My friend Russell Terry contributes to the ELGL (Engaging Local Government Leaders) blog with writing tips in his column Writing with Russ. Being a talented writer, and formerly a lead tutor at the UNC Writing Center, he chimes in with heady content on the subject of writing. Once upon a time, while researching a post, he tweeted out:
Having a strong opinion on writing, I disagreed. We had a brief exchange on Twitter that metastasized into an email exchange and then his post on ELGL. I am now formally returning his serve with my position (and cross-pollinating two fine blogs!).
As the illustrious Omar Little from The Wire says: a man’s gotta have a code. A code of mine: writers have a burning, burning desire to write. In short: writers write, right? If you don’t have that fire in your belly, well then: you ain’t ever gonna be a writer. As an old college professor once told me: the world doesn’t want you to be a writer.
Tracy Kidder lectured once about a writing mentor of his from Iowa. While pursuing his MFA, Kidder had a professor (whom he left nameless) visiting from New York City, who, lost in Iowa City and drinking heavily amidst the cornfields and undergrad scene, left Kidder with a jewel.
The guy barely taught and was mostly at the bars, but Kidder would tag along to glean whatever genius overfloweth. In his cups, Mr. Famous Writer referred to writing as, “the terribly lonely business of getting down to it.” And he has a point. Writing IS the terribly lonely business of getting down to it.
Writers write, right?
Few things are more isolating than going deep into your head and to hunt words. I once had the honor of working with Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States. Another august font of wisdom on the craft, Hass famously said, “Writing is hell. Not writing is hell. The only tolerable state is having just written.” I feel Hass. I don’t always feel the icy breath of death whispering at my neck, “If you died today, you know you haven’t written a poem in like a month. Loser.” But I do feel that feeling often, and I hate it. Only finishing a day’s dose of writing wards off the chill.
The compulsion to write may not always be triggered by that inner need. Russell notes the need for craft in “mundane” (for lack of a better word) writing. I agree with Russ that anything written should be written well, even dry and procedural government texts (or contractually-obligated tenure portfolio self-evaluations).
Russell also claims that Whedon may only be referencing what we’d call “creative writing” and thus any axioms or quotes regarding “writing” are privileging this type of writing to the exclusion, and probably denigration, of other forms of writing. I don’t want to insult any writing that is related to employment (and as a poet, I most certainly do not feel like writing must be remunerated to be considered “writing”), but I lament that the majority of my writing has nothing to do with my creative pursuits: poetry, sportswriting, or creative essays such as this blog.
A quick background: I teach writing for a living as a community college English teacher. I am victim of the old cliché: boy meets poetry, gets MFA, becomes a teacher to pay off school loans—they’re not exactly hiring at Poet Corp with a hefty bennies package and a 401(k). I probably too easily polarize the teaching writing (academic composition) and the doing writing (poetry, creative writing) to the detriment of “mundane” writing.
Writing is yoga and play and mana all rolled into one.
My brother-in-law, Matt, is a composition aficionado. By composition I mean just that, composition; and by aficionado, I mean, wizard. He has a master’s in Rhet/Comp, taught at 4 and 2-year colleges and is currently leveling up that MA to a PhD. Matt is gonna teach the living crap out of some undergraduate composition. He’s current on the craft, well versed in the theory, and, frankly, just knows what’s up. He’s so down with comp he’s even willing to shares his condescension regarding us MFA’ers beefing into his turf.
He has a point. MFA’ers are mostly teachers by accident. Teaching college writing is a side-effect of getting the degree, it’s rarely ever a goal. Most of us Creative Writing-types get the degree ‘cause we all think we’re gonna be the next Raymond Carver or Sharon Olds. Only after a few years of playing at writer do you realize you’re saddled with debt and a (semi?) useless degree. Plagued by at least wanting to do something rational with your writing degree, you become a community college teacher. Community colleges will employ anyone with an MA and a pulse (and it’s better than Starbucks (or UPS, or pizza delivery) or whatever).
That isn’t to say I don’t love composition. I have strong feelings about, and an idiosyncratic but passionate relationship, to the craft; but writing to me is creative writing.
Writing is yoga and play and mana all rolled into one. If I go too long without poet’ing, I feel all bottled up and gross inside. I often feel I am “wasting” my writing on comments for student essays, work e-mails, committee reports, etc. etc. But I “have to” write those to pay my mortgage and feed the wee bairn. That is: the world, or rather surviving in it, makes you write that kind of stuff. And that runs contrary to my old professor’s the world doesn’t want you to be a writer because, in fact, the world does want you to be a writer. Just a dry business-and-bullet-points writer.
You do have something to say. And chances are you really want to say it.
Society doesn’t give anyone the time, space and kick in the ass to write their personal projects. Anyone who wants to do that writing has to fight for a room of one’s own. And I mean room in both Einsteinian ways: time and space.
Though Russell does concede my point. His parenthetical in the third stanza seems to agree with me. If you sit in inactivity long enough, in front of a blank page long enough, you will quiet the monkey brain long enough to discover that you do have something to say. And chances are you really want to say it.
I subscribe to the “radio tuning” metaphor for inspiration. If you, ritually, sit in the same spot at the same time and just write (even Peter Elbow gibberish)… you’ll be tuning in the muse. Sure, at first it will be so much static and dreck, but every now and then, you’ll get the signal strong and you’ll flow.
You either need that flow or you wither; or you don’t.