Whidbey Writers Workshop, Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, MFA Graduation
22 Aug 09
The Writers’ Life: A Few Observations
I offer my best greetings and welcome to the graduates and to their families who have been supporting them. I am well aware of the excellence of this program here on Whidbey because my own nephew, Caleb Barber, spent two years in the program and kept me advised about how it was going.
I could tell he was getting everything he needed here, and indeed, he had some of the same advantages I did as a young writer as he was studying with the poet David Wagoner who had been my own professor when I studied at University of Washington. I have no doubt that these writers have had wonderful teaching from the talented writers in this program.
It gives me great pleasure to congratulate you all in your various writing genres as you have worked toward your degree, these past two years during the Whidbey Writers’ Master of Fine Arts Degree Program. I am honored to have been asked to speak with you as you graduate into the expansive notion of becoming writers, for this is a condition I am still experiencing: the condition of becoming a writer. This is the best and sometimes the most worrying self-assignment–worrying because you aren’t sure how to measure up at times, either to the work in specific, or to the community at large. It is the best endeavor, this continual becoming, because one never quite arrives and therefore, it is tantalizing and we are made new at every turn.
But before we go further, let me remind you that if example can encourage—realize that I have survived perfectly well as a writer for the most of 50 years of my life. This MFA program has given you a wonderful leg up with its close attentions from excellent teachers and writers. Plus you will have made some invaluable friends among your fellow writers. I would never choose any other life than the one I am living. I am extremely happy I discovered a writers’ life, for I should likely have been unhappy in an office. Whatever lives you have made so far—you have chosen to enlarge that sphere and now come fully into the calling, the vocation of being a writer. It is a great freedom and often an achingly poignant duty to oneself and others.
As many of you know from when Josie Gray was here with me from Ireland, he is a fine storyteller. He gave me a story for you at one of our coal fire evenings just before I left Ireland in early August. I thought it might have moment toward the happenings and challenges of being a writer. Josie said Tommy Flynn’s brother, Jimmy, had been on Lough Arrow when a gust of wind turned over his boat. “Did you get wet, Jimmy,” another fisherman asked. “What do you think?” said Jimmy…”that the good Lord Himself made a dry hole in all of Lough Arrow for me to fall into?” It is the same with the writing life—you will have to get wet, will have to experience all the elements of contending with editors, with your own lapses, with unsympathetic readers or reviews. Once you leave the bountiful encouragement of this program you leap into an expanse where there is no dry hole in the lake. You will suffer uncertainty, impatience, humiliation, being ignored and outright rejection—but your assignment will be to dry off and to get right back into the boat, of which you are the only captain and where you make your work, no matter what.
When I attempted to discover what it is you and your loved ones might like to hear today, I was told that perhaps a few practical survival tips would be helpful. But each writer must forge those in the individual way of their own necessities, resources and encumbrances. Nonetheless, with some trepidation, I will at least amuse you, hopefully, with some of my own experience and strategies.
But first I considered how I came to be on this writers’ journey, which was when I was about 17. As Auden predicted, most writers will start out with a fascination for language itself, in this case the use and sound of American English. I began in Theodore Roethke’s last class at the University of Washington in 1963 before there was such a thing as an MFA in writing there. Strengthened in that class by love of emotion as I realized it in sound through memorizations of John Donne, Wallace Stevens, and Louise Bogan, among others–I learned that some things were not worth putting into the memory, that there is hazard even in carrying some psyches in the memory. But I realized also that the memory’s love of harmony and surprise could be healing. I began to value how the extension of memory, the pressing of memory to witness and record and conjoin with the present and with other pasts can enliven and inform the path we make as we go. These qualities of healing, surprising, remembering, witnessing and recording became part of my notion of being a poet and a writer.
I experience my own history as one of evolution: from poet, to essayist, to short story writer, to scriptwriter, to non-fiction writer. Because you are writing in one form now, does not mean you cannot discover more aspects of your talent as you develop. The main of what hints and commentary I give today are likely to come from my experience and proclivities as a poet, for that’s where I began.
