Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On writing

The other day, I talked with a new friend about The New Yorker's recent article on David Foster Wallace. My friend said he found the piece depressing, presumably for the reasons that any account of a talented writer who kills himself would be a downer. I, however, didn't find it depressing, perhaps because my threshold is higher (I rarely find sad movies depressing, either), but perhaps also because an account of an author struggling to write the way he wants to, and remaining mired in feelings of worthlessness or talentlessness -- well, it's hardly surprising. I've known quite a few writers who found it damn near impossible to take a compliment, to acknowledge the size and breadth of their talent. I want to be able to declare myself a writer on a regular basis, and to believe that I'm a good writer, with the potential to become a great one, but it's hard to hold onto ideas like that, to internalize what's already true and use that absorbed reality as a foothold, a way to climb to loftier heights. That's the goal, though -- to keep at it, and to keep getting better.

I say all of this because I've decided to start a new writing workshop. I'll use the Kibbutz as a home base, but otherwise, in many respects, it'll probably resemble the workshop I started last year with Elana Kupor. I want it to convene twice a month, and I want its members to be fiction writers who already have a pretty good command of dialogue, description, and so on -- the elements of fiction -- but want to kick their game up several notches. My selfish motivation: I want to write and revise enough material to put together a portfolio and apply to MFA programs this year. I'd love to be a grad student by fall of 2010.

My first clear memories of writing come from a time when I was very young. Maybe I was five; it's hard to know for sure. I had a series of books that came with cassettes, the idea being that you'd read along in the book as the voice on the tape read the story. I decided to make my own book/tape combos, recording suspenseful tales of an heroic collie (my favorite TV show was Lassie), but also recounting stories drawn from my everyday life. I'd write and record, for example, a scene in which my friend Jason and I encountered a new boy, expressed typical male aggression (we became territorial and didn't let him play with us), and later apologized and invited him into the fold. I still have a couple of the tapes that went with the homemade storybooks, and it's slightly shocking each time I hear my squeaky, exuberant voice coming at me from the distant past.

In middle school, I wrote poems to amuse my parents. I remember that I'd work on them before dinner; some nights I'd present my newest creations at the dinner table. I think there were limericks about hippos and such. By high school, my poetry had taken the turn most adolescent poetry takes: I was contemplating the Big Themes, reflecting profoundly on the tiny emotional shifts in each moment of life. I did occasionally write a poem with a sense of humor. A short one called "Almost Together," about the fact that even physical intimacy can't completely unite two people (all speculation; at this point, I'd never been kissed), actually won an award. I was also writing fiction, and one of my short stories, about environmental issues in Antarctica, received first prize in the junior division of Michigan's annual Future Problem Solving Scenario Writing contest. Finally, a prose sketch of mine won first place in a Detroit Free Press competition for young writers. All three honors accrued to me in the 9th grade, which I suppose makes that year my teenage heyday. I tried to replicate the success of that prize-winning sketch the following year, but the result was a wan imitation rather than an effective follow-up. Not until the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, when I attended Interlochen's inaugural month-long Creative Writing Institute, did my writing make another significant leap.

It was at Interlochen that I met Peter Markus, a thin man in his late twenties or early thirties with slightly sunken eyes and wild black hair. He was the Institute's fiction writing instructor, and the first task he assigned us was to go out into the Michigan woods and come up with the best sentence we could. It was exactly the kind of challenge I had been waiting for: an invitation to spend lots of mental energy in one concentrated daylong burst. I forget what sentence I came up with, but the message was clear: Even a single sentence is worth mildly obsessing about, but the obsession must be playful and free-wheeling to be useful. Those were the primary elements of that life-changing month -- freedom and a sense of play -- and those are the aspects of my writing life that I want to reclaim this year. Peter also encouraged us to attack the act of writing ferociously; that ferocity, that sense of urgency, is something I'd like to return to as well.

I met other young writers at Interlochen, and they impressed and inspired me greatly. When summer was over, I thought about joining Peter's ongoing writing workshop -- he lived in Detroit -- but the workload of my senior year was daunting, and I had college applications to think about. I eventually declined the workshop invitation, which I regret sometimes. Had I accepted, I would have been making a bold choice to prioritize creative writing in my life. When I went to Oberlin College later that year as a prospective student, my meeting with the director of the creative writing program almost convinced me not to make creative writing my major. The professor in charge of the program was in his last year, had a reputation as a hard-ass, and took an unforgiving view of my reading habits. Like many a nerdy high schooler, I had read quite a few Kurt Vonnegut novels; yet Vonnegut, the professor insisted, had only awarded two of his own works "A" grades (everything else got a "B" or below). His point: Don't get bogged down reading too many works by one writer; read many writers, but only read their best books. The high-handed way he presented this argument (which isn't a bad one) made me feel like a child and a fool, a silly, mixed-up kid with ridiculous priorities. Not until my first-year English T.A. encouraged me to declare a major in creative writing did I recover my will to do so, and my belief that I could.

I took classes in poetry, creative nonfiction, literary translation, and even playwriting, but I never got around to fiction. This was because I was intimidated by it, and because it was what I really wanted to do. And perhaps because the primary fiction professor, Dan Chaon, was semi-famous and known to be a bit of a hard-ass, and I wasn't sure my constitution and writing were up to the challenge. (After all, the showdown with the former program chair had almost taken the wind out of my sails completely.) I fell just two credits short of a full major when graduation came around (I completed my other major, Spanish) and escaped Oberlin without ever having taken a fiction writing class.

I remember starting a short story when I moved to my friend Judith's house in the fall of 2002. The change of scenery had inspired me to sit down at my Toshiba laptop, the one I'd had since 1997, and compose a story about a house very much like Judith's. After scoring an internship at Seattle Weekly and becoming consumed with my work there as a budding arts critic, my creative writing fell away. Over the years, I rarely wrote poems; even more rarely did I begin short stories. I knew somewhere in my mind and heart that I missed creative writing, but I was writing for a living now, and wasn't that the dream? Wasn't that enough? The answer, of course, was (and remains) no. Many established writers of fiction, like Curtis Sittenfeld, earn extra money and prestige by writing journalistic articles, but they don't abandon their fiction writing. In fact, their journalism might be fueling their fiction rather than simply running parallel to it. I left the Weekly in 2006 after the New Times merger and moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood so packed with writers that it's said to be more densely populated with them than any other in the nation. Still, I didn't write creatively.

It took returning to Seattle and attending a friend's brunch party to move me back in the right direction. At Andrew Ash's apartment, I met Elana Kupor, and my discussion with her about shifting creative writing to the back burner in life, and (in my opinion) how sad and unnecessary that is, inspired me to think about starting a workshop like the ones I'd loved in college. (This time, maybe I can also inject a little of Peters Markus' gonzo spirit into the proceedings.) Early in 2008, she and I started a biweekly prose workshop that lasted until the summer, when I decided to leave Seattle for parts east. I never made it, and I currently live at the Ravenna Kibbutz and feel that no matter what my career path might be -- and that's still a sizable conundrum -- there's no question that pursuing an MFA in fiction writing would be a meaningful way to spend my time and energy as the first decade of the new century comes to an end. I'm not particularly frightened by the prospect of studying for and taking the GRE, if that's required, or getting together the more logistical aspects of an application, including the notorious Statement of Purpose. What I'm petrified by is the notion of revising what I've already written (a multigenerational family drama set mostly in St. Louis) and creating something new to go along with it -- in short, making a portfolio. (Most MFA programs seem to want around 30 pages, and it's usually either necessary or strongly advisable to include two pieces.)

When I write these tasks out the way I've just done, they don't seem so overwhelming. Still, I have a mental block that becomes a behavioral block around actually sitting down, several nights a week, and working to make my dream a reality. I realized today what the problem might be: The proverbial blank page, or the first draft awaiting significant revision, offers infinite possibilities, an unending number of paths. This might also be my problem with life: Too many choices, too few clear signals about which roads to take. Seeing this parallel, I also see that breaking back into the messy business of writing, and revising, and re-revising, and receiving feedback with as thick a skin as possible, and becoming ultimately a student of writing the way a person becomes a student of Buddhism -- one who learns theory but also persistently engages in practice -- could be the key to unlocking my "stuckness" in life. Finding one's passion isn't always what's most difficult; having the courage to follow it can be an even bigger challenge. I hope that in starting again, in beginning another workshop with the sincere hope that it will flourish and help all involved to grow as writers and as people, that I can cultivate courage in myself, inspire it in others, and move closer to realizing my purpose and destiny. Because once you know what you want to do, all that remains is to do it.

One last note: When I read Tessa Hadley's story in The New Yorker, there were several moments that struck me. Each time, the narrator had communicated some simple truth about life, about how people are, about how I am. Really, what good fiction can do is help you figure out the riddles of existence, including your own. Take this passage:
Hilda rang her.
“Ally? Is that Ally? Remember me? I was the bitch in the supermarket. You’re having a hell of a time. Why don’t you come out here and yell about it?”
Ally felt remote from anyone who talked like this.
I've wondered for years why perfectly nice people who have a certain tone -- chipper, but also vaguely New Age and somewhat bossy -- drive me a little bit crazy. This brief passage paints Ally as a person like me, and Hilda as one of those well-meaning irritants. Then the story walks us through the ginger beginnings of their friendship, and I see a possible path to forming similar friendships in my own life. It's not as easy, of course, as reading a story and following its implicit instructions, but it's helpful to feel understood -- even by an author, someone I've never met -- and gently pushed out of my comfort zone into the possibility of doing things differently, even if it feels, at first, "remote" and strange and scary.

This, among other reasons, is why I want to write fiction: to capture moments -- truths -- like these and present them in a way that will resonate with people, and hopefully help them make sense of life as a whole, and of their own lives in particular.

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