I was thinking recently of all the ways that we sometimes keep ourselves from writing. Here are but a few:
1. We wait for inspiration to strike: Sometimes, particularly in the early years of a writing career, we get the idea that our writing is the result of being inspired, and if we just don’t feel inspired, well, then, we just don’t, period, and we wait for that inspiration to come, and we wait, and we wait, and we wait. . . . We need to recognize that when we write, we practice a craft, and the more we practice it, the better we become. It’s not inspiration that we need; it’s time, a quiet place, and effort.
One thing I always tell my students is that they have to learn to read the way a writer must if he or she is going to develop a deeper understanding of craft, but what does that really mean? How does a writer read?
I’ll speak only for myself. Years ago, I started reading with an eye for how a writer made a particular piece of writing. What artistic choices did she or he make to create particular effects? I’ll restrict myself to prose, but I suspect the poets among you might be able to apply what I have to say to poetry. Writers should read not only to identify and eventually internalize specific artistic choices, but also to further define their own aesthetics.
‘Tis the season when some folks are starting to put their applications together for MFA programs. I hope, then, you’ll forgive me if I rerun this post from last October as a way of helping people think about how to choose the program that’s right for them.
Three Tips for Choosing an MFA Program
Follow the Money
Most writers are desperate for validation. We want someone to tell us we’re good. We want to know we’re good because people publish our work, talk about our work, give us awards for our work. We can spend a good deal of energy worrying about such things. The truth is so much of publishing and what happens beyond is out of our hands. The time we spend worrying is time that could be better spent paying attention to the things we can actually control. So here’s my list, for whatever it’s worth.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’ve agreed to speak to a local writers’ group that meets in a banquet room at an MCL Cafeteria. I’m doing this instead of working on the draft of an essay that I’m eager to finish, instead of prepping for the two workshops I’ll teach this week, instead of writing the numerous letters of recommendation that are waiting for me, instead of reading the book I’ve agreed to blurb, or the manuscript I’ve agreed to review for a press. I’m gathered with twelve people in this banquet room because I have trouble saying no.
- Accept the fact that you’ll never remember exactly what someone said. Trust me. You may think you will, but you won’t. The thing said is lost to time; all that remains is the shape you give it as you do your best to call it back.
2. Other people will remember the thing said slightly different than you will remember it. Let them. It may help in the composing process to hear what they remember. They may give you a line better than any you could have written. If it has the ring of truth, go with it. If it doesn’t have the ring of truth, put it away from you.
Lined up on the window ledge in my office are your pictures. Since 2001, when I came to teach at The Ohio State University, I’ve tried to get a photo of each of you, my thesis advisees, and me at Epilog, the end-of-the-year gala reading for the graduating MFAs. I may have missed one or two over the years, but trust me, none of you have ever left my memory.
Before I found my way in life and ended up slap-ass lucky with what my father would have called a “pencil-pusher’s job,” I did manual labor. In addition to the farm work that I helped him do, I worked on a Christmas tree farm, and in a shoe factory, a garment factory, and a tire repairs manufacturing plant. The latter required me to be at work at 6 a.m. and to stay there until 4:30 p.m., making rubber patches and plugs in the press room. The work was hot, repetitive, monotonous, and dangerous. Each day was the same as the one before, and each evening found me bone-tired and barely able to eat my supper. Each morning, I woke in darkness and went back to work because my choices were few. I needed the money, and I knew I was lucky to have this job. It was mine to do, and I did it. I’m convinced that what I learned from this work has helped me countless times in my writing and my teaching. Manual labor taught me to show up each day and to persevere. It taught me that things aren’t always easy. It taught me to put my head down and go, moment by moment. It taught me to do the work. So on this Labor Day, I want to pay tribute to all those who put in the time and do the work by reprinting these excerpts from my essay, “Such a Life,” (from the book of the same title)—a piece that recalls my father’s own labor at the end of his days.
Another school year is upon us, and, as I do each year, I recall a story that the Chair of the English Department told at the start of the year when I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said that on the evening before Fall Semester classes were to begin, he came across a young man in the hallway who was looking into a classroom. The Chair, good fellow that he was, asked the young man if he could be of help. The young man, a freshman, said in a hushed voice, the sort of respectful voice we used to hear in public libraries, “Tomorrow, I’m going to have my English class in this room. I just wanted to see it.”
Because my father lost his hands, my mother made a gift of hers. Cuticles ragged, knuckles scraped, fingernails smashed—farm work showed her no mercy.
Her hands were made for more delicate things, but she gladly sacrificed them because, really, what else was she to do? My father needed her, and she loved him, so she put her hands to work on our farm. She should have had the soft and beautiful hands more suited to her soft and beautiful heart, but life had other plans for her.