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I’m Allowed to Say I’m a Writer…but am I Allowed to Say I’m a Good One?

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?

10 comments on “I’m Allowed to Say I’m a Writer…but am I Allowed to Say I’m a Good One?

  1. andreadupree
    January 25, 2011

    Awesome synthesis of an eventful week–but I wonder if we could do a time-share of JCO in the closet? Please? I newly adore her after her talk last night, and could use the boost.

    I think your Self-Horn-Tooting Effort here is truly worthy–everyone should celebrate their successes as a writer. And while I’m genetically predisposed to avoidance of such things for a number of superstitious and other (even less useful) reasons, I will say that I’m happiest when I write every day and I can get tenacious about output. It just so happens I’m on one of those rolls right now–1,000 words a day, rain or shine. So, Yay me? Sorry, that’s as self-celebratory as I get, but I KNOW some other writers can do you proud with more unabashed horn tooting, here. And I hope they do!

  2. megnix
    January 25, 2011

    1,000 words a day is as good a toot as any!

    I’ll take JCO on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, please.

  3. andreadupree
    January 25, 2011

    Which gives me Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Awesome.

    Thanks for enabling my bragging.


  4. megnix
    January 25, 2011

    And I guess I should lead by example here…

    I’m good at sliding puns into what I write. (And yes, I realize I’m being self-congratulatory about something other people would avoid as writers and readers.) What can I say? I’m my father’s daughter.

  5. tqtyson
    January 25, 2011

    Ahem. I’m okay with this schedule you have worked out as long as I get to live with each of you on the days that JCO is in your closet. I’ll bake scones and we can see if she eats or just lives off the sheer energy of her talent.

    I’m good at sliding whole scenes about food and cooking and eating into the stuff I write. See paragraph above…

  6. Ginny Hoyle
    January 25, 2011

    Well, I love you for saying that and I wish it were so. I’m afraid I have my own share of jitters. Judy and I take turns. I feel lucky to have a collaborator who can pick me up when courage flags, and I know Judy feels the same way. The thing is, writing a poem is just so private. Even getting one published feels private! Having poems exhibited is so public, especially when some of one’s poet and prose heroes might turn out to have a look. Not that I’m complaining. These collaborations are a thrill (like a roller coaster is a thrill, terrifying and exhilarating) and my words look so much smarter when Judy gets through with them. The piece in question is a beautiful photograph of one of the altered books, and the altered book is a stunner. To have my words running under it is a freaky bonus. I think it works. And I think trusting ourselves is the work of a lifetime and we are all in that soup together, with some days better than others. Thank goodness for this Lighthouse community of other writers who keep us sane, keep us laughing, keep us inspired, and keep us writing.

  7. ilona
    January 26, 2011

    Do y’all have walk-in closets, with windows and skylights?
    If not, am thinking JCO might deserve at least a chair in some corner. 😉 As for the horn-tooting, yikes….I will take up the challenge and say that a strength o’ mine is describing the natural world.

  8. marseawell
    January 26, 2011

    JCO can reside in your alternating closets as long as I can be in your collective presence on occasions such as Saturday night. Nothing that lightening bolt new in the content, but I was oddly comforted by the recognition, once again, that my longtime demon companions are promiscuous bastards who apparently have relationships with many of you.

    I am proud of my writing when I can find a creative-but-not-cheesy frame. An outline from a nursing textbook and a collection of handmade Rwandan baskets supported a couple of my better essays.

    • andreadupree
      January 28, 2011

      You’re totally welcome to hang out with us and JCO in our now completely renovated-with-skylights closet. I don’t know how the closet conceit began, but I’m rather liking redecorating it. Was great to see you the other night!

  9. Jill B
    January 28, 2011

    I think we are ALL courageous to face a blank screen or a blank white sheet of paper at ANY point, much less so persistently and in the face of little or no positive – or worse, negative – external reinforcement! It remains one of our most laudable characteristics. Go, us!

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This entry was posted on January 25, 2011 by in Uncategorized.

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