In 1986 I attended my first writers’ conference: two weeks at Johns Hopkins University. All in all, it seemed the stars converged to create an experience that was memorable, unique, cherished. I had the great good fortune to study under Richard Bausch, whose talent inspired me as much as did his approach to life. I enjoyed wonderful conversations about writing with Mary Robison, whose terrific short stories have appeared in the New Yorker as well as other prestigious publications. I became friends with the poet Pamela Stewart (a friendship that survives to this day, as does my deep admiration for her work). Our workshop also included some fine writers whose talent seemed to create an aura around them. One of my workshop mates included Erik Larson, who has gone on to write best-selling and critically acclaimed non-fiction. Another very talented member of our workshop, Shawn Sapp-Nocher, entered the Hopkins MFA program in creative writing this fall and will, I’m sure, make significant contributions to the world of letters. My own first novel, Dancing With Gravity, was published in 2011.
The wonderful experiences of those weeks shaped so much of what has followed in my writing life. But one experience that stays with me was of a very different sort. As part of the program, each student had a conference with a second writer in addition to their workshop teacher. After reading my submission, this other writer, a woman, was generally positive. I nearly collapsed in gratitude. Inexperienced, hopeful and naive, I asked if she thought I could, indeed, become a writer. I realize now how foolish I was to put that answer in the hands of a stranger. But I was nearly desperate for validation. After a theatrical pause, she answered, “The question is not, ‘can you write’ but ‘must you write’.” It was a stupidly self-serving comment by an academic, but I didn’t grasp it at the time. Instead, I suffered deep self-doubt and recrimination as I questioned whether I was driven enough, willing to sacrifice enough— and therefore worthy enough— to continue writing.
Here are the facts: writing—good writing—is difficult. It takes us away from the people we love and calls us to the isolation (and excitement) of the page. A novel may take years to complete, even as the reader “polishes it off” in a weekend. In our greed-driven economy, literature is a far second to the product—however badly written—that makes a profit. The more collateral opportunities, the better. Publishers now seem to view books as little more than commodities like pet rocks or Harry Potter figurines. As for the reading public, the numbers tell the story: we’d rather be titillated by steamy sex scenes than do the work a serious novel requires— and rewards.
Still, some people pursue this line of work—work being the operative word. Writing is not essential, as are food, shelter and medical care. But art feeds the soul. Speaking for myself, I never feel more “myself” than when I’m writing. When I’m working, I am more awake, aware and alive than at almost any other time. But is it “necessary”? “Must” I do it? The question itself is romantic. Ridiculous. Worse, it sidesteps the inherent dignity of choice. And commitment.
My interaction with that woman at Johns Hopkins came to mind again today when I read an essay by Alice McDermott. In ‘If You Can Do Anything Else, Kids, Do It,’ a blog for the New York Times, she offers anecdotes that capture the heartbreak and grief so often associated with the writing life. She also manages to end on a very hopeful note. While I deeply admire McDermott’s work, I don’t agree with the last lines in her essay. They’re too sentimental. Bottom line: I have obligations. Debts. I run a freelance business. I do not confuse my own work with work for hire. But I approach both with seriousness and dedication. To write is a privilege, a gift. I am a writer. Not because I lack free will. Not because I am constitutionally incapable of any other work. I choose to write because I love it. Because I respect it. To write is to pay homage…even to pray.
Read Ms. McDermott’s wonderful essay at: ‘If You Can Do Anything Else, Kids, Do It’ – NYTimes.com