According to a recent statement by a fiction writer who will remain unnamed, this makes me an “attention-seeking narcissist.”
Fine. I’ll step up to that. In fact, I’ll indulge my narcissistic self by sharing a story from my own experience.
I don’t find it coincidental that the first time I recall writing with intent was the first time I experienced heartache. I was fifteen when I first found the power in taking a pen to paper. Sitting alone in my dark closet, I recounted my devastation when I found out that a friend and confidant had quite deliberately kissed the boy of my affections. Even then, I understood there was power in the act of my enraged scrawling. Probably I was seeking some kind of vindication and justice; trying to decipher a code, a pattern. Or maybe I thought that if I could just slow it down, space it out, let some air into the hormone-inflated teen love triangle, I could prevent heartache from happening again. I don’t know that I ever found the answers I wanted, but I did find some relief. For the rest of my life, the page would become a connecting point, a solution; a place to return to when there’s nowhere else to go.
To disqualify an entire genre as narcissistic and sympathy-seeking is to greatly misunderstand art in general. What is fiction if nothing more than a memoir of the imagination? And why didn’t somebody kindly thank Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed for their candor but let them know that if their first, fetal drafts weren’t perfect they should shut up already? Thank Christ Mary Karr had Tobias Wolff as her professor otherwise Cherry might never have been born. Much less The Liar’s Club, Lit or any of her other works.
During my second semester at Goddard, while working with Elena Georgiou, I read and annotated a book I despised. I remember the book well: a travesty; hideous writing, if not total disregard to the craft; and a New York Times bestselling memoir. At the time, I was peeved at Elena for suggesting the book and even more irritated to learn that she had not yet read it herself. I made sure Elena knew my feelings about this. Her response totally and completely disarmed me. I thought I’d wasted precious time reading something lousy, but as it turns out (thank you, Elena) it’s important and necessary to read things we do not like. It’s useful, as an artist and as a human, to discern what we loathe, not just what we love, because it’s fundamental in determining the kind of writer (or person or teacher) we don’t want to be.
The New York Times recently published a blog post, “Write Your Way to Happiness,” which talks about the psychological benefits of writing. Studies are now validating what writers have intuitively known for(probably)ever: writing has the power to improve our lives. In learning who I am as a writer, I’ve learned to understand what it means to need something, and tend to myself, on a soul level. Writing is a delicate act that requires an admission of yearnings that, for me, always seem to go beyond my limitations. The act of writing can be frustrating and feel futile. Doing it anyway is an act of abandon that is, for the most part, nothing short of terrifying. Why? Because I know I’ll never be perfect. And yet, I can’t not write.
My experience with writing has oscillated between two extremities: I am held captive by it even as it frees me. Perhaps this is not true for fiction writers, but as a writer who works mainly in nonfiction and with nonfiction students, I believe there are stories that must be told because the teller can no longer coexist with her story. Her story must be set loose. Miraculously, within the telling process, alchemy occurs; a story is born that ultimately has the capacity not only to free the writer but the reader as well.
I have to vehemently disagree that “real writers are born with talent.” Most of us have to work our asses off: trying and failing and trying again. We invest time and money – our entire selves and souls committed to the craft – and we offer ourselves up, entrusting our work to people who call themselves professionals. So-called “talent” is something we develop. Shakespeare did not arrive slick and bloody from the womb speaking perfect English and writing plays; just like doctors aren’t born doctors, Olympic gold medalists aren’t born with their gold medals around their necks, writers aren’t born writing. No one is born knowing how to do anything except be exactly what we are: vulnerable, screaming babies. We all learn how to speak. We must also learn how to wield not just words, but their power as well. As much as words can free, they can leave a fiery mark somewhere tender.
Yet it is this same tender place from which our work is generated. Poet Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, said in a rare interview for Krista Tippett’s On Being, that when she first started writing poetry it was “rotten.” Nonetheless, she kept at it—writing “to the moon and back again.” She goes on to speak of the importance of creating space for mystery. She talks about the “wild silky part of ourselves” and about “the part of the psyche that works in concert with the unconsciousness.” Good writing doesn’t just flow forth from all-knowing, “talented” fingertips. Anyone who says it does is forgetting his own beginnings; forgetting that he too was once born without knowing a thing about language, without the ability to speak (English specifically) much less write, read or be consistent in verb tense. Instead, the creative self must be fostered and encouraged, conjured and called forth. Writing is a tool we use to forge ourselves: with great intimacy, steadfast passion and lots of abandon, one word at a time. A true writer is something we become.
You can also find this piece on “Writer in the World” where it was originally published, March 2015.