For the Young Who Want To

A photo of students studying in a campus library

That’s the title of a poem by Marge Piercy.  It begins,

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

It ends,

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

A couple of years ago, at a reading gig down east, I met a fellow poet.  We didn’t exactly bond—creative differences, you might say—but we made gestures of mutual goodwill, shared a beer, talked a little shop.  He mentioned that one of the most important things he did was to protect the work, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world.  I didn’t say much.

A few months ago, at a reading, I met a very successful nonfiction writer.  He too talked about protecting the work, how much even a creative writing job and a light teaching load interfered with it (I am pleased to report that he was not killed there and then by composition instructors.)  Another poet remarked, not entirely without venom, on university faculty who don’t always come in, who skimp on the service that grinds other faculty into the dirt, and who do, in fact, take some measures to protect their work.  I had a lot to say that evening, but not about that.

I hate to go all confessional on the gentle reader so early in our acquaintance; but when I flexed the keyboard fingers, in despite of the service load currently grinding me into the dirt, what really came to mind were those silences.  They’re rooted in the fact that I’ve never found it easy, or, sometimes, possible, to protect the work, to treat it the way writers are supposed to.

That statement covers a lot of autobiography, which gentle readers should feel free to skip except for the parts that may sound a bit familiar.  In more adolescent days, BWE (Before Work Ethic), I’d blow off anything to do what I liked, which was generally writing (it would’ve made more sense if I’d been a better writer in those days.)  That comfortable egotism persisted through college, except that when the lamplight streaming over seniorhood threw the shadow of What Next on the floor, I went with what was, for me, the path of least resistance:  grad school in literature.  I thought of myself as a writer; I told people (though only after a few drinks) that I was a writer; there wasn’t anything else I really wanted to do …and yet somehow the MFA never came to mind.  At all.

Admittedly, this was 1989 …but even so, I have only the vaguest idea why that never occurred to me or anybody else:  that a writer might go to school to write.  Total ignorance of the power of the support network, and the membership card?  an arrogant, ignorant certainty that I could figure it out for myself?  Certainly some of each; but the more central factor, I think now, was that neither I nor anyone whose opinion I really valued respected the work as work.

It was a private delight, a personal indulgence, a knack I had (a hobby, like knitting); but my family didn’t know any professional poets.  The working writers we knew were journalists (not an appealing prospect if you’re terrified of talking to strangers.)  Despite some advanced degrees, we didn’t have any idea that creative writing could ever be the equivalent of sampling gobies, writing reports, grading high school math tests, replacing a distributor cap…at least not until the author got famous, and as far as we knew that didn’t happen to normal people.

People who pursued the MFA—what were they preparing for? I might’ve asked, if I’d had the knowledge to frame the question.  What would they do with it?  my parents might’ve inquired, if, again, I’d been able to even suggest it.  Wasn’t it just two years of self-indulgence, doing something no one respected?  Would you still be jobless, only now with debt?  Couldn’t you be just as good a writer with a Ph.D. in literature, and some academic credentials?

Fast-forward through a long haul in grad school, some years teaching composition for way too little money, and, at last, a tenure-track job in a rather different field.  Service commitments, advising, internship supervision, new classes to prep, reports to write, scholarship to accomplish in a field where, again, poetry didn’t exactly hurt, but in which a book of poems wasn’t quite a real book:  Three guesses what went onto the back burner to get gummy and stiff.   And creative writers:  they had real jobs now, at least the ones hired to teach creative writing.  But even so, the field has a certain…reputation…in the academy.

Creative writers, so the story runs, are always late to meetings, and the first essay in Blue Pastures notwithstanding, that’s not a good thing.  They don’t show up for office hours.   They let students down.  While they’re enjoying the visits of the muse, other people are picking up the slack and doing the real work, and those people would love to be writing too, thank you very much; they just don’t have time.  Creative writers (myself among them, though I tried never to admit it) consider a slender volume of fifty pages the equivalent of years of hard-documented scholarship.  A colleague from another university told me (it’s a cliché, but he really did) that he was planning to take the summer to write a novel, but nothing scholarly or artistic—just a page-turner.  And the other colleague back north, the fiction writer?  His novels were self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing, vain.  He skipped meetings.  He ended class early every day, and his pedagogy consisted largely of war stories.  And who wants to live down to all that?  Who doesn’t love being useful, reliable, relied-upon?