What I began to prize was also a certain love of straying, of breaking away from the expected music, the expected thought patterns, and like you in your studies here, I had to learn what a clichéd thought was, in order to depart from it, or to bend it to new purpose. And this does seem to be one of the primary objectives of being a writer: to choose the particular manner and extent to which one will stray, will depart from the known in order to define the new truth, the rediscovered or recreated truth one’s writing can bring forward, not just for oneself, but for the reader. For as a writer, one may not hold oneself above or apart from one’s hoped for readership. If we do, the truth coming from the writing will suffer injury through loss of the very availability of imagination we instinctively seek and nurture. We won’t be able to imagine in a clear-hearted way those whom we seek to reach or even that part of ourselves we court in the writing.
We stray in order to fold in or back upon what the imagination can unexpectedly bridge or demolish or shore up or bind to us. Seamus Heaney in his enlightened essay, “The Redress of Poetry” speaks of the power of poetry vested in its taking the unpopular position or that view which exerts “compensatory pressure”—his terms—in order to restore to the community and ourselves a vision of things which we may have thought, but not said, until the moment of writing.
The poet, the writer, must take the pulse of the times and not join up, in other words. Must instead be wrongheaded in the sense of working to find the Frostian ‘road not taken’. For to be a writer is essentially to have chosen that very road that is greatly exclusive of many American wishes when it comes to what is normally considered the signs of success: it often puts one out-of-the-money, so to speak, and this was one of poetry’s chief attractions for me in the beginning when I saw many of the lives around me being formed to garner success in terms of money-making. “Money, money, money,” Roethke wrote: “water, water, water.” Now, there may be some lightning strikes among you, and at least one of you may hit it rich and come back to endow this very writing program. I do hope so! But in the main—well, the rewards of being a writer will be elsewhere. They will vest in satisfying those inner mandates that don’t have anything to do with fame or money.
When I met Josie Gray, he had come from a background of having had to raise eight children in rural Ireland: “But this poetry stuff, you don’t make any money out of it,” he said one day. “I don’t see why you’re at it.” I have been at pains to explain this to him ever since, though as a farmer in Co. Sligo he joins other farmers who subsist well below the poverty line. Once in a class that I was teaching at Whitman College I passed around my tax report of earnings for the year in poetry. Because I was established as a writer at this stage, the students were aghast. It was clear I was not getting rich.
In order to survive as a writer, you know by now that one must subsidize the endeavor by other semi-lucrative means. The trick is not to take on such exhausting work that one is too physically or psychically exhausted to do the writing. For much of my teaching life I worked just part of the year so I did well by the students while I was with them. There are as many ways of designing the work/time structure to allow for writing, as there are writers to dream them up. I have every faith you will manage this.
If I had only young writers to advise here, I could propose delaying the starting of a family until the writing was a bit established in habit and authority. But writing is a faculty that a person may come to at almost any age and find there is room for them at the banquet. For all ages and at any stage, cutting down on what you think you need by way of comfort, and examining closely the idea of daily necessities will add savings, which then means time: more time to write. I can remember living for periods without a telephone or a car—a hard thing to do in America.
One way or another, I have seemed always to be buying time—either saving what money did come to me or learning how to clear time for solitude. Your loved ones and friends will have to be especially forbearing with you on this point: the making of solitude in which the writing gets done. I think solitude is one’s most important necessity.
I’ll offer one example to encourage your ability to dissemble and to create time in simple ways. At the holidays in Syracuse, N.Y. in 1984, I suggested to Raymond Carver, my late husband, that we tell everyone we were going away. We would then not have to accept invitations and be fully engaged with other people’s households, especially unruly children. After we had announced we were going away, I proposed we would just not go away. We could simply hide out in our house and get our writing done, saving the expense and inconvenience of travel. This worked fine until someone spotted Ray bringing in the mail. He managed to wave them off, saying he’d forgotten something and would soon be away again. We drew the blinds and hunkered down.
