It took me a good while as a writer to trust the world I knew best—that world of small farms and towns and the men and women who worked hard at jobs that didn’t pay them nearly enough. Sometimes those people lived too large for their own good. Sometimes they made poor choices and suffered the consequences. They cut each other with knives, they burned down buildings just for the thrill of it, they left families to run off with someone not their wife or husband, they ended up in prison, they took a deal from a judge and went to the army to avoid ending up in prison, they lived lonely lives of regret because once upon a time they’d had a chance to really be somebody and then, like the years, that chance just went away. Despite whatever wrong turns they took or lives they wished for, they often found joy in the most simple things: a few hands of Pitch around a kitchen table, an ice cream social at the Methodist Church, a tenderloin sandwich carried home in a paper bag from Bea’s Cafe.
Spring has me thinking of summer—ah, glorious summer—a time that can seem like a call for renewal and fresh starts for the writer. Here are some things we can all do to get the most from that period of rejuvenation.
1. Get out of our comfort zones. Do something we never thought we’d do. Skydiving? Why not? Or something less dramatic. A trip to somewhere we’ve always wanted to go, a gift we’ve always wanted to make, an instrument we’ve always wanted to play, a sport we’ve always wanted to try. Whatever our choice, we can do something to expand our realm of experience.
Spring is creeping in, and isn’t it about time? Here in the heartland, we earn our springs. Temperatures above fifty, the sight of green shoots coming up in flowerbeds, birdsong at dawn—it’s enough to give us hope.
It takes a world of optimism to write a novel. We have to convince ourselves that such a thing is possible. So here in early spring, are some things I’ve learned.
It’s recruitment season for MFA programs, and I’m thinking of all the folks who’ve committed, or soon will, to this degree despite the fact that a 2013 Poets & Writers index says that full-time teaching positions at the university level are available, on average, for well less than one percent of creative writing program graduates.
In April at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference, I’ll be part of a roundtable discussion (with Sonja Livingston, Carter Sickels, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Doug Van Gundy) called “Straight Talk: What the MFA Promises and What It Delivers.” So here’s some straight talk about both.
These late winter mornings, I hear birdsong. I hear birdsong even though the temperatures have been in the single digits or below zero, even though a new snow storm sweeps through every few days. The birds don’t know how to doubt. The turning of the earth tells them that spring is closer each day.
It takes a similar faith to be a writer. We come to the page with an idea of what we’ll put there. We hold faith that something of value will emerge. We’re believers. Every one of us who works with words believes in the value of that work. We come back to the blank page time and time again because we’re convinced that this time we’ll get it right. This time we’ll succeed. This time the words on the page will do what we intend them to do.
Let’s admit it: Anyone who writes memoir does a song and dance with the facts. Even if we’re determined to be completely faithful and only include the verifiable when it comes to event, chronology, and dialogue, our memories are fallible and sometimes they’re the only thing we can rely on to say “This is the truth.”
To me, this conversation about what to do with the facts starts to become tiresome, but also necessary. When it comes to writing memoir, what are we willing to do with the facts of our lives? In addition, what should we not allow ourselves to do?
I have a piece of wood, nearly six-feet in length, taken from the debris of a farmhouse fallen in on itself. The farmhouse that belonged to my family, the house in which my mother first read to me, the house where I listened to my father and my uncles swap stories, the house where I would eventually spend long summer days reading books inherited from my grandfather, the house where my family suffered the accident that cost my father both of his hands, the house that he filled with his rage.
I think often about the objects people handle and how they can pay off for us when we craft narratives. Today, I’m thinking about a story by David Leavitt, “Gravity,” the story of a young man, Theo, who has AIDS. He’s opted for a sight-saving drug over the medications that will prolong his life. He’s come home to live with his mother, and on the day of the story they’ve gone shopping for a wedding gift for Theo’s cousin, Howie. Theo’s mother, Sylvia, insists on buying a $425 crystal bowl as a way of calling attention to the cheap pen and pencil set that Howie’s mother gave Theo for his graduation. The extravagant bowl will serve as a reminder to Howie’s mother that Sylvia hasn’t forgotten the slight.
I’m a writer who runs. I run because it calms me. It creates a quiet, peaceful place from which I can think more clearly, feel more deeply, write with more energy. “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois,” Flaubert said, “so that you may be violent and original in your work.”