Existential Angst and Taking Writing Seriously

About a week ago Ryan Boudinot published an article in The Stranger called Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. It’s been making the rounds of the blogosphere, and plenty of people have plenty to say about it. It’s an anti-inspiration article. And it’s helpful to consider it in context. Mr. Boudinot had just emerged from that particular kind of hell only a teacher of creative writing knows. A good teacher has the ability to ferret out the tiniest kernel of good writing, to focus on it, nurture it, and help it bloom. Sometimes the fruit of all that labor is turning a promising writer into an amazing writer. And sometimes it’s just turning a terrible writer into a passable writer. On a good day, this kind of work is its own reward*. But nobody has a good day every day.

And no doubt, it was a massive relief for him to take off that teacher hat and say the things a teacher can never say. Things like:

  • Writers are born with talent.
  • If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.
  • If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
  • If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
  • No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
  • You don’t need my help to get published.

I’ve read some pretty execrable things in my time and thought to myself, “There is no way that I can even begin to help this writer improve.” I once spent hours on an email explaining to a young writer why I wasn’t going to review her book. In fact, I spent longer on that email than I would have on a review that trashed the book, because that book was godawful, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by saying, “Your book is godawful. No amount of workshopping will save this book.” I should have just stuck with the form letter, because this godawful writer has written ten more novels than I have, and she’s found a publisher who will print them. And at the end of the day, being a good writer isn’t the thing that gets you published. Ass in chair and persistence is.

I agreed with some of the points in the article, and its snarky tone was rather amusing. But I also knew it was a really horrible thing for me to read. Especially this bit, which really cut me to the quick:

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

Inside every writer is that little niggling voice of self-doubt, that little voice that says, “What if I’m just a hack? Why bother? Maybe I should just take up accounting instead.” The difference between a writer and an aspiring writer is the ability to modulate that voice. Harnessed properly, that voice drives me to improve my craft. But left to its own devices, it grows into a monster that prevents me from picking up the pen at all.

Good writing is much harder to quantify than good accounting. It’s the subject of much debate in academic circles, and ultimately it’s a matter of personal taste. You don’t need an MFA to have an opinion about a book, or even to get one published. In fact, you don’t need to be a good writer for your book to sell like hotcakes. You just need to put your ass in your chair, to keep writing, and to find your audience.

Mr. Boudinot never told me I don’t take my writing seriously. He didn’t need to. My own little niggling voice of self-doubt did it for me. Because clearly, if I haven’t published The Great American Novel by now, I must not be taking my writing seriously. Never mind that I’m a poet and not a novelist. Never mind that I’ve been writing steadily since the age of 9, that I was the kind of kid who spent her afternoons in the library after school. Never mind that publication doesn’t necessarily correlate with “taking writing seriously.” If anything, I take writing too seriously. Sometimes I take it so seriously that it paralyzes me. Like so many writers before me, I’ll get ahead of myself and start thinking about my audience instead of focusing on the real reason why any of us write: for that fleeting, perfect moment of having written.

I woke up this morning with my usual fortnightly bout of existential angst. Any writer with her salt knows what I’m talking about. It goes something like this: Why bother trying to be a better poet when so few people even read the stuff? Maybe I should just try to be a fiction writer instead. Maybe I should write a memoir. Maybe I should just give the whole thing up and become an accountant. What on earth am I thinking trying to change careers at this point in my life? Why can’t I just be satisfied with what I have? Why is being a writer so important to me anyway? Am I just a hack? Am I just in denial about being a hack? Does any of this really matter? What is the point of existence? Do I even really exist? And who is this “I” who worries about whether or not I exist?

I can’t blame any of these thoughts — or the resulting angst — on Mr. Boudinot. Experience tells me that they will pass, and that my confidence will return. I’ll keep plugging along with my morning pages and my drafts and my submissions to literary magazines with tiny readerships. And I’ll do it for the best reason I can think of to keep writing: for that fleeting, perfect moment when I think I’m any good at it.



* Which is good, because the monetary rewards aren’t much.

Photo of broken pencil courtesy of Marle Coleman under Creative Commons license.

