From Three by Annie Dillard
This quotation from The Writing Life, pg.575
“Much has been written about the life of the mind. I find the phrase itself markedly dreamy. The mind of the writer does indeed do something before it dies, and so does its owner, but I would be hard put to call it living.
It should surprise no one that the life of the writer—such as it is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience. Writers read literary biography and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper.”
Writing as Craft and Art
People write. Monkeys write too. Well, chimps do at any rate. Some chickens have been taught to peck out words as well. So where does that leave us? It’s a good set of facts to remember when you’re feeling desperately arrogant about your preferred life status as a writer. It’s also a good series of sentences to repeat when you are just feeling desperate.
It is fashionable to pronounce the dictum that you can’t teach anyone to write. Characters in plays even say that. Successful writers who couldn’t be bothered say that; failed writers who couldn’t be bothered say that. Saul Bellow is reported to have said it, but I don’t think he believed it. He probably didn’t want to be relegated to departments of Creative Writing.
You can, of course, teach people to write. You can teach people to drive, you can teach people to read, you can teach people to read music. What is the case is that you cannot guarantee that what they will write will be anything of merit. But you can teach people to put words together in sentences, which sound as if someone other than a simpering moron wrote them. You can teach proper syntax, usage, and vocabulary –when to write me or I, when to write who or whom, when to write lie and lain, which or that, and so forth. But that’s not what they mean when they say you can’t teach people to write. They mean you can’t know how it will turn out. There are bad drivers and good drivers, and good writers and bad writers. But being a good writer has almost nothing to do with being a successful one.
We teach writing primarily by teaching reading. Reading everything — esoteric literary novels, commercial novels, the classics, poetry, and all the rest of it. There is endless ground to be covered in what might be called “the teaching of writing.” Carlos William Williams illustrates vocabulary as an over-the-top art form, but his abundant language nonetheless teaches. Hemingway teaches another lesson, that of naked, spare language. Virginia Woolf redefined the notion of time in fiction.
But there is no escaping the hard fact that you can’t teach someone to have “the gift.” If someone has the gift there is mentoring to be done, and coaching, but if it is there, it is there because somebody put it there… your genes, the Muses, God, or some random slap of good luck. A gifted writer does not mean a published one or a particularly happy person. You have the gift or you don’t. It can lead to immortality, insanity, or suicide … or to absolutely nothing at all.
In their arrogance, the writing elite suggests you cannot by example, by criticism, by discussion, by editing, teach anything about the craft of writing. Teaching writing is not a chic thing to do, unless you happen to be a playwright or find yourself housed at one of the universities that have famous writers teaching writing. Beware the totally commercial writing workshops, seminars and writing marathon weekends, for which you will pay a fortune and learn little. It is unlikely the really good teachers are at those places.
You might surprise yourself when you find a good teacher at a local college. Not a failed writer or a famous egomaniac, but just a damn good teacher.
Most of the very famous writers who are at the weekend seminars are there because they are having an affair with someone or temporarily broke. They will either be completely uninterested in you if the reason is the first, or cranky as hell if the second applies. The last thing a commercial writer who is presently feeling down and worthless is interested in running into is an unknown but talented writer. That’s called Competition. Writing has become a Blood Sport. I don’t play that sport, don’t believe in it and might be why I’m neither famous nor all that successful financially. I am however, always excited to find others willing to play in the Wordpaint box, and make an utter mess and try again, and again.
What I’m saying is this: you’re better off to stay home and write. And read! Read and then read more. When you think your eyes have fallen out of your head, keep reading. Other authors are your true teachers. Then, find a small group of people you trust and show them your work, when you are ready to show it to them. They do not have to be writers, famous, or in the publishing business. They must however be people who will offer constructive criticism. Finally, know when it is time to shred something, shelve something, move forward with something, or have the guts to transform something you’ve written into something different. Trust your instincts.
When reading, separate the author from the work. Idolatrous worship of published writers turns quickly into idleness for you. If you are a writer, or hoping to be one, meeting more famous authors does little for your work. If you’re a reader, but not a writer, meeting a writer is either pleasurable or disappointing, but it doesn’t wrench your guts out and paralyze you.
The only “help” I ever got from an author was May Sarton, a minor writer, who wrote constantly. Many have judged her work trivial, but it was the act of writing and existing that made her a hero among many young feminists, myself included. I read her many published journals written against madness, against loneliness and illness. Her work was a coda for a time before women were comfortable with themselves or their choices. I met her only once when I was quite ill. She said “write it all down. It doesn’t matter what becomes of it. Just write it down.” It was great advice because she put the notion of writing into the notion of living, and indeed, of staying alive.
I saw Anaïs Nin once at a large public gathering. It was Women’s History month and she was the invited speaker at a large university. Women escorted her down the aisle, as if she were the High Priestess. Everyone was reading her journals; I was reading them too. But I didn’t like them. I felt she was writing them for an audience and therefore they seemed dishonest to me. Why not call them memoir then, I thought at the time. This was more prescient of me than is usually the case, because it was far before the time the fiction of her journals was revealed. Yet, when reading Deidre Bair’s extraordinary biography about her, I felt sorrow and compassion. Anaïs Nin kept herself alive and fed by writing, in however a distorted format. It kept her going. Perhaps the most moving portion of the biography is when Bair describes Nin, by then severely ill with cancer, traveling from West to East Coast to be with and care for one of her two “husbands.”
In my mind there’s one play that most clearly articulates the life of the writer, you’ll find it in Donald Marguiles play, “Collected Stories.” It is a more valuable teaching tool than any expensive weekend seminar on process, craft or the art of writing. It speaks to what it means to be a writer, to age as a writer, and to be too trusting with your stories. Your stories are always your stories but if you speak them before you write them, they belong to anyone who has heard them. If you really want to write, do it, and don’t talk about doing it. And, also read this play if you’re stuck, blocked or feeling hopeless. Clue: the best line in the play is “Only when I’m expecting burglars.”
© Alida Brill 2011