Silence and Self-Reliance

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.

Bitterness and Writing

There is a lot of wisdom in this edition of “Fury”–VIDA’s advice column for concerned writers.  In #15, Grateful VIDA-Lovin’ Lady complains about how her MFA program didn’t prepare her for the real world.  I could sort of relate.  We go to school hoping we’ll be a bit more prepared to be a writer, and that means, have insight into how to publish.  Sometimes it seems like people are leaving us out so we won’t be successful (*seems* being the operative word here). Teachers are often hesitant to give details about this, and though the article guesses this is because teachers don’t want to be discouraging, I also think it’s because publishing has changed an awful lot since the early 90s, when many (most of my) professors were getting their MFAs.  The writer complaining about her MFA program says she’s ditched writing poetry for Children’s books, and she expresses a lot of bitterness towards her program for not better bolstering her poetry career.

VIDA responds:

…complain about them all you want  … populate forums with alarming anecdotes about your lazy teachers, but don’t stop writing. If you can give up writing poetry that easily, it was never going to be the thing you ended up doing. Writers write because they feel they must, not because they did or didn’t get a degree. Because poetry doesn’t need a time out; your feelings of resentment and frustration do! Just because you feel bitter about having wasted your time at a shitty MFA program, don’t take it out on the thing you love.

What a great reminder. I mean, why did we get degrees in the first place?

Here’s the thing about breaking into writing as a profession: there is not one path.  Listen to interviews (Bookworms, especially), and you won’t hear the same story about how writers broke through.  I asked each of my professors something about the writing profession and got widely different responses.  Why? Because, again, there is not one path.

A huge part of being a writer, and I’ve probably said this before, is figuring out what you have control over and doing your best with that small portion of your career.  Trust me, that small portion is a lot of work. Writing grants, submitting stories, working to pay for writing conferences, etc. Also, consistently trying to improve our craft.

Write your best, keep growing, and keep seeking.  Maybe I’m too much of a mystic, but I think that if we put forth the effort, our work will find a way to reach people.

The Fury writer (response from VIDA) was correct in naming luck, talent, and perseverance as the magic ingredients for a writing-success-cocktail. If you are thinking of getting an MFA, remember that nobody is going to persevere for you.  Nobody is obligated to make you famous or show you how to be famous.  If we approach our writing and careers generously, we will probably have a better chance at laying out a path to publishing.  Bitterness is probably the thing I’ve seen kill most writers.  Not a realization or feeling that they aren’t good enough, but a feeling that someone else didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Here’s what bitterness is: feeling bad because you didn’t get something you feel entitled to.

Here’s the way to avoid bitterness: Feel entitled to nothing.

Understand that if you’re writing because you feel entitled to have the world acknowledge your words, chances are, you’re probably not writing anything the world really needs. Write because you want to contribute to a conversation.

Thought for Day 13: Embrace the Waste

I don’t know about other MFA fiction graduates, but I think the most daunting thing about not being in a workshop, and not having a committee waiting on a draft, is the fact that we have no deadlines. I’ve already written about this (Thought for Day Three), but today I’m thinking more about how the lack of having a deadline changes my attitude towards writing.  Here’s my thought: embrace the waste.

(Just like it says on the title for this post!)

This thought came to me after reading Dorothy Allison’s interview in a book called Novel Ideas.  Allison talks about different tricks she uses in taking a fresh look at her manuscript for a revision.  She puts it down for a year.  She writes entire sections in a different perspective (character or narrative perspective, like from first to third).  She does a whole lot of writing and then tosses that writing away–none of it goes into the final draft.

I will remember my committee-chair (Elizabeth Stuckey-French) the most by one phrase she loved to say, again and again: “Try it and see where it goes.”  This is a lot easier to do when we don’t have a deadline approaching. (ESF taught a really good class about novel writing that I was super lucky to take. In fact, that class is why this Novel Ideas book is on my shelf.)

Maybe other people had different experiences as students, but I wrote with a lot of pressure to get it good the first time.  Not get it right, but get it good.  Get it good enough so it wouldn’t get slaughtered during workshop. I taught 45 students and was often taking three classes at a time while I was completing my MFA. I didn’t really have time to waste a lot of pages trying things.

Writing while a student has shaped my perspective in a bit of an unpractical sort of way: I feel like I have little sense of how much work actually goes into completing an entire book, especially a book that I want to be not only right and good, but amazing. I think a big part of writing an amazing book is allowing ourselves to try things and see what happens.

Let no possibility go unexplored.

This post, I suppose, is sort of a confession.  I suspect that if I were a better student (and I suspect that if I didn’t take the teaching so seriously, which I just could not figure out how to do), I would have made more time to waste pages.  Now, the ability to just write a bunch of pages for the mere act of discovery sounds like a tremendous gift.  Nobody’s waiting on my novel (except my close friends and family).  It feels luxurious.

It’s also really, really scary.

Being open to possibilities takes a lot of courage.  This is why, I believe, fundamentalism is closely related to fear. Any kind of fundamentalism, religious or secular.  Chin up, writers. And by writers, I mean me. Time to march into the unknown.  And by the unknown, I mean, the possibility of making a discovery while wasting a bunch of pages.

And waste is probably the wrong word.  Each sentence we write is productive, because it means, simply, that we are writing.  The only waste a writer has is the sort of muck/guilt/fear that piles up after not having written in a while.

Recommended Reading: Novel Ideas (Second Edition) by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman, University of Georgia Press:  2009