Saturday, October 17, 2015

Where does Jackson Bliss's confidence come from? (Part 3 of series)

I first came across Jackson Bliss in the comments section of another writer’s blog. He seemed smart and ballsy yet warm, which is my favourite kind of troublemaker. Fascinated, I followed the trail back to Jackson's own blog. His posts were emotionally raw and honest, and unabashedly confident. In fact, I'd never come across a writer so self-assured. It was refreshing and inspiring; it made me think differently about writers, about how we're perceived by the world, and how we take ownership of our merit and value. I read some of his short stories and essays, my fingers crossed that he was as good as I hoped he was -- and he did not disappoint. Jackson's style knocked me on my ass. It has a kinetic energy to it that feels almost dangerous, incendiary, even when he's being a poet, even when he's reflecting on his grandmother. Once he gets his big break, Jackson is going to have a devoted readership, fans who will argue over his books until their knuckles bleed. He’s just that type. Passionate. Controversial. The guy is going to blow up.

Here’s Jackson on Jackson and the question Where does your confidence come from?

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1.
Much of my swag comes from being discouraged to write fiction.  There was the time the director of the creative writing program at Oberlin (which has an excellent undergrad major in creative writing) asked me what year I was in college after I'd handed in my application to the program.  When I got rejected later that month, one of my friends explained that upperclassmen almost never get accepted into the program.  The absurd thing is, I transferred to Oberlin, so I'd arrived as a Junior.  I never had a chance!  Then, there was the time I was about to enroll in David Shields’s intermediate fiction class at U Dub.  I was dreadfully poor at the time, had just moved to Seattle, and didn't have a printer to my name to give a writing sample, so I brought my clunky laptop to his office and said:  --I'm sorry about this, but I have my story ready for you to read.  Take as long as you want.  His response:  --No way, I'm not doing that!  Write something tonight and bring it back to me.  So I did, and of course it was shit, and of course, he rejected me from his workshop the next day. Even once I'd been accepted to multiple MFA programs, I realized that in my workshops, my manuscripts were almost always destroyed.  That may sound like self-martyrization, but over time many friends and classmates confirmed my own suspicions, which made me realize that my writing affected people, even if it wasn't always the reaction I wanted.  The long of it is, that many people didn't want to help me write at all, or criticized me for the way I did write, but I believed in myself and knew that I had talent, even if it was extremely raw.  If nothing else, I wanted to see how it all played out and I wasn't gonna let people who had no fucking love for me or my writing, decide whether I became a writer.  I guess I'm stubborn like that.

2. 
Over the years, I've felt like the world of literary journals has confirmed what was once a secret (and sometimes irrational) belief in my own writing ability.  I've had a good amount of stories accepted in respected journals of national distribution, and I've also received enough great rejections from the best glossies in the world to know that I'm no longer the only dude who thinks my writing has merit.  This confirmation has been helpful for me because it helps me understand that I'm not completely delusional about my own self-diagnostication when it comes to my own writing.  People can hate you all they want, but when an editor publishes your shit, especially when it's something workshop hated, this shows how disconnected workshop can often be from the publishing industry itself, how legit your voice really is, and how unique and exciting your writing can be, if only for a tiny second.

3.
The best sort of confirmation, though, I think, is from readers themselves.  When they write me and tell me how much my writing has moved them, my body gets a contact high.  When I read those emails, my heart melts.  My soul aches.  Eventually, you realize that you're not just writing because you're talented anymore, or even because you have lots of important things to say, but also because you want to create things that affect people, that move them, that connect to them and challenge them in some way.  For me, having an audience is game changer.

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Jackson Bliss earned his MFA from the University of Notre Dame where he was the Fiction Fellow and the 2007 Sparks Prize Winner for his debut novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs.  He also has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from USC where he worked with TC Boyle, Aimee Bender, and Percival Everett as a College Merit Award Fellow in Literature and Creative Writing, FLAS fellow in Japanese, and two time ACE/Nikaido Fellow.  Jackson was the 1st 2012 Runner-Up for the Poets & Writer’s California Exchange Award in fiction.  His short stories and lyrical essays have appeared in Tin House, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Fiction, Santa Monica Review, Boston Review, Quarterly West, ZYZZYVA, Fiction International, Notre Dame Review, African American Review, Kartika Review, Quarter After Eight, Connecticut Review, Stand (UK), 3:am Magazine The Good Men Project, and the Huffington Post UK, among others.  Jackson is a lecturer at University of California Irvine.

Stay tuned for the fourth "where does your confidence come from?" post coming soon!

