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There’s a little brochure with the Ferril House on it floating around inside the Ferril House (it’s kind of like a dream within a dream, or a mirror facing another mirror. Pretty trippy). “I’m a writer,” it says in quotations, and then under that it says: You’re allowed to say this. When I picked it up, I felt relieved. I actually needed to be told that I can say what I am. Repeat after me: I’m a writer. I know, it feels silly. Try it again: I’m a writer! I AM A WRITER! I feel better.
If you’re like me, saying you’re a writer isn’t the most comfortable admission to make, for a few reasons. One, if you’re not among writers, your audience might give you the “isn’t that cute—you have a little hobby” response. Two, people will ask what you’re working on (“Nothing. Everything. Nevermind.”) Three, writers are supposed to write, and if you write less often than you do other things (think about what’s for dinner), saying you’re a writer can make you feel like a big fat faker.
Nonetheless, I have started telling people I’m a writer. But. Now that I’ve reached the “I’m a Writer and I Know It” benchmark, another problem with the verbal language of being a writer has come to my attention. As writers, it seldom seems like we’re supposed to admit that we’re good—or even ok—at what we do. This is, I know, partly because a lot of the time we don’t feel very good about what we do. This week, however, a few writers reminded me that one thing I truly value in other writers is sincere self-confidence—a kind of dig-your-heels-in, this-is-good-goddammit stubbornness. These writers are named Ginny Hoyle, JD Frey, Doug Kurtz, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Ginny Hoyle and Judy Anderson have been collaborating on projects for years, and I just had the opportunity to see their stunning work—which combines Ginny’s poetry with Judy’s altered books, and will be at the Walker Fine Art Gallery this spring (and during the April Writer’s Buzz at Walker). I told Ginny that if I had enough money, I would buy one of the pieces—a photograph taken of the unbound side of a book. The book is as long as ten Bibles put together and the pages have those yellowed, torn edges. Underneath the photograph, a beautiful, heartrending poem of Ginny’s is strung together into two lines so it looks (like the book) like one long thought. After I told her I wanted it, instead of shrugging or denying the beauty of the piece, she said, “I LOVE that you just said that. I ended up fighting for that piece to be a part of the exhibit even though we weren’t sure, at first, if we should include it. It is beautiful, isn’t it?” Ginny’s unembarrassed embrace of her own work was a lesson for me. Why do the work we’re doing if we’re not proud of it? And why not say that we love (at least some) of what we do?
Of course, some writers do do this, and they’re the ones who stand out to me. JD Frey is one of them. He taught a youth writing workshop this fall, and I sat in on the class to learn how to write villanelles and triolets. At one point while we were working on our own villanelles, he put his pen down, looked at all of us, and said, “I just wrote something really good.” Everybody looked up from their own work, kind of surprised to hear this coming from a teacher in the middle of a quiet writing exercise. “Do you guys ever have that feeling, where you know you just wrote a really good sentence? Yeah. I do. I’m not afraid to say it: I write really good sentences sometimes.” This is so important, for young writers, for all writers, to acknowledge the promise of the single well-written sentence, and to remember that we give birth to really good, albeit small things, in the midst of our struggles.
JD had, in fact, written some really cool things during that class. But sometimes, when we haven’t written anything good in a great long while, I wonder if we can trick ourselves into confidence when we can’t find it. Is it possible that the strength of one’s work can come after the confidence in the work exists? It seems like the opposite: first, the work has to be good. Then comes the confidence. But what if we approached writing like dating or sales. Only by exuding resolve will people want what we’ve got. I’m not into dating or sales, but I think I’m going to wake up tomorrow, look at my husband, and say, “Damn, I’m good at writing,” and see how my day goes.
I think this is what Doug Kurtz’s talk was about on Saturday Night: “Overcoming Roadblocks to Creativity.” While Doug didn’t talk about his own writing being the best he’s ever read (even though many people would make this claim), the undercurrent of the evening was that we have to believe we’re doing something worthwhile in order for that thing we’re doing to end up worthwhile. Doug mentioned the “white light” of creativity, the “child-like abandon of a creative breakthrough.” “Joy,” he said, “allows the creativity to bubble up.” How true (and logical) that we must create the conditions for joy in order for writing to be a joyful process. Writing isn’t about waiting, it’s about preparing, positioning ourselves for the revelation and the joy of its arrival. To make a really rocky transition, did anyone else see…
…Joy-ce Carol Oates last night at DU? I would like to bring her 90 pound frame home and keep her in my closet. Even though Oates’s talk revolved around the rejections of great writers, she opened by saying she had so much good stuff to say, she’d be editing as she read. She went on to admit that the talk she had prepared continued to get better and better as she wrote it, so she’d share the most recently written parts of it. That Oates resembles and has the mannerisms of a small bird helped foil her poised, well-placed (never arrogant) manifestations of aplomb. “I’m looking forward to the question and answer session at the end of this talk,” she said. “I’m looking forward to your questions…and to be honest, I’m really looking forward to my answers!” (You can’t put her in your closet, I already called dibs).
Oates also mentioned that the real world often only receives a persona of the writer, that the real writer only emerges in “flashes of exposure.” In my experience, the persona we usually get of writers is the self-critical, my-work-sucks character. But I love hearing when other writers’ work is going well, I am encouraged to hear that they like something they wrote. Commiseration serves a purpose (as Oates’s talk proved, being based on overcoming how hard, hard, hard, it is to be a writer). But, “We must rely, in the end,” she concluded, “on our own judgment and sense of self worth.”
So, I’m here—like the little house within the house, like a mirror held up to your mirror—to ask you: what’s good about your writing? Shout it from the rooftops! Post it on this blog! We all suck in a lot of ways, and we all know that, but what’s a recent success or breakthrough you’ve had? What do you love about the way you write?