What Do You Want Your Writing To Be Like?

One of the best readings I saw at AWP 2010 was the Black Warrior Review/Blue Hour Press event. I spent much of the conference in a drunken haze, and to be brutally honest, I don’t really remember a ton of what I listened to over those four self-destructive days (and nights!) spent in the mountains of Denver. What stands out to me most from the readings five months later is the work of a BWR poet. The gist of Chloe Cooper Jones’ reading involved a long poem where each new line began with “I want my writing to be like…” Then she’d follow that up with something funny, but actually pertinent to writing (for example, she told us how much she wanted her writing to be like the first time you saw Mike Tyson as a child, when you thought this boxer had been sent from above to devour the world).

Something about this exercise, of identifying and naming the aesthetic effect you want your writing to achieve, really stuck with me over these last few months. And that’s especially impressive considering the fact that this reading happened during happy hour AND a Rockies game which meant a lot of frat boys hooting and hollering whenever a “lady poet” spoke the word “penis” into the mic. But I think this is a valuable exercise for all writers, and I thought I’d share with you what I want my writing to be like and then you can share yours in the comments section below. What say you, PANK readers, you down?

Ok. I want my writing to be like Short Round and Mola Ram in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Short Round comes onscreen. He’s light, funny, charming, so full of energy. And although you’re pretty cynical, you find yourself laughing at his antics. Yeah, you think, yeah, this kid is pretty funny. But at the same time you’re slightly uncomfortable. Is it ok to laugh at Short Round? Is this kid just a late-20th century redo of   earlier racist stereotypes? Whatever. You let it slide. You enjoy the moment. Then WHAM! Out of nowhere, here’s Mola Ram and he’s ripping out your fucking heart. You didn’t sign up for this shit. You thought Temple of Doom was going to be all giggles and good times. You did not expect to have your heart ripped out and broken right in front of your eyes. This one-two punch of uncomfortable humor and abject terror/heartbreak, that’s what I want my writing to be like.

This is kind of what Im going for in all my stories.

This is the effect I'm going for in all my stories.

So what about you guys? Do you ever consciously think about your aesthetic and the effects you want your work to have on readers? If so, please share your ideas. If not, why? Are you afraid that actively thinking about the circuitry beneath your writing would be akin to plunging sticky fingers into your chest and ripping the beating black heart of your writing out into the cold natural world (see how I brought that heart shit back)?

Salvatore Pane has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has work published, or forthcoming, in Annalemma, PANK Quick Fiction, Weave and others. He blogs at www.salvatore-pane.com.