Monday, February 7, 2011

Just Write

Is everyone writing in my town, or does it just seem that way?

At a benefit auction the other night I sat across the table from a woman who has been writing short stories and memoir pieces for years. She’s at the point where she’s wondering if she could publish her work. She’s wondering: Am I ready for that? What’s the next step?

A friend across town who has an amazing literary blog (far more productive than I, by far) has just finished a draft of her fourth novel. Two blocks from her, another friend, who has won prizes for her poems and essays, is busily at work. In that same neighborhood there is another memoir writer, and two children’s authors. Across the street from them ….

Wow. Never mind. I won’t be able to list all the writers I know in town, let alone all the others I now imagine are squirreled away in their home offices/writing sheds/the library tapping away at laptops or scribbling in journals. I shouldn’t be surprised. Not only is this a college town, but it’s where Harriet Beecher Stowe lived when she wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I’m convinced there’s something in the water that makes one want to tell a story.

Because basically, that’s it. It’s not about a career, or fame. Definitely not about the money, although some lucky folks do extraordinarily well. It’s simply a compulsion, to describe and tell and make stuff up and go for a wild imaginative ride and bring a few friends along if they care to listen. That’s it. If you have another goal in mind, I’d suggest abandoning this endeavor, immediately. It begins and ends with a need to tell a story, and tell it as well as you can.

The telling is what matters, because that might be all that comes of it. The best thing I ever heard in the way of writing ‘advice’ came from my advisor in college, the poet Robert Pack, who told us, “Most art isn’t very good, and most art doesn’t last.”

To a self-important 21-year old, this was a shocking revelation. What? Isn’t the goal here to create great art? Award winning novels, poems for major publications, series that resell as movie-rights? Anything short of that would be failure, right?

Oh, so, so wrong. Bob Pack was spot on, and here’s my riff on his wisdom: Most art isn’t ever published. Most published art sucks. So just go out there and tell your story. Because you have to. Because it gives you joy.

Another writing friend (from that same creative writing seminar with Bob Pack) has published several non-fiction books, but also writes many things that he simply … shares. Every year he writes a lovely Christmas story, and emails it to the zillion people he knows who just enjoy listening to him, and it’s a gift. It’s absolutely wonderful to see it appear as an attachment each year and it’s absolutely perfect without a cover or an ISBN number.

At the same benefit auction the other night was another friend who has decided to go a more structured, professional route with her writing. She’s entered an MFA program (Master of Fine Arts) and is currently taking classes with a fiction writer. She said something to me about that class which sparked this whole blog post.

She described herself as “superficial” (so not true) and said this guy is deep, and is trying to get her to be “deep.” She described her writing as horizontal, and this “deep” fellow wants her to be more “vertical.”

Okay, I’m not in the class, and maybe I’m getting this wrong, but can I just say I would love to throw a brick at this guy? This gal has been blogging of late, and her posts are hysterically funny. She has a voice; an authentic voice. I certainly hope Mr. Deep gets that, because an authentic voice is a rare thing. Something he can’t teach.

Beware of writers trying to be deep. They are full of … yeah. My guess is those “deep” stories wind up in the category of don’t-last-aren’t-very-good. Which is all fine, but probably not much fun to read.

Here’s my advice to my not-superficial, horizontally-writing friend: screw deep. Write “true.” What’s the story you want to tell? The story you have to tell, and the character’s voice that speaks to you? Don’t be afraid to tell the truth, to annoy people and rub them the wrong way and say the things that make them uncomfortable. Don’t worry about whether it’s profound. Just dig within yourself and make it true. And whether it winds up deep or published or just in the bottom of some drawer: it’s yours.

Okay, sun’s up in our little town. Coffee’s on. Let’s write.