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for your answer, Jackson. Your fearlessness is inspiring.

    My followup question concerns this quote:

    "The long of it is, that many people didn't want to help me write at all, or criticized me for the way I did write, but I believed in myself and knew that I had talent, even if it was extremely raw."

    Where do you think that early belief in yourself came from? How did you know you were good when people were criticizing you? What pushed you on when other writers may have given up? Can it be chalked up to being, as you wrote, "stubborn"? Or is it more than that? I guess what I'm asking is this: Can you draw me a map to your well? The deep one you draw your confidence from? Because I wouldn't mind taking a sip from it.

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  2. Hey Emily,

    I've been thinking about this question all day and I think I've finally come up with an answer that feels good: before I knew that I had talent, I knew for a fact that I was supposed to be a writer because I've always had a love affair with language (and also people). And during that time, the question of whether or not I was talented, and whether or not I had a right to be confident never entered my college brain because I just did it. It called to me in a way I couldn't ignore or deny and I just went with it. And I pretty much made every girlfriend I'd ever had listen to whatever poem or short story I was working on then (God bless them for humoring me!)

    I wrote my first novel over three years in college and it was a colossal nightmare: too many characters, none of them developed except the protagonist, too much obsession with language, transparent epiphanies, too much self-conscious cleverness, absolutely no revision whatsoever . . . anyway, the list of problems went on and on. But there were a few good things I noticed even then: I had a gift for language. When I decided to stop being a lazyass, I had a knack for developing characters too because I had crazy love for complex characters. I was ambitious. The first time I think someone supported my writing in college was when a my bibliophile girlfriend Nica said: "Jackson, you're a good poet but a great writer," and I remember going back to my dorm that night and warming my hands with that fire. So the short answer to your (amazing) question is: before there was confidence, there was vocation. There was already a love affair. There was already a place that I felt like I belonged.

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  3. With the exception of one or two college girlfriends who supported my writing, I received no encouragement at all. And it would be years and years before I'd get another piece of positive feedback on anything I'd written. In Seattle, my g/f at the time psychoanalyzed all my stories until I stopped giving them to her to read. Her dad, who was a professor Emeritus of English lit, gave me a Charles Baxter book to teach me about craft (and then I realized how much I was fucking up my own short stories). Then David Shields rejected me in his workshop. I kept writing, though, anyway, even in the midst of this shit storm because writing fiction was my solace, my friend, and my studio. It wasn't until I got into my first fiction workshop as a post-bac student in Portland in 2002 that I realized I had any real talent or originality to contribute. And it wasn't until I got accepted into several MFA programs three years later that I realized I might have a unique voice. Ditto with my PhD program. In addition to giving me time to write, which was the greatest gift of all, those two programs helped me see that I wasn't the only person who believed in my ability to write fiction When published novelists accept you into their writing program, it kinda means something. At least to me it did. But for most of my life before I began publishing stories in bigger literary journals, before I was accepted into a writing program, and before the support of an amazing girlfriend, it was just me writing because it gave me delirious joy and consolation to write, because writing gave me meaning and direction, because writing was who I was, even before I knew who I actually was. The question of talent, confidence, ability--I never worried about those things for the first ten years of my writing life. I only started wondering about those things (i.e., worrying about those things) once I was surrounded with other talented writers at my MFA program, where everyone were constantly comparing themselves to each other. But by that point, I'd already swallowed the red pill. And I've been jumping off skyscrapers ever since.

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  4. Thanks for this thoughtful response Jackson. It seems that for you, like so many writers, the question of confidence has no simple answer. An innate passion for words, mixed with some external encouragement seem to be key. The interesting thing is that all the writers who are contributing to the series are so vastly different! I'm looking forward to collecting all these answers and reflections together and seeing what the whole picture looks like.

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    1. I think you're right. Before I knew I was a writer, I knew I had a love affair with language. First, it was the spelling bee, then studying French, Spanish, and Russian in college, and writing fiction. But the bigger question you're talking about is fascinating for me because it seems to have no true answer. Even for writers who lack confidence, many of them seem to find it on the page. Or in their characters. It's amazing to think that confidence isn't actually necessary to write fiction well and too much confidence can be a major hindrance too, and yet, whether a writer has confidence or not in her/his writing, it doesn't accurately predict whether s/he is in fact a fact good writer. I've known talented cocky writers. I've known untalented cocky writers. I've known talented diffident writers. I've known untalented diffident writers. What interests me is: why makes people continue to write, even when they lack confidence? That's so fascinating to me . . .

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