Protecting the work is the opposite.  It feels selfish.  It feels like saying, to friends, family, the people who hired you and need you, and, maybe worst of all, to students, I’m more important than you are.  I think my (unpaid, unread) work is so great that I’m willing to hurt you for it, even though no one agrees with me.

That’s a hard thing to say even when you believe it; a harder thing to say if you’re a woman, in a world which does not reward women for protecting their work; an all-but-impossible thing to say when you’ve let the fact that no one respects your own work convince you not to respect your own work, at least not in public, because you don’t want to look conceited, selfish, ridiculous.  It feels like justifying everything ever said about dreamy creative writers, artistic slackers, people who don’t pull their weight in the real work of the world.  Unless they’re famous, in which case they become useful; their names are their use.

Of course, the world’s generally ready to reward us for not respecting our own vision, though only to a certain point; and I’ve had rewards.  A retirement account.  Being respected in a way I couldn’t have been, as creative writing faculty, unless I’d had the good sense to become famous first (slacker, always a slacker…)  I have an answer for all the voices of guilt, when they start their endless yammer.  The students know I’ll be there when I say I will, that I’ll get their recommendations written and include personal details.  Assessment knows my reports will be on time and will utilize actual data (an accomplishment of which I’m quite proud myself.)  When the state comes calling, or SACS, or NCATE, I can justify my program. My teaching evaluations are sterling, my checkbook balanced, the dust on my baseboards mostly translucent.  I’m still married, happily.

And I haven’t been to a writer’s conference or workshop in ten years. Reading gigs are sporadic.  My first book would undoubtedly still be on the market, in almost its twentieth year of trying, without the support of two authors who had believed in their own work and also in kindness to strangers (shout-out to Kay and Fred.) Whatever help an MFA would’ve been in publishing—and I’m prepared to believe now that it’s a lot of help—I haven’t had it.  Whatever I’ve protected, it’s usually something other than the work.

Or, to go back to Piercy, I haven’t loved it better than being loved.  As much as, sometimes, maybe.  But not better than.

When Andrea gave me the chance to write this blog, I knew I didn’t have time.  It was a genuine struggle to say, wait, this is the kind of thing you’ve always wanted to do, the day job doesn’t deserve to have this along with your evenings and weekends and constant attention. Enough, already, write the damn blog, let the grading wait. Do the work.

Yeah, I know:  cry me a river.  Or, actually, don’t.  We all make our choices.  The moral of this story isn’t that I feel I’ve sold out, because I don’t, exactly—any more than my friend who didn’t make it in professional theater sold out when he turned to teaching elementary school.  He loves kids, he loves teaching, there are worse things than being useful…and he still acts in three or four plays a year, though not for pay.  I’m not a believer in the single predestined soulmate, in love or in work:  and many an artist who has protected and believed in her work hasn’t done so much better than I have.  Protecting the work (and you can file this under “heartbreaking facts”) is not, alas, any guarantee of the success or virtue of that work.

Nor is it that those who do claim their own space shouldn’t be respected, or that all claims should be respected all the time.  How much of a jackass do you have to be to protect your work?  I still don’t know.  I admire the people who aren’t afraid to do it; but I still don’t much like jackassery, even in writers.  I still don’t want to be a jackass, or more of one than I can help.

In fact, I’m not sure what the moral is, except that this stuff is complicated.  We can’t always protect the work as we’d like to; maybe sometimes we shouldn’t.  Other times, we’re using other people’s demands as an excuse to sabotage ourselves, when protecting the work really is the most important thing.  Figuring out when we can and we should; how much love we’re willing to give up to do it; whether we have to or are willing to be a little jackass-ish:  that’s no simple thing.  Muddling along, refusing to go all the way and yet refusing also to give up on your work, your tedious delusion:  that’s not a simple thing either.  If it’s not the kind of commitment I sometimes wish I’d made, it’s not exactly knitting either.

So if you’re the young who want to, I’d like to leave you with what’s really my favorite line of the Piercy poem, independent of the endless negotiations of love, of whether you ever joined the club.  The real writer is one / who really writes. If you’re the young, or the not-so-young; and you keep on writing, even if it’s not all the time; even if you sometimes betray the work on one hand and the people you love on the other:  welcome to the club.

This is Catherine’s third post for Get Behind the Plough.