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Melanie Drane

Melanie Drane

Posted: October 16, 2009 12:56 PM

Writing Self, Best Self?

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As the number of newly-minted MFAs in creative writing continues to climb, it's not unreasonable to ponder why the degree exerts a pull on writers. Employment and publication will remain elusive for many graduates. Creative writing students are often asked, "What are you going to do with it?" Even friends and relatives may secretly (or not so secretly) consider the degree an exercise in self-indulgence. The classic barb is: "Shakespeare (insert Balzac or Hemingway if you prefer) never needed a writing workshop," with the implication that literature, alone among all art forms, requires no instruction to achieve -- that it is a gift, not a craft.

In fact, writing cannot flourish without both good luck and skilled, hard work. Over the coming weeks, this column will invite you to write, discuss, and find allies. As writers, we yearn to be masters of our own environment and time, but structure matters in the end. In its absence, even the greatest natural talent can go a lifetime without completing a project.

In the age of instant gratification, the pursuit of words still moves at its own pace. External validation is scarce during the writing process. When UK editor, critic, and writer Ian Hamilton was fifty years old, he published a collection of Fifty Poems, noting: "Fifty poems in 25 years, not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think." A decade later, he added ten new poems and released Sixty Poems. In the competitive, industrial economy, such an output seems negligible, and the production pace untenable. It was virtually impossible for the marketplace to remunerate or acknowledge Hamilton's lifetime poetic oeuvre as significant work -- but he kept writing.

Hamilton's poem, "The Veteran" recalls a conversation that conveyed gnawing doubt toward his writing: "With great contempt/he asked me what I did. I said I wrote/Three times before he got it. Then he leant/So close I took his rotten breath inside me/And asked: 'What about?'; and he is right." Hamilton (who died in 2001) was not alone in his struggle to produce. Innumerable examples exist of brilliance that manifests itself in a single book, or manuscripts that consume years of a writing life. David Wroblewski required ten years to complete his magnificent first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Wroblewski's book now carries the Oprah's Book Club medallion -- but there must have been times when skeptical colleagues at his software day job puzzled over why he was still researching dog training methods.

Working alone on a manuscript, one's urgent thoughts often go hidden and unread. For weeks, or years, there may be nothing to show the world. An undercover self develops, and during a protracted period without publication, the secret identity may feel mute. That condition seems antithetical to the heart of language. Words are fundamentally social; their function is to connect us. Little wonder, then, that a good workshop offers such relief to writers trying to sustain momentum.

To have impact beyond an internal monologue, words must locate themselves in a larger conversation and community. In rapport with readers, a book enters a perpetual creative state. Its ideas become infinitely renewable, gathering fresh force every time they are read -- even centuries later.

Yet writing also fulfills a more intimate task. Putting thoughts to page helps us navigate to greater understanding of human experience. Narrative distills meaning from what might otherwise remain a chaotic jumble of events. "I am smarter when I'm writing...[W]hen the work is going well, I'm expressing opinions that I've never uttered in conversation and that might otherwise never have occurred to me," essayist Arthur Krystal wrote recently. "There seems a rhythm to writing that catches notes that ordinarily would stay out of earshot."

Through writing we may access our most alert, best self, and perhaps that's what makes the work so irresistible, despite the uncertainty of employment or publication. If writing captures things we would otherwise miss, fail to articulate, or comprehend, then a writing life is a life more attentively lived -- even if one never publishes a word. At my desk in Tokyo for a decade, I wrote prolifically for the drawer, to make sense of the unfamiliar, and in the process, I came to feel at home.

Writers fantasize about the luxury of time for retreat. We also fantasize about our stories or poems finding their way into the world. Workshops serve both longings in concrete, practical terms. Structure and expectations are set for unruly creative work. Writing-in-progress is acknowledged and honored. It's not magic. We may irritate each other, and the hardest job is still done in solitude. But by gathering around the workshop table (or here on the blog page), we insist that the endeavor matters. So welcome to Huffington Post's neighborhood of books and writing--not a geographical place, but a community of ideas.

Future columns will offer prompts and thoughts for writing practice, and invite submissions. This week, please tell us your favorite online resources for writers. A few of our own include:

The Sun magazine has a longstanding tradition of publishing readers' work. This month's prompt is to write on the subject of rain.
http://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/406/rain

The Guardian UK offers nourishing fare for bibliophiles, as well as opportunities to submit writing. The "First Person" series features memoir selections from both published and unpublished authors.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/series/firstperson

Poets might follow the Guardian's Poem of the Week column.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/oct/05/john-donne-the-sun-rising

Northampton MA Poet Laureate Lesléa Newman has asked poets to write 30 poems in 30 days to raise money for literacy. This link provides a list of 100 prompts. Some of my workshop students have taken Newman's project as inspiration for their own activism--you might do the same.
http://www.northamptonartscouncil.org/view/web/id/7746/title/30_Poems_in_30_Days_Project_