When the Writing Life Finds You, Part A
Last year Geri defended her dissertation, won a fiction award from So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Literature and Art, published a handful of blogs and the story in So to Speak; as for this year, she’s crossing her fingers.
This is the seventh in a series of posts leading up to the AWP Conference at which Eric Olsen will moderate a panel on “What We Wish We’d Known.” Please join us in Boston Saturday, March 9, 1:30-2:45 pm, in room 206 of the Hynes Convention Center.
Is there a surefire method to a successful writing life? Is there something I could have learned that would have changed my life?
What is true is that failure is instructive. I wish I’d known that I should try everything. Holding myself to a high standard cost me at least one publication. I didn’t want to write a book that an agent suggested to me, because it wasn’t my idea. When the next opportunity came, I chose in favor of flexibility.
So now I can say—well, if it calls you, you come. You try everything you can bring yourself to try, whether it’s screenwriting or poetry, whether it’s that book this agent suggested you write (and you refused), or that one-woman show that happened because the producer said he didn’t think he could give you an audience for fiction—so you went through all your novels and pulled out performable poetry—and it all morphed into a one-woman show that gave you a mediocre review (saying something like “why call this poetry; it sounds almost exactly like prose?”) but posted your photograph in the Times.
I wish someone had told me to be forgiving, as a writer—forgiving of the self, and forgiving of others. I learned this by reading William Stafford. Forgiveness is underrated. Many opportunities for spiritual revelation for writers—no one thought this might be helpful advice, but it is.
And if you can, you give it up, and if you can’t, you surrender to it.
But we didn’t try to unravel karmic mysteries at Iowa in the early seventies. The best thing that the writers in Iowa did, when I was there, was the fact that they were writers. Writers walking the walk, not talking it. A lot in between the lines. A lot was unsaid. As if to say it would jinx someone or something. Or, it wasn’t the point. We didn’t examine the mystery; we just wrote out of it. I was in it for the art and spiritual part, and to some extent, that’s still the part of it that pulls me in, although when I’ve got someone who’s actually reading the thing, or when a time for publication happens, I move into that arena that I’m calling car-mechanics—when you want everything to be airtight, when there’s no more tinkering—as good as any other way to define success.
Maybe it’s a flaw in my memory, but I just don’t remember a lot of introspection or retrospection or self-reflexivity at Iowa, although I saw lots of it thirty years later when I went back to school for a doctorate, at Ohio University. All that contemplation, reflection, and introspection is probably good fuel for poetry and creative nonfiction (CNF), but I guess as fiction writers, we were using the truth—not contemplating it. A few years back, I was reading about Steinbeck’s writing The Red Pony—that it sprang from his own experience as a caretaker of dying parents, and it was this tremendous grief that he used to write out the story of the kid and his pony. If he were writing CNF, he’d be examining the actual experience. Fiction would come from the transformation, the alchemical-like metamorphosis of his lived experience.
At Iowa, when I was there, there was this tendency to define yourself in terms of genre. Few wrote both poetry and fiction, or if they did, they didn’t admit to it. I did both but figured I did neither well, and I wrote drama, too, but there were people in both camps who wrote drama. I recall there being a kind of stigma about nonfiction. It was—and I think this was more unsaid than something spoken, and of course I could be wrong about this—as if the raw material of one’s life were meant for either fiction or poetry, as something had to be done with it. But really, it’s those who write CNF who are really doing something with it. And even though CNF has a history going way back to the roots of both eastern and western traditions, both poets and fiction writers would say things that were disparaging. The poets might say, “Oh yes, this CNF is…exactly like poetry,” because that’s what poets do—in order to write poetry, there’s lots of retrospection and introspection; and fiction writers kind of take the truth and go lie their heads off about it, bend it to make it work for their ideas, or like Steinbeck, take the very real, felt emotion and transform it entirely.
Maybe it’s because the world hadn’t yet given its blessing to creative nonfiction. CNF hadn’t hit yet. Not when I was in Iowa. Truth or fiction didn’t really matter, except for the issue of libel—I do remember Anthony Burgess talking about that—the trouble for a fiction writer. And now that I think of it, I remember Leonard Michaels talking about never telling on his friends. Autobiography, essay, memoir, the stuff of creative nonfiction, was still relegated to the back-seat. Maybe it still is, but I find it very compelling, although I admit I was once among the skeptics.
Here we are again, an example of “try everything.”
My enlightenment regarding not only the validity of the form but the sheer power of it came fairly recently I admit, and as usual, it’s not the theory that convinces, but the specimens themselves. There’s some gorgeous work being written in the name of creative nonfiction, and also, I will say that when I teach intro to creative writing—at Hunter College—I include some CNF, and the students come alive. Of course I teach it third, or last—after poetry and fiction. So perhaps their confidence has grown along with their skill levels.
At any rate, back then it seemed that the world was in the hands of editors and contacts and the mystery of who you know. I’m guessing that’s still true. I think it was well understood at Iowa that writing was both a calling and a discipline. I think it was probably also well understood that writing was a spiritual act but it wasn’t as if you were performing writing for any god/God; rather you were doing it for a living, or for fame, or for some awfully good reason like mastery. And you would support yourself by teaching it, if you were lucky. No one told me it would be addictive. I suppose I should mention that it’s addictive, but these days everything is addictive.
I do recall having a discussion on an elevator once in EPB, the Workshop HQ at the time— about the ease/difficulty of writing, a short conversation about agony that was punctuated by the now familiar quotation: “Writing is easy. All you do is open up a vein.” I don’t remember to whom it was attributed, but looking it up, I see that versions of this idea have been cited, ranging from the sportswriter Red Smith to Hemingway. So, the idea that writing comes from within, that it’s grueling work—this is nothing new.
Writing is personal, learning is personal, love is personal. We are not all the same, we do not love the same, we do not learn in the same ways. One has to make peace with oneself, peace with the world, and writing is nothing if not a barometer of that relationship one has to life. This is something that I wish someone might have told me, that probably I would always write, or it would always haunt me, and that I should come to terms with it, that I should also protect myself from it, from what people will say. You have to constantly remind yourself of what it was that drew you to write in the first place.