When the Writing Life Finds You, Part B
And I wish I’d known that any writer needs an editor, someone you trust to read your work carefully and give you honest feedback. But I wasn’t thinking about publishing, at first, but just performing writing on the level I wished to perform it. I would suggest that classes in literature are helpful for the writer-to-be, because one just cannot ever stop reading. The medium is language, and you can’t get enough of it. Of course, a writer will approach that literature very differently than someone training to become a theorist, so the writer should find a comfortable way to divide herself from the critical journey of someone going through the throes of a PhD in English Literature. I would suggest that the writer-to-be take a language or two, and I would say to protect the self that is the writer, because the world is always trying to take you into its arms, not an embrace, but to crush you, so you have to be in your own arms, as a writer. Take the world. Live life intensely…make it your mission to live as fully as you can—and then take notes, take notes. In one sense, the writer/artist, is the vulnerable, impressionable, sensitive one who lives and suffers life in a most acute manner. That writing must come from an intense interaction with life is I suppose obvious, and if this means some kind of fall into the pit of life, one must still find the tools and muscles for the discipline of writing.
I would tell the would-be-writer that writing becomes you, becomes your shadow, your haunting, and it changes. One’s relationship with the thing changes, and you are always catching up, and then it morphs like what you see in a kaleidoscope. The key is knowing what to change and when to change it—and that seems to be pure instinct, because soon as you start changing, you could have a new world altogether. Your materials are different, your self is different, your skills are different, your concerns are different. Sometimes, I think that when the writing life finds you, it’s yours to make as you will, that finally there are no rules. My entrance into the journey was as a life raft—it provided that for me. Maybe it will be like the Flannery O’Connor story, “The Life You Save May be Your Own,” where you think you’re writing to save the world, but it will be about saving yourself all along.
One of the mainline truths about writing is that writers are spinning something from nothing—but that nothing has a history, has conventions, has form, has expectations that come with the territory, and there is probably no way you can avoid them. And what is obvious to some is not obvious to others. In a way, someone drawn to the creative business is taking a risk…so…are you a risk taker…how are you a risk taker…are you a control freak, will you want to control every aspect of your writing…and how will you do that? What I sorely wish that someone had told me was that whatever it was, it was okay—that there were choices, that you didn’t have to stay with the boat sometimes…. And that same person could have told me that no matter what you do, if you become a lawyer, doctor, farmer, some part of you will always live in your writing, that it will always be there for you when you come back to it. I wish someone had told me that it was like a drug, that it would entice you into feeling awfully good for a moment, and that moment would make you want to try for another moment of that goodness, and another, and that inevitably those moments would lead to a series of crashes, deadly for the grief, humiliation—derision. You could give up, but it would always hound you. You would have to make your peace with it. There are perils on this journey. The work is hard. It’s labor. It’s demanding, it grabs you and won’t let you go. It may not be as physically strenuous …as mountain climbing, but a writer develops muscles and sinews and ligaments of sorts. They would seem to be invisible but surely one day someone will develop some kind of measuring device.
The failed writer is a motif. Few who do not have the public reward want to admit that they write. My own father had a manuscript he shared with no one but me. My father died sixteen years ago, but quite recently, when I told his younger brother about the manuscript, he was shocked. Someone recently told me that she had found manuscripts her mother had written that no one knew of. Writing is one way to express one’s freedom. We know that because of what people in prisons will do in order to write. Or because of a packet of poems found in the pocket of someone who died in a firing squad, someone whose wife knew they would be there, who had his body exhumed, who found them. Nobody should ever get between you and your writing—I wish someone had told me that, that there is value in writing work no one will read. That if you keep writing you will get better. It’s the nature of practice, of habit, of doing. That in a sense writing is between you and yourself, until it’s not, and then when the public receives its gift, it’s in effect no longer yours.
This also reflects the idea of writing as a spiritual act, because when you are separated from this work, this work will live on its own terms. The first time I googled my name, having had a cousin congratulate me on some publication I’d had decades before, I realized that this thing I’d written had taken on a life I would have otherwise never known. A writer traverses territory. She is a runner, a climber, a lover of the world, and even though that world is invisible to the eye, the mind’s eye in its attempt to behold it, beholds it, and this world is chained by the writer’s footsteps and the marks of her fingernails and spotted with her sweat and tears and blood.
Do you write—or read—to “save your life?”