Two interns for the literary journal interviewed me about my theater background, my time living in Bangkok, and my obsession with point of view (among other things). You can read about it here.
Art matters. It is not simply a leisure activity for the privileged or a hobby for the eccentric. It is a practical good for the world. The work of the artist … is an homage to the value of human life, and it is vital to society. Art is a sacred expression of human creativity that shares the same ontological value as all human work.
Michael Gungor, The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse
This poem by Marianne Moore (1935) resonates with me about the kind of perspective required to be a disciplined writer:
Silence (1935) Marianne Moore
My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like a cat–
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth–
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residencies.
The superior writer does not rely on other people’s praise to fuel her writing practice. The superior writer does not sit back and wait for something fascinating to write about next. The superior writer goes after life instead of waiting for life to happen–alert, fascinated, ready to take notes and transform experiences into words. The superior writer understands how to enjoy and experience life without sucking the life out of everything and everybody else. The superior writer appreciates it when good things come along, but does not sit around waiting for good things to come along. The superior writer knows how to keep going when good things don’t come along.
If you have friends on social media who are writers, writing teachers, or writing students, then you probably came across this article by ex-MFA instructor, Ryan Boudinot, about his frustrations with writing students. Examples include: they don’t read enough, they complain about not having enough time, they don’t have anything interesting to write about. He also starts off the article saying, “Writers are born with talent. Either you have the propensity for creative talent or you don’t,” which is about as effective as starting off with “there’s gotta be life on other planets,” or “the Beatles will forever be greatest band of all time.” I mean: cool if you want to believe that but actually, nobody cares if you do because you can’t prove it.
I feel the same way about his second statement: “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.” Um. Not helpful.
While I, like most of the people who commented, am relieved that Boudinot is no longer teaching (for example, read this thorough rebuttal from Laura Valeri), he did write one thing that has stuck with me since I read the commentary a few days ago:
It’s not important that people think you’re smart.
After eight years of teaching at the graduate level, I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy. I know this work when I see it; I’ve written a fair amount of it myself. But writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best. I told a few students over the years that their only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves, and the work got better. Those who didn’t get it were stuck on the notion that their writing was a tool designed to procure my validation. The funny thing is, if you can put your ego on the back burner and focus on giving someone a wonderful reading experience, that’s the cleverest writing.
If he’d only written that, I would have told everyone to read that article as the best writing advice I’ve encountered in a long time.
That said, I’m not 100% what Boudinot means by “entertain.” You don’t want to just write the first act of Into the Woods, you want to write the second act, too–the one that challenges your reader. I would add the words “and challenge” to Boudinot’s “entertain.” You want to write what will help enhance the reader’s experience in the world, even if it means giving them a good kick in the rear end with what happens to your characters. (See: The Wire.)
Never mind about when you started writing, or whether or not you have talent. These are things that don’t actually matter. What matters is the doing of the thing. The practice. Write about what obsesses you, entertains and fascinates you*, challenges you, convicts you, pisses you off, and makes you cry or laugh or both at the drop of a hat. If you write for validation or anything else besides the chance to make connections between the people, ideas, and things you care most about, you are cheating yourself out of the Life (capital L) that the writing practice has to offer you.
But Boudinot is so right when he says: don’t write to make yourself look smart. If you are writing because being a writer makes other people think you are smart, you are cheating yourself.
Write because you want to share something with your readers that will somehow enhance their lives.
*For instance, this blueberry flavored popcorn I spotted at a movie theater in Bangkok really fascinates and entertains me:
One of the most haunting quotes of all time for me is one Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) sings in “Paranoid Android”: Ambition makes you look pretty ugly. Haunting and scary. I don’t want to be ugly. I want to be pretty all the time. I also want to be ambitious. Actually, I can’t help but be ambitious. I have a drive and I hate feeling like I’m in a lull. A good friend used to tell me all the time that I have a motor. It’s true: I have a motor. I suspect that if you call yourself a writer, part of that is because you have a motor, too.
Today I spent an hour doing an exercise in Julia Cameron’s THE RIGHT TO WRITE, where she recommends that you put on music that makes you feel adventurous (for me this was the Soundtrack to Amelie and a bunch of Elmore James, who makes me wiggle in a good way–I’m wiggling as I write this…). Then you take ten minutes dreaming on the page about six areas of your life: Spirituality, Friendships, Living Space, Traveling/Adventure, Work Life, and Creative Projects. All of this writing helped me come up to today’s thought:
There are two kinds of ambition: selfish ambition and selfless ambition.
Ambition is good. It can’t be helped for some of us. Some of us just have motors (and we remain ever envious of those who are content with simple lives). I recognize my motor and I embrace it. It’s what’s going to get me through this novel. But I must make a choice as I go to work, as I let the motor propel my writing: I must choose selfless, over selfish ambition.
Selfish ambition means I want to be number one and I get pissed off when others pass me in the race to success. I shun the friends who are rewarded for their hard work. I am angry because I deserved whatever reward they received–I am entitled to whatever they got. I am bitter and I am depressed because everyone is passing me by. I am stuck in despair over other people’s achievements.
Selfless ambition means I want my success to inspire people to strive for their own successes. This means I live in constant congratulatory mode. When my friends make achievements, I congratulate them. I celebrate their success. We are all on a team to make the world better. We want our friends to produce the kind of work that delights and satisfies, that inspires readers/listeners/audience members to appreciate their lives, to stay curious. We want our friends to put good writing out there and for that good writing to be recognized and appreciated. We want our friends to be rewarded for their hard work.
Selfish ambition means I write only to satisfy myself. I write for paychecks. I write for recognition. I write for revenge–everyone who overlooked my work will feel like the jackass they are when they see how fabulous my work has been all along. I write to make people suffer while I work my way up the ladder. I write with a hunger that will never be satisfied, though I convince myself that if I just have a book published, if I just get a tenure track job, then I will be satisfied. I crush everyone along the way to these goals.
Selfless ambition means that I write in order to enlighten the world to whatever topics, people, and phenomenons that I discover during my writing process. Ultimately, our creative projects are good for us and they are good for everyone else. When people overlook my work, I work harder and do not despair.
I choose selfless ambition over selfish ambition because, I believe, it’s an answer to Thom Yorke’s observation in this here quote:
Recommended Reading: The Right to Write by Julia Cameron, Penguin: 1998