We loved this little ruse and pulled it several times.
Ray’s “Cathedral” was written on a train going down to New York City, which brings me to another tip: learning to work anywhere and under adverse conditions is a boon to staying a writer. I remind you of Ray writing his stories in the back seat of his car in his beginning days when he had no peaceful place in which to work. I wrote at a picnic table at 6 a.m. in Tucson, Arizona because I needed to be alone. I even typed in the backseat of a moving car on an old portable once because we had a film script due.
I used to ask my students to observe the industry of my cat Blue who had an entire day, unimpeded, in which to do something meaningful, but who managed to sleep, eat, groom himself, dream and stare out the window and was unlikely to write a single poem or story in his life time. If one intends to be a writer, by hook or by crook, one must sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
A friend who wanted to be a writer, yet never got down to it, appealed to me to tell her how to make more time. How often do you wash your hair, I asked. “Every morning,” she replied. “Try every other morning,” I said, not working against hygiene, but trying to indicate that in the writer’s life it is a mandate: one must cut corners. Of my grandmother it was said that one could eat off her floors, they were that clean. I would not recommend anyone eating from my floors. All this to say that one must look for those things about which one could be inexact regarding other people’s expectations.
While we are in the vicinity, I want to make a little island in my remarks where I pointedly absolve you and magically enjoin you never to have what is commonly referred to as “writers’ block”. The trick to this is to recognize, as contributory to the fullness of a writer’s life, many kindred assignments next door to what we might call the “actual work”.
Within this zone I have taken up translating a Romanian poet, gone to Montenegro to see a bookstore named Karver which is situated in a former Turkish bath, helped many others form and understand what a book is; I have written introductions to various anthologies of prose, poetry and photographs, given interviews, written columns and reviews, worked on film scripts, spoken to the Welch Academy on the writer and alcoholism, given readings in many parts of the world, followed an Irishman around for twelve years with a tape recorder getting down his stories. I’ve taken time to read and keep up with the poets and writers I admire. I have reread at intervals those to whom I owe much, those I carry with me on the journey such as: Anna Akhmatova, Federico Garcia Lorca, Louise Bogan, W.B. Yeats, Theodore Roethke, Stanley Kunitz, Marianne Moore, Emily Dickenson, Basho and many others.
Since I write fiction I reread Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, John McGaherne, Ann Beattie, Gogol, James Joyce, Frank O’Connor and Haruki Murakami, to name a few. Each of you must choose writers who will serve as your angels and devils—those you allow to companion you and those with whom you argue or place challenge or use like the river bank to push your oar against in dialogue so as to get down the river. No one can choose these for you; they are extremely important choices and they may change over time, as you will. May you discover them at the moment you need them. You have at your disposal all literature in English and in translation or, if you are lucky enough to know other languages—those literatures are available first hand and can greatly enrich you.
I consider these admittedly subsidiary activities of taking part in the larger community of writing and reading, as essential to the heft of one’s literary contribution. They are often preparatory to ways of thinking and writing one may not come to otherwise.
A few more hints: I recommend knowing painters and photographers—they’re often great company and you’ll always have images for your book covers that delight you. You’ll also have flattering author photos. Don’t get in a panic if the main enterprise of your writing takes a furlough. Think of it as an invitation to do one of these many other important activities. Remember that Raymond Carver started a magazine. Or, team up with a poet or prose writer from Albania or from some other far flung place, someone who speaks enough English to give you a prose trot of their work, then haul them into English with an expert in the language to check your efforts. Or, if you write fiction, lend yourself to an ecological cause like writing on behalf of saving a forest or a river.
It is, on the other hand, perfectly all right if, like Thomas Merton at one stage, you need your hermitage and you must shut the door and tough out a blank spell. This is humbling and so, a great teaching. But since I have magically absolved you of writers’ block, you will only need your hermitage for solitude and writing.
