Susan Steinberg, author of the masterful new book Spectacle, tackles the tricky subject of experimentation in writing.
  1. Before I was a writer, I was painter. I used cheap house paint, and I worked on many paintings at once, and I painted fast. I started writing late at night to have something to do while my paintings were drying, but I also started writing, I admit, because I was angry, and there was a lot I needed to say. It turned out I could say it faster through writing. And eventually the writing took over.

  1. When I entered the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I wouldn’t have called my work experimental. After ten years of painting, that is to say ten years of using an abstract, invented language, writing stories was the closest I had come to working in the realm of “realism.” It was the most direct I had ever been in my art. Perhaps the most direct I had ever been. But, as I learned from the comments of my peers in workshop (“this isn’t a story,” “this is poetry,” “what is this”), my writing was something other than what we referred to as literary realism. By which I mean, the writing many have come to believe most accurately represents life.

  1. But, as an aside, I should say that some of our most fragmented, disjointed experimental writing, is, these days, in my opinion, a more accurate representation.

  1. I am often asked what makes writing experimental, how one knows to classify work as such. In graduate school, now aware that all of my work would be funneled into this category, I accepted the difference and armored myself with a few rules. Experimental writing a) had to be inventive or had to bend or advance or subvert preexisting approaches to writing, b) had to seriously take into account the possibilities of form and/or structure and/or syntax and/or language, and not just content, and c) could not just look different on the page.

  1. But now, when asked, I often say that experimental writing is the result of a writer experimenting. And that sometimes the experiment fails.

  1. I’ve learned that the term experimental makes some people uneasy. I try to imagine what they imagine. Words scattered violently across a page. Numbers instead of letters. Violated punctuation. And I guess I understand why there could be resistance; there often is to that which goes against our expectations. But in art, I often want my expectations, which are generally low, to be shattered.

  1. There are terms applied to experimental work that seem to cause less discomfort. “Lyric” is one. “Hybrid” is another. They’re more specific. They speak directly to a blurring of genres. They alleviate some of the mystery. But I think I prefer the term experimental. Because it relates to an act. It lets one consider experimental writing as a practice. Not as a genre.

  1. When I was writing the stories in Spectacle, I experimented with form and voice and structure. I experimented with language and punctuation. I had to figure out how to connect stories. And how to repeat stories. And how not to alienate the reader. These weren’t wildly rebellious things to do. But it wasn’t like I could turn to a book to learn how to do them.

  1. I am often asked why it is I go this route. I know there are easier approaches to writing fiction. I’ve seen these approaches mapped out. There are formulas I could follow.

  1. But I think back to my years of painting. To how exciting it was to discover a new technique. And to apply this technique. And then to reinvent it. My writing process is the same. Each story presents me with a new set of concerns. Each book is another set. Then it’s up to me to find a way through it. And I’m willing to fail.