Playing in Peoria

I’m not often put in a position where I’m likely to receive feedback on things that I write; or rather, I don’t often put myself in such a position. Occasionally, though, it happens. It’s one of the occupational hazards of putting words together. Or should I say, avocational hazards. I’m never going to get paid for fiction.

Some background: when I was in college, I took a couple of creative writing courses, because they sounded like fun and because they counted towards my major (I KNOW, RIGHT?). The first was part of a series of escalating dares with a good friend of mine, a biology major whom I’ll call Queen of the Lab, which began enrolling by in “Crafting Creative Nonfiction”* together and ended with a pass/fail elective called “Equestrian I” during out senior spring.**

I enjoyed writing stories, although I was invariably the odd duck because I never wrote about horrifically bad break-ups (always including cringe-inducing sex scenes, but with or without subsequent suicide attempts), or roman a clefs concerning short-term stays in mental hospitals (perhaps due in part to the aforementioned bad break-ups).***

I wrote about…oh, other stuff. The story about the industrial robot that may or may not be killing its human coworkers on purpose, because they’re @$$holes. Or the one about the long-suffering stage manager of the lavish entertainments (intermezzi) that were part and parcel of super-posh weddings in 16th-century Florence. Or the one about the squabbling coworkers in the haunted museum in Cardiff, and what happens when the crew of a schlocky reality TV show turn up to document the whole thing. Or the one in which two men decide to track a mythical monster through the Poconos because they’re drunk and also there’s this girl they’d like to impress and, being drunk dudes, they’re under the impression that being the first one to capture and kill a minor-league cryptid is the kind of thing that would bestow upon a suitor some competitive edge.

You know, that sort of thing.

And, invariably, there was one person who ‘d look up and say, “Hey, that’s cool!” while everyone else just shrugged and said, like, well-written and all, but they didn’t really “get it.” And that’s still pretty much the reaction I get to anything I do. The biggest compliment I ever received from an instructor was (after a very…long…pause), “You know, it’s really weird, but…I buy it. Yeah, I’m think I’m convinced.”

Of what precisely he was convinced, I couldn’t say. He didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t press for details.

Which brings us to the present day: I’d say that all the feedback I get tends to fall into approximately one category, which I’ve started to call “won’t play in Peoria.” There’s nothing WRONG with the writing, per se, it’s just not…idk, marketable, classifiable, normative, etc. The phrasing changes, but the underlying sentiment is remarkably consistent.

One of my favorites (so far) is “There’s something enchantingly quirky about this, but some oddness that I’m not entirely sure will fly.”****

Here’s the latest, an assessment of Off (Like a Prom Dress) & Running (On Empty) submitted to a contest:

"alienating readers"

“…No reason to alienate readers…”

I posted a photo, to save myself the effort of transcribing the surprisingly lengthy note. The general gist of it is that the protagonist, a high school student, is alienating and off-putting on account of being prickly, defensive, and a bit graphic/explicit in her choice of words.*****

This was WAY more feedback than I’d anticipated. I was expecting something along the lines of “You know, it just doesn’t work for me, I wish I could articulate why (*shrug*).” So I don’t really know what to make of this paragraph worth of feedback. I’m not sure I’ve ever had my work dismissed in MORE THAN ONE SENTENCE. So this is new and confusing and a little frightening — like the writing version of puberty.

Anyway, I don’t really have much of a response, I just thought it was interesting.

*Where, among other things, we learned that at least one writer prefers to hunt down the animals whose hides will supply the parchment on which she’ll inscribe her immortal words. “Right here, you can see where the arrow pierced the deer,” she said, showing off her hand-bound collection of prose poems.
**Hailing from Northeastern Pennsylvania and Boston, respectively, neither of us had ever been on a horse. Which is why our slightly sadistic instructor would assign us animals including (but not limited to) Zippy the Wonder Horse, who loved to eat buttons off coats — a habit that had to have contributed to his eventual death; Diablo, a coal-black beast who had to have been at least 80 hands high and didn’t seem to notice when five-foot-nothing riders simply fell off his broad back and sprained their shoulders; and Mestiza, whose b!+chiness typically manifested itself by either grinding her sharp hooves into a rider’s instep whenever one approached her or body-checking hapless students against the interior of her stall, and whom I came to admire and respect despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she tried to kill me on no fewer than seven occasions.
***This is absolutely terrible of me, but here goes: Ok, each week we were given a photocopied packet of student work to read and reflect upon. One of my roommates — who, true story, once published a poem in a journal dedicated to lesbian Latina poetry, despite being neither a lesbian, nor Latina, nor a poet — asked if she could read some of the stories; I handed the packet to LLP, who did some New Yorker-level fact-checking on most of the mental institution pieces, based on her own experiences with involuntary commitment. Her commentary was enlightening and frequently hilarious, from the mundane “Yeah, I don’t think they’d give you silverware if you were that depressed,” to the esoteric “Everyone ends up giving some gross guy a hand job. It’s just a thing that happens.” (So, gentlemen with lonely hearts and mental health issues, might I recommend that you seek inpatient treatment?)
****That’s an editorial response to The Ninth Child.
*****Unlike any teenagers, anywhere in the world, ever.
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3 thoughts on “Playing in Peoria

  1. Living right outside of Peoria, I find that phrase to be one of the most exciting things about the area. 🙂

  2. JennyOH says:

    Those sound like more or less exactly the kind of thing I would like to read AND CAN NEVER FIND. Ugh, PLEASE get them published so I have reading material.

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