All the World’s A Page: The 9 Woes of the Writing Life

At work in the world, on the world of the page.

At work  on the world of the page.

Recently at the end of a creative nonfiction class I taught, a student came to me with a helpless shrug of her shoulders. “I want to write. I want to be a writer. That’s what I want to do with my life.” I felt a gush of pride that I had managed a convert, but pity came next, then fear:  What had I done? I immediately knew I needed to fill in what I left out from the class script, the off-stage notes that turn out to be the most important. To her and to any other aspiring writers, I offer the cheerful remainder here (to be read in a sonorous voice, because the warnings are real):

 Woe #1: You will see too much.

You will no longer be able to ignore the woman in El Salvador sitting among the garbage, the man carrying a sink onto a bus, the arguing couple behind you in the restaurant. A writer is charged with keeping attention, with bringing words to the invisible, the unspoken, the troubling, the ridiculous. But even as you take note, do take note: the best words you find will not be enough.

Woe #2: You’ll lose a lot of sleep.

You will welcome nightly visitations of the muse, inviting her with an open notebook beside your bed. You will be so hungry for words you will gladly trade your necessary rest for a single cutting sentence, a vivid metaphor, a line of pretty poetry. You will be tired often because of it and you won’t always be happy.

Woe #3:  You will gradually be divested of your most cherished stereotypes and grudges.

Your entrance into others’ lives and stories whether actual or fictional will bring a disconcerting complexity and humanness to the unlikeliest and unloveliest people. If you’re not careful, you may even be tempted to forgive.

 Woe #4:  You’ll give away your privacy.

All the world’s a page. To keep both of yours turning (world and page) you’ll need to appear on every platform you can beg, borrow and thieve, telling and giving all at any hour of night or day, without modesty or reserve. You will give most of yourself away. A special woe to those tempted to write memoir.

 Woe #5: You will read for pleasure less and you will like fewer books.

Once you take language and books seriously you will be unable to turn off your writer and editor’s eye. Writing that once offered distraction and escape will seldom survive the mental red pen, shrinking your list of favorites. You will give up on bestsellers. You will feel culturally stranded.

 Woe #6: You will spend far more money than you make.

For every writing project you undertake, you will buy a shelf or two of books and you’ll subscribe to literary journals and magazines as if they kept you warm and fed. Which they will, but the metaphor breaks down when the temperature drops below freezing and you’re eating oatmeal for dinner and the bills are past due.

 Woe #7: You will not be content to live in the present only.

In your pursuit of what is real and true, you will excavate the past as eagerly as the present, breaking down closet doors, piecing skeletons together, retrieving abandoned diaries. You will find nuance and revolution that disturbs the status quo. Others will be annoyed and will try to keep you quiet. You may not be invited for Christmas dinner.

Woe #8: You will no longer be satisfied in writing for yourself.

Once you find an audience, however small, you’ll write by an open window instead of a mirror. You’ll carry your readers with you. You’ll care too much about the truth for their sake. You’ll want to heal and help. You’ll see how small you are. You’ll keep writing anyway.

When I began a tentative writing life thirty years ago, I was never formally wooed nor “woe-d.”  If I had, would I have continued? I know the answer. It comes as the final “woe” and I write it now to my student, who is still watching me with undimmed eyes:

Woe#9: Woe to those who hear, who touch and who see, yet who drop the pen and turn away from the open half-written pages of a world still waiting to be finished. Many stories will be lost. Yours will not end as it should. This woe is far worse than the others.  

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Extravagant Subsistence: Restocking the Writer’s Shelves (and Soul)

Our freezer is nearly empty. We’ve eaten all of last year’s fish and meat, which constitutes a near emergency. Tomorrow I’ll close my computer, ignore my writing deadlines and head back out by bush plane and boat to an island in the Gulf of Alaska where I’ve worked in commercial fishing with my family for 35 years.  We were so busy with the commercial season this summer we didn’t have time to put up our own fish for the winter, the wild salmon that will feed us luscious Omega-3 saturated flesh weekly through a long season of dark. We also harvest berries, venison, halibut and sometimes caribou. Putting up our own food stores, which goes by the shorthand term “subsistence,” is a normal and necessary part of most people’s lives in rural Alaska.

“Subsistence” is defined  as “The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level.” In Alaska, however, where a subsistence lifestyle is as common as wool socks, it’s evolved into almost the opposite concept. We don’t hunt and fish and grow and harvest simply to live—we engage in subsistence to live well. We have access to cellophane-wrapped factory-farmed meat like everyone else—but it is expensive, saturated with antibiotics and hormones, and has been shipped a very long way to get here. We prefer to harvest wild-grown meat from our own piece of the land and sea. It’s one of the reasons we live here.

This last week I began another kind of subsistence: I started re-reading Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s wise and extraordinary novel. Her profound musings on the worth of life, as spoken through John Ames, an elderly pastor, remind me how empty my writer’s pantry has become. The authors who have sustained me through the decades—Frederick Beuchner, Annie Dillard, Richard Wilbur, Eugene Peterson, Walter Brueggeman, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson—have become strangers of late supplanted by blogs, social media, and research for other writing projects. These are all quick, short reads full of good information, but I’ve been achingly hungry without knowing it.

I realize that my writing life is little different than my food life. I’m often so busy on the commercial end of the work—the marketing, creating the next book proposal, the social media—that I forget to do the real subsistence work. While I’m as tempted as anyone else to spend my time feeding on strategies to garner audiences and master social media, ultimately, I’ll starve on such a diet. Fifty-seven Ways to Grow Your