In The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, Stephen Koch parrots the stuttering (lower-case) writer-who-gave-up:
“I—uh…I don’t do much writing anymore. I mean, I tried for a while, but with all the other pressures . . .” Then they look at the floor. They blush. There’s a little stammer of shame.
Shame? Why shame? For a person to discover the she or he does not have a calling to write can be good news, too.
Koch seems bent on, first and foremost, trying to find the real WRITERs among a group of hopefuls. Maybe it’s just me, but a duality develops that reminds me of the stereotypical high-school clique: there are WRITERS, and there are NOT-WRITERs (now, re-read the above quote). Because I’m a grad-student and I listen to NPR sometimes, I don’t like binaries. So, I’m going to make a case against the WRITER v. NOT-WRITER duality.
Exhibit A: my mother. She writes a blog (I won’t link it here so as to avoid claims of shameless plugging). Her blog has several recurring themes: cooking/baking, her Welsh Corgi, her hilarious self-evaluations, and the beauty and oddness of our family’s land in Central Texas. She’s relatively prolific and she’s got a pretty substantial readership, consisting of Facebook connections and high-school friends and other bloggers. She was even picked up by a blog-network.
Exhibit B: an old orchardist in Northern New Mexico. He has published a memoir and, very recently, a book of oral histories told by iconic figures from the rural area where he’s lived for three decades. He told me the other day, “I’m 84 years-old and I’ve only published a couple stories, a memoir, and an oral history.” I’ll mention now that he graduated in the fifties from—what was becoming then and certainly is now—one of the most prestigious MFA programs in the country.
Exhibit C: a college friend. Recently, I wrote a short email to a group of friends lamenting some difficulties that had unfolded in my life. I received a moving response from a red-headed college friend. In a long email, she not only expressed her regrets over my struggle, but wrote several paragraphs detailing vividly her thoughts about suffering, which had been on her mind because of her new explorations in Buddhism. The email was both funny and deeply insightful. It read, to me, like the best of Mary Karr’s uniquely-voiced reflections about practical spirituality.
My mother, by far, has the most readers, but is not “committed” to writing (she’s got none of the stereotypes: the dingy apartment, the peanut-butter sandwich, the smoking). The orchardist has publications and has spent better than fifty years writing; he doesn’t smoke but he seems committed. The college friend moved me and changed my thoughts, but probably hasn’t even considered writing as a viable use of her time. And I forgot exhibit D: me—the unpublished, unread MFA student, hurdling toward dissertation hours and repeating to myself, I’m going to write a book. I’m going to write a book.
Again, who’s the WRITER? Surely the orchardist, right? If so, what are the rest of us doing?
This matters because, in a week, I’ll walk into an introductory Creative Writing class and I’ll have to say something about writing (I’m the instructor, though I probably should be taking the class as a student). What do I say? You either got it or you don’t and this class will weed out the weaklings? That doesn’t sound like a class, it sounds like a reality TV show. Doesn’t modern publishing culture do that anyways?
Instead, I’m going to ask my beginning creative writing students to think of writing as a spectrum because we modern folks love binary-destroying spectrums.
I’ll draw the spectrum really large on the board. I’ll ask where on the spectrum porn-site-designers and Ke$ha belong. Wow, they’ll think, maybe I don’t have to publish a sci-fi trilogy or a posthumous award-winning novel to be a writer.
Undoubtedly, though, WRITER will not die. There are those (including me) who want to think they’ve got a calling. Because when we know we’ve got the calling, then we can proceed. We want to know that a Wikipedia page awaits us, that universities will fist-fight to give us lectureships when we’re still alive, and that our names will appear on syllabi when we’re dead.
So I’ll erase the spectrum. In its place, I’ll draw a big circle and scrawl WRITER, real big, in the middle.
I’ll ask them to write about it. Prompt: when are you “in” the WRITER circle? Maybe when you publish a book? A poem? When you read enough Nabokov? How do you get into the circle?
But it’s a trick, you see, because, right then, as they begin to puzzle out their thoughts on paper,
Right Mr. Koch? I think you and I agree on this point.
And the spectrum? The “Writing Life?” The publications? I’ll quote my uncle here: “Screw all that. Get to work.”
Ben Dolan is going into his third and final year of the MFA program in Nonfiction at the University of New Mexico. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review.