I left it to sit, and then a whole bunch of deadlines took me away from it forever.
This past week, for the first time in possibly a year, I had no deadlines, so I pulled it out and, with the help of my wonderful writing group, finally figured out the ending. I’m not exaggerating when I say that revising this story has been the most fun I’ve had writing — at least since I worked on “Our Man.”
This weekend, I’ve been feeling so grateful that this ridiculous doll-thing made its way into my Facebook feed, triggering my imagination and inspiring so much joy in my writing — which, as it turns out, is not only good for social justice but also for the soul. I mean, who among us couldn’t use a little more uplifting these days?
From a craft perspective, my inflatable man also reminds me of something Brock Clarke said in a lecture at the Colgate Writers Conference several years ago. The gist was that you can infuse any ordinary object with deep meaning if your character(s) ascribes some value to it that’s unique to them.
So . . . this week, my wish for you is that you find some object that inspires you to write from a place of joy. And if you do, I’d love to hear about it.
Meanwhile, I look forward to next time.
Jen (and the inflatable man)
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Note regarding the controversy over Alex Perez’s interview in Hobart: I was disappointed with their choice to publish the interview, but even more disappointed with how editors on both sides of the ensuing debate conducted themselves. Ultimately, I decided not to pull the story from Hobart, but I’m also not comfortable driving traffic to their site right now.