Because I’ll be gone next week, teaching at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, I’ve decided to post an extra entry this week. Here’s a snippet from the keynote address I’ll be making tomorrow evening in Yellow Springs.
Each year, in July, my thoughts turn to my father, and I’m swept back to 1982 and my last summer spent near him. Two weeks before I’m to leave for the MFA program at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, he has his second heart attack and dies on a hot day while mowing the yard. The last words I ever say to him, just a week prior, are “Don’t work too hard.” He won’t, he assures me, and I know he’s lying. He grew up during the Great Depression, and work was with him the rest of his life. The fierce determination to get the job done no matter what it took was his great gift to me.
At the time, the hardest thing I’ve ever done is to leave my widowed mother behind and make the 400-plus mile drive to Fayetteville. I almost don’t go. I almost back out to be near my mother during her time of grief. Maybe I should have done just that. Maybe that’s what a good son would have done, but a dream dies hard. I wanted to be a writer. I went to Fayetteville, and by so doing I began to learn that a writer is often leaving someone behind. The truth of this has deepened as the years have gone on. How many times I’ve retreated from loved ones for the sake of time spent holed up in my writing room, paying attention to the comings and goings of characters in stories or novels, or with representations of family members in essays and memoirs.
Those two years that I spent at Arkansas taught me many lessons. One of them came down on me with a ferocity that left me reeling: after my first workshop where my story was ripped apart, I realized I’d been ill-prepared for this part of my journey; I didn’t know much of anything about how to write or what it meant to call oneself a writer. Today, I’m still learning how much I don’t know; each draft I face has something new to teach me. Writing is a life-long apprenticeship.
I guess you’d say I was at ground zero after that first workshop, admitting that I knew nothing. Not a bad place to be, as Joseph Brodsky points out when he says, “A zero is at once the perfect emptiness and the most complete sense of possibility.” I was in a place those early days at Arkansas from where I could open myself to what my instructors and my fellow writers had to teach me. Another lesson imparted: never let your ego get in your way of honing your craft. Someone always knows more than we do. No matter how long you write and no matter how many successes you have, there’s always something more that you can learn.
At Arkansas, I learned to read the way a writer must, with an eye toward how a story, or essay, or poem is made, with an eye toward the artistic choices a writer makes and the effects those choices create. I learned to listen to criticism. I learned that my first obligation was to the work itself and not to my own ego or to thoughts of publication and acclaim. I wanted those things, yes, but I most assuredly wanted them too soon. Dreams of success? Sure I had them, and more often than not, they were frustrated. I collected my rejection slips. I felt inadequate. I half-heartedly celebrated the successes of others. It would take me a while to understand that I wasted too much energy on disappointment, fear, envy—energy that would have been much more wisely spent on learning my craft. It’s hard to take ourselves and our self-interests out of the creative process, nigh-on impossible, but one thing I know is that we should stop wanting things for ourselves and instead start wanting things for the writing that we’re doing. Our obligation shouldn’t be to ourselves and what we might gain from our writing, but instead to the work itself and what it will gain from the full realization of the impulse that first brought us to the page. I gradually began to learn to tune out the voices of ego and to listen to the work itself. I learned that a good deal of a writer’s life is spent at a snail’s pace. Sitting, for example. I’m very good at sitting. Staring out windows. I’m good at that, too. Daydreaming? I’m first-rate. I learned that a writer has to be patient. I learned the joy of steady work. I learned that writing is self-perpetuating. The more you do it, the more you do it, and the more you do it, the more you do it. I learned, as Billy Crystal’s writing instructor character tells his student, Danny Divito, in the movie, Throw Momma from the Train, “A writer writes.”
I’m not sure that writing can ever flourish if approached from a hobbyist point of view. To me, writing isn’t something that someone dabbles in. You’re either all the way in, or you’re not. Does that mean you have to quite your day job, hole up in a garret and spend every waking minute writing? Of course not. We all have to face the realities of our lives. We have bills to pay, stomachs to fill with food, families to support.
When I finished my MFA program, I spent three years teaching at a technical college in southeast Ohio. I taught five sections, mostly Freshman Composition, each quarter, with 25-30 students in each section. That makes for a lot of student essays to read and respond to, a lot of student conferences, a lot of classes to prepare. Somehow, I still found time to write. I wrote between classes if I could. I wrote at night. I wrote on weekends. But what I remember to be the most exciting writing time of all took place on the fifteen-mile drives to and from campus, that time when I heard my characters engage in dialogue in my head, when I imagined what they might do next. The point is I lived inside my stories on those drives, and that was writing, too. In fact, it made it so much easier the next time when I actually put pen to paper because by then I was chomping at the bit to get down what I’d already worked through in my head. And when I read craft essays by other writers, in addition to their novels and stories and personal essays or pieces of memoir? Well that was writing time well spent, too.
How much time can you set aside during the course of your day for writing? Two hours, one hour, thirty minutes? You’ll be surprised at how many pages stack up over a year even if you only have a half an hour to devote to your writing each day. The important thing is to dedicate yourself to the life of a writer, to make that a part of the way you see yourself in the world. “A writer writes.” Exactly.