At the end and beginning of every day is that rather terrifying question which is the reason for all these hints at method and daily practice and attitude. That question is: what will you care about sufficiently to devote your time and heart to as a writer? Involved in that question is the further question: what can I offer that perhaps no one else can? This enjoins us to examine our histories and our insights into those intimate nooks and crannies we discover in the haphazard way of writers and readers—for I am assuming you have been, at some stage, more reader than writer.
An Irish poet I met in Dublin this year, Nessa O’Mahony, was given some letters written by an Irish woman who immigrated to Australia in 1854 and these became the central motivation and re-presented text of her verse novel In Sight of Home. One never knows what gift will come into one’s hands, and indeed it seems at times that we are more alligator than wildebeest when it comes to having to wait it out rather than range about for our sustenance. We do wait often, but that waiting can also yield its important resonance, since passion will have accumulated and can have its affecting force.
One of the most helpful habits in my own writing life has been that I often listen very closely to what people are telling me. In fact, I have a rule that if I am told a story twice, I then have an assignment. This works for poetry or prose. I’m going to conclude with a new poem written in Ballindoon Co. Sligo where my cottage is, beside Lough Arrow—a place I made especially for my writing, like Monet made his pond at Giverny for his painting. This place draws a 45-year circle from when I was first starting out as a writer and came to this area of Ireland on a pilgrimage to the grave of W.B. Yeats. I often take long walks with the daughter of a friend and one day we walked what we call “the diamond”. She told me a story I had recently heard from her husband, but I didn’t stop her. Nor did I tell her when she’d finished that I’d already heard the story. I went quietly to my chair the next morning and wrote a poem, which I’ll read in closing—a poem born from just the simple act of acute listening with one’s whole self. Thank you for your listening, and I wish you bountiful good luck in your writing lives, through which you will make your own signatures.
The request surprises him: take
a photograph of a tree, initials carved
into a tree near a makeshift dock
at the lake edge. But when he asks why,
the telephone goes quiet, then sobbing, a man
broken down, a father tumbled out
of himself, unable for words, which
only fumble and brail like a bee
in honeysuckle, when the matter exceeds,
before and after, what will be told: a son
and daughter on the lake with him, one
of those perfect days of being Eden-made
in the moment, of looking out as an into,
a joy-dissolving beauty where even joy
would be disruption. Amplification
only possible in the silent companioning
of his children—the boy late teens, she
younger. Just the day before, a walk
together in brilliant weather up Croagh Patrick.
Better there than Carrowkeel where the ashes
lie deep in the underground alcoves
of the cruciforms dug 300 years before
Christ. Not far, between Carrowkeel and
Keshcorran at Treanmacmurth, the excavated
skull of a child in a cist yielding also pottery
shards, some of it bronze age, and under
the skull, fragments of adult bones put
to fire. The father and children though above
ground, walking where they would always
walk in the mind of the father’s remembering,
more perfect now than life could make it,
illuminated by loss but nonetheless more gift
than loss. The photographer listened, took
down the tree’s location and, with his own son,
struck out on foot toward the lake to find it.
He had not asked how the son had died
two years after the knife tip scraped its channels
through bark, asking a step too far when grief
was bare, like coming upon birds’ eggs in a nest
and knowing not to touch, though inclination
was there like thirst in the hand. Finding then
marks driven to clarity by the boy,
talisman to what we call “being here” and he had
been. Some shard of motion, of moment, of
pressing against the dream of being bodied
had entered the space now held by the tree,
and the message of two perfect days revisited
by that marking-intention of children, one
alive, one not—a father could cling to this,
thinking how much worse without the sign,
the emblem of the names he had given them
at birth. It was dark under the tree so
the photographer hated to disturb the place
with a flash. Turning the speed up then, opening
the lense toward the click. His own hand,
as if it had been underground, finding
his son’s shoulder as they walked out again,
held by the reverberative membrane of love.
( copyright 2009 by Tess Gallagher)