|A few semesters ago, I was preparing a list of faculty-recommended writing books for our MFA students. They had been hounding us for it. I didn’t blame them. I, too, wanted to see which books on writing our faculty read and what craft authors they espoused. |
Only a couple of years before, I’d been in the students’ shoes: I was an MFA candidate attending the twice-yearly residency workshops, seminars and readings. Now I had a book-length manuscript and an agent, and I spent my time teaching in and coordinating the very same MFA program. Those three letters after my name—MFA—stood for a terminal degree, an end point that became my passport into the academy, my entrée into a life of letters. But by the time I was putting together the reading list, something had begun to feel strained. Publication was not so easy to come by. Teaching was hard. At residencies I worried about cheese platters, microphone hookups and classroom radiators. I was too tired to attend talks or discuss writing over lunch. In the classroom and at home in my study, I faltered. With an MFA, I had license to pass on what I knew about writing. Yet, the more I taught, the less I felt I knew. What could I articulate?
Compiling the faculty list, I realized that the number of books—over a hundred—supplied by 25 different writers was probably equivalent to the number of writing books bulging out of the two small bookshelves in my writing space. I had classics like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, rare finds like William Sloane’s The Craft of Writing. Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer with her famous “reveille” exercise: Get up an hour earlier, skip the joe and go. The Tao of Writing. By Cunning & Craft. Simple & Direct. Line by Line. And a slender one that promised to tell me all I needed to know about Art & Fear.When a new writing book came out, I was ordering early on Amazon, buying it in hardcover. I couldn’t wait for it to come out in paperback; I had to get that knowledge now. It might change everything! On each shelf was a cacophony of voices telling me what to do, and I clung to each one. I had noticed lately when sitting down to write that I had no idea whom I was writing to, yet couldn’t stop thinking what they wanted from me. I couldn’t get an idea onto the page before I was thinking about where to get it published.
Pressure and competition only led me to buy more of these books. There was something I didn’t have, something missing, and it was out there. Writing Down the Bones. Getting the Words Right. Unstuck. In those books were solutions I could only get by highlighting, underlining and dog-earing their pages, then reviewing them again, fearing I’d missed something.
I had slid into passive receiver of information, collector of rule books, each with their own gimmick: Writing From the Body. Writing From the Heart. Deep Writing. Joy Writing. Only by reading them could I move forward, advance, learn. These books made me feel less lonely—for that, the post-degree aloneness of sitting down every day with the work, was settling in, too. These books were like my teachers, telling me what to pay attention to, what to cut out, put in. I was still thirsty for secrets, tricks, methods—when would it end?•••
So one bracing day in February, while sitting at the kitchen table sipping my third cup of coffee, I decided, “That’s it.” I got some boxes out of the pantry and dragged them into the study. Then I started pulling stuff off the shelves. Don Quixote Meets the Mob. A Writer’s Coach. The Artful Edit. Bret Lott’s writing memoir. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Stuff on plot, character, fiction, nonfiction. Stuff I teach with but had never read (what was that about?). Wabi Sabi for Writers. The Lie That Tells a Truth. I winced. Wait! I need more time! And then a wave of sadness shot through me, and I paused. Who was this girl, and how did she get to be so needy?
I put away Hemingway’s blurbs on writing. “I’ll have to come up with my own,” I said to myself. A book about his apprenticeship? I shook my head. Books on teaching? Nope. “Use your own experience,” I said. For every handful I put into the box, I took one back out. Was this really goodbye? What would I do without them? “You’re going to come up with your own solutions now,” I said, recalling late-night panicky page turning. “But not until you have a problem to solve.” I kept a few out: style clinics, Peter Elbow’s writing books, Art & Fear.Soon there was a stack of four boxes in the hall, a much greater collection than I thought I had. Somehow when I was wedging in book after book, year after year, I hadn’t noticed how heavy the shelves had become. Now, looking at the emptied shelves, more fears erupted: I don’t have enough juice to keep me going alone. I’ll lose the desire to write. It was all an illusion!
I stood alone in the silence and heard the clock tick. There, I’d voiced it, my greatest fear: that I was an imposter, a phony, a pseudo-writer—and in some ways, I was. I’d been looking for knowledge in others’ words and advice, and valuing it over my own experience. If I never gave myself a chance to see what I knew, I’d never feel confident in my own writing. After a moment, the fear passed, and another voice came, soft and scratchy, one that I hadn’t heard in a long time: What will I learn? What’s next? What do I know?A wave of excitement flew over me. For the first time, I relished not having the answers.
I began to replace the writing books with my journals. On shelves that once held printed words of advice from other writers, I set my own unedited, imperfect scrawling. “This is what you have to work with,” I said to myself. These are the rules: If I don’t have it, I go out into the world and get it. I will collect, observe, eavesdrop, make it up. I will get by. It will be harder and take more time. I may have to go slowly.Back at the kitchen table, I began planning a lesson for class. Scanning my notes, I saw, yes, it was time for an exercise on narrative voice. I’d just get one from that book ... I stopped. Did teaching count? I looked around the room and considered opening the box and tearing through it for the book, just this once. But then I’d do it again, and I’d never be able to let go.
OK, I thought: What do I want my students to learn? What do they need to know? Soon, an idea slid into view and I scratched out some notes. A clear, simple exercise emerged, and I felt more confident in it as a result, more rooted. It was a feeling I’d experienced very little when writing—the feeling that something was mine.•••
Over a year later, I’ve had no urges to get my writing books out again. I’m too busy copying out paragraphs from Truman Capote or trying to figure out how Agatha Christie’s sentences work. I buy large-print trashy novels at the Job Lot so I can mark them up and see why they’re bad. I puzzle over how Nabokov turns nouns into adjectives, and marvel at Tolkien’s ear.
What are we, as “masters” of fine arts? Not Roth or Rushdie, to be sure. Not someone who knows everything inside and out. I’m coming to think that being a master is not about what you know but how you face what you don’t know. Removing the books, I could now get down to the business of assembling words on the page—the only thing, I realized, that could build faith in my own writing. Perhaps being a master means being the keeper of your own experience, owner of your own process. Sometimes I think it means letting yourself be a beginner, all over again.