Woman-Only Spaces on Gender Focus

Gender Focus recently published an article about woman-only spaces which sprang from controversy surrounding an effort at McGill University to implement woman-only hours at the campus gym. The editors asked me to add a few words about my own experience of woman-only spaces. They appear at the end of the article: http://www.gender-focus.com/2015/03/10/mcgill-women-only-gym-time/

Forget Mints On The Pillow: Marriott Leaves Envelopes So You Can Tip The Maid

I’m really glad to see that Marriott is prompting its visitors to tip housekeeping. This is something I have been doing for more than a decade. Tipping doesn’t really solve the problem of income inequality or the sexist and racist assumptions about whose work has more value in our society. It is however a way for me to express my gratitude as an individual to people who may not be used to having their work appreciated or even noticed. I and my ancestors did similar work at one time. But even if you come from a long line of bluebloods, it’s possible to take a moment to stop and appreciate something you may take for granted. Imagine a world where no one took out the trash, vacuumed the floor, scrubbed the toilets, or made the bed. That’s not a world I want to live in.

Consumerist

(Adam Fagen) (Adam Fagen)
If you’re staying at a Marriott-branded hotel this week you may notice a new addition to your guest room: An envelope encouraging you to tip the housekeeper. The gesture is part of a new initiative at the hotels to recognize the work that housekeepers often do behind the scenes.

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Tesco Abandons Plan To Have Sniper Shoot Protected Bird Living In A Store

Call me crazy, but I think animals are people who deserve to live in safety, just like humans. I guess a few humans in England feel the same way I do.

Consumerist

(LoopZilla) (LoopZilla) It’s hard out there for a pied wagtail. First of all, your species is in decline. Second, it’s hard enough to get a nice place to live, without meddlesome humans coming in and trying to shoot you out of your home. Good news for one particular pied wagtail living in a Tesco store in England, then, that supermarket officials have decided not to bring in a hired sniper to shoot it with an air rifle.

The wee birdie took up residence in the store a few weeks ago, reports the BBC, and spent its time flying around the aisles and eating crumbs. The wily bird refused to be captured, prompting Tesco to give up and apply for a license to shoot it this Sunday after the store closed.

That didn’t go over so well with customers and conservationists including Chris Packham, presenter for nature program Springwatch

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Using Haters Wisely

A clever way to repurpose hate speech into something helpful to your cause. It reminds me of the Repent Now letters I used to post on my old site about paganism.

Dances With Fat

Haters Walk on WaterCivil rights change always happens against the vehement objects of those who cling to the old beliefs, typically for whatever it buys for them – privilege, a false sense of superiority reinforced by social contract, fear of change, there are plenty of reasons.  In fat civil rights that brings us fairly quickly to haters, a group of people who are so upset that there are fat people who won’t hate ourselves and spend our lives dieting and professing our inferiority, that they dedicate significant amounts of their own lives to obsessing about us and everything that we do.

In fat rights activism for the foreseeable future there will be sad people who spend their time spewing hate and bigotry trying desperately to feel ok about themselves by putting others down (and, based on the ridiculously overwrought death threats I receive, playing a lot of Call of Duty.) Each of us…

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In Gratitude to Those Who Come to the Garden

This month, the number of people following my blog topped 500. I’d like to express my gratitude to all of you — the people who visit, the people who follow, the people who take the time to comment, to click, and to share. Writing is about communication, not just self-expression — there’s no point in doing it if it’s not reaching anyone. Here’s a Pinterest board I created just for you.

Verizon’s “All Kids Do It” Excuse For Throttling Isn’t Good Enough For FCC Chair

This is what happens without Net Neutrality.

Consumerist

(Scott Lynch) (Scott Lynch) First, Verizon announced it would start throttling LTE users who devour the most data, but only those with grandfathered-in unlimited plans. Then FCC Chair Tom Wheeler said he was “deeply troubled” that Verizon may be trying to force users into more expensive plans under the guise of “network optimization.” Verizon tried to get Wheeler to back off with its “everyone’s doing it” defense, but that didn’t seem to work.

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