20/20 Hindsight: What We Wish We'd Known as Younger Writers
The following is from a talk I delivered for a literary salon at the Denver Lighthouse Lit Fest.
Your first public performance. Second grade. A talent show, or a show and tell, you’re not sure which. All you remember is that you do not just like Elvis Presley, you are Elvis. You go around the house singing “Don’t be Cruel” and “Hound Dog.” It’s 1958 and your parents are busy doing 1958 things like seriously discussing the possibility of building a bomb shelter and forbidding you to hula hoop in the house.
You’re convinced your version of “Hound Dog” will do Elvis proud. Forget Elvis’s gold lame suit or pompadour with the killer stray lock down the forehead. For your performance, you have only a starched white shirt that you wear to Hebrew school and hair so insistently curly it would survive a nuclear bomb, speaking of mutual assured destruction.
You unbutton the shirt to your breast bone, do the best you can with the curls so they look windswept and not like the orator Cicero with a laurel wreath on his head, and you belt it out. The crowd, you have to admit, is rockin’ Or smiling encouragingly. Or relieved not to be taking a spelling test. No matter. You’re in the zone, and yes, your eyes become heavy lidded like Elvis when you come to the second verse: “Yeah, you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.” And then. Then. It happens. You look right at Irene Milligan. She is a rather big-boned girl for second grade, formidable and blunt; her favorite expression is Stuff it, moron! None of the boys dare tease or challenge her because she has a track record of compromising their masculinity by twisting their arms behind their backs until they cry “Master!” which she prefers to “Uncle.”
Irene is staring right at you; she is not entertained; she is not amused; she is not rockin’ or clapping her hands and swaying her head back and forth like your best friend, Warren, as if he is Ray Charles and blind. In fact, her eyes are slitted, her arms crossed over her chest, her lips pursed with what you would have to say is unmistakable dissatisfaction. You freeze; you stop right in the middle of your unaccompanied performance. You return to your seat. People are confused. So are you. You don’t know exactly what has happened to you but years later you will understand. You have met her. Or him. Or they. You have met The Critic.
What you don’t know yet (but wish you did) is that you are not this performance, this thing you are doing. You don’t appreciate how many hours you will waste confusing you—whoever that is—with what you produce. You will continue to identify with what you do, which will soon enough be writing. Hound Dog and Elvis will be put aside when you slowly realize you actually might be tone deaf. And behind all that pursuit will be Irene, The Critic, like original sin, always there with her arms folded, that slightly perplexed, slightly cranky, slightly hostile expression, what is basically—though you don’t conceive of it as such in second grade—a WTF bubble above her head. And you so wish someone had told you that you will never please Irene—or not enough. And that it would be so much easier if you had just stood up there and continued singing, your eyes skyward, belting out “Hound Dog” with evangelical rapture not for Irene but for Elvis.
You’re twenty-one and very fond of telling people you’re going to be a writer. Such innocence is cute. Cuter still is the fact that people believe you when you haven’t actually written a word. You’ve been afraid to write because that would spoil the perfection of what you might actually write. But your last semester of your senior year at the University of Colorado you get up the guts to take a creative writing class. It’s 1973, and everybody wants to be an artist or at least anti something or other materialistic, so classmates and friends, especially if they’re stoned, even your parents, despite monetarily supporting you so you can eat your one meal a day at Furrs Cafeteria, have no trouble accepting this claim of yours.
The problem is that you have no idea what to write about. You think you do. You think you should write about “what you know,” because everyone has said that is what you should do. And sure enough you do so, in this so-called creative writing class where the professor, a man named Art Kistner, meets with the four of you signed up for his course the first day (you have been closed out of the “good” professor’s class) and informs you all that there will be no class meetings, no instruction, no discussion. You are simply to go home and write three stories. Hand them in one at a time to him; you will meet for a conference over each for an hour. Don’t be late because you will receive a F if you do. Goodbye.
Okay, you think, I guess this is the way it’s done. You write your three stories. You hand them in. You’re terrifically excited, especially after your professor tells you you’re one of the three best writers he’s seen over his years of teaching (although, honestly, how many students can you have at four a semester?). But never mind, you’ve gotten that boost of confidence. You’re set. But wait, he also remarks that he happened to show one of your stories to two other readers: his wife and some associate or other. And they only made it to pages 6 and 8 respectively.
Was it that bad? you ask. No, Arthur Kistner, tells you, the piece just wasn’t important enough for them to keep going. Oh, you say. Important as in boring? No, important as in meaningful, he says. Oh, you say again and leave.
It takes you a long time to understand that despite all the sensitivity of your writing, the sensitive characters, the sensitive feelings, the sensitive typing you’ve done on onion skin paper, you are missing something big. It won’t be until years later when you’re living in Portland and your girlfriend at the time sleeps with another man and you have to face your abysmal despair and anger and eventually write a story about it that you understand something you wished you’d known earlier: you have been afraid to really write about anything that hurts. You’ve been afraid of your own material.
Your story just sits there, which is to say no one wants to publish it. Until one night, you look at it again and realize what’s wrong: the ending. You’re afraid of the ending, that is, you’re afraid to have occur what you’ve been afraid of in real life, abandonment—a bulls eye of a core issue for you—and that what you fear in your life you’ve not allowed to happen in your fiction. And then it comes to you, the final two paragraphs. You send it out and it gets taken immediately, as if it’s an entirely different story, as if it’s just been waiting for closure, and you finally understand what writers, people whom you think of as real writers, have been saying: they don’t write, they rewrite.
One’s power as a writer comes from being willing to create and destroy: you have to be both Shiva and Vishnu, that wacky fun duo, and live with the exquisite contradiction that both are equally necessary to the process. There are few things in life besides writing that require so much of it to be sacrificed for the greater good. The pushing ahead in writing and the letting go require the same act of will. As I sit here writing this I’m aware of that process and aware too that I still struggle with it after all these years. My ego wants to get it done right on the first draft and tells me I may—or must—get lucky, and who wants to waste time writing something that will only be discarded? My experience tells me to instruct my ego to back the fuck away from desk, put its hands behind its head and assume the perp position on the ground.
Writing is and always will be a mixture of excitement and dread. No matter how much you try to eliminate the latter in favor of the former, these two will always be inextricably linked, and necessarily so. To do dangerous work, to take chances and risk failure, both emotions have to be present. Fear and excitement are precisely what grab hold of an image, a family story, a word spoken in anger or shyness at a party, a forgotten memory and snag these to germinate the process of creation. You can waste a lot of time—and believe me I have—trying to rid yourself of the fear part, but let me save you the trouble and tell you not to bother. Welcome it instead.
And while you’re at it, welcome all the misfires, that is, the abandoned drafts that work for one or two or five pages then go dark on you. They may seem like false starts at the time; they may make you feel stupid for thinking you could create a story out of so small an idea or event; and they may sting in their abandonment because you were so excited when you first began. But rest assured that after time has passed—and I’m talking about hard time, sometimes as much as five years or more—you may open up that file if you still have it, and you should, that’s the point here, and find what was a dead end suddenly becomes a glorious avenue forward. Never throw away drafts of unfinished work out of a mood of discouragement; those moods are temporary; the promise of the writing is not.
And let me offer the opposite advice that comes after years of not following it myself: don’t wait too long. Any source material for prospective writing has a best-to-use-by stamp, after which content can go stale: you can be too removed from the material or forget details or god forbid become infirm or just lose the spirit, drive, and passion that once connected you to the subject. It can all feel like another lifetime ago and not in the way that it’s good to have distance on. The bell does indeed toll for thee, or at least your once great idea for a story or poem.
Delight and surprise. Oh, how overlooked these are in writing! At some level I truly didn’t understand that it’s this moment of surprise that I was looking for in my work. It’s a quality hard to describe—this surprise and delight—and it can be realistic or strange, whimsical or poignant, oblique or shocking—think of when we discover in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” what all those folksy neighbors are up to on that June day, or Alice Munro’s magician’s touch for convoluting time and memory to arrive at a moment in her story “The Progress of Love” when a mother burns up 3000 dollars of desperately needed money supposedly, or so we think at first, in front of her husband. These moments are worth working for and toward because they make all the hard and sometimes punishing effort of writing worthwhile. It was Robert Frost after all who summed it up by saying, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
And here may be the subtlest lesson of all I wish I’d known earlier: how to look. I had some idea as a younger writer that I was supposed to write about the big subjects, whatever they were: love, injustice, war—never mind that I was never in one—death, success, failure, money, betrayal, loyalty. And, well, in one way or another I did write about these things, if not at all how I thought. But I didn’t understand how to attend to that, yes, still voice inside that recognizes the unknown, that takes a sounding on the unformed. So reading an article in the paper one day about a Quasar farther and more powerful than any scientists had discovered before or hearing an obscure fact that Hitler once had a plan to deport all Jews to Madagascar or finding a V-gram that my father sent to my mother during World War 2 about two hungry French girls to whom he had given all his chocolate allotment I soon became aware that these are the powerful signs that gobsmack writers and evoke the unsayable. They are the very overhead remarks or images glimpsed or items read or photographs recovered or family anecdotes retold that allow you to sneak up on the big idea—Emily Dickinson’s counsel to tell it slant—and that have the sustainability to grow from their seed entire poems, stories, novels, and trilogies. It’s good not to ask why this and not that zaps you. It’s good not to question these notices, for that’s what they are, notices from your creative subconscious. It was perhaps the most significant realization of my writing life to learn to covet these “notices,” tend to them like orchids in an underground hothouse until they’re ready to bloom.
It’s hard to say if I’m any better or worse off for not knowing what I know now. Would I have been happier knowing how hard it was going to be to write a novel and the trial and trail of aborted attempts, not to mention those turned down by publishers that have been left behind? Would I be happier to know that I discard, roughly speaking, ten or more pages for every one I keep? Or that it doesn’t get any easier to face the blank page, just different, after you’ve been writing for thirty years and had some decent success? That at one time I was afraid I didn’t have anything to write about and now I’m afraid I’ve written about it all? Or how hard it is to get back in the habit of writing once you get out of the habit? No, these are things you shouldn’t know at any age. Because they all come down to the same question. One you’ve asked before. When you knock on that door, that portal to seek the dubious arbiter of your purpose on Earth, and ask am I really supposed to do this with my life? and no answer comes at first, and you wait and you wait and just as you’re walking away you hear the faintest reply, Stop bothering me about a question you already know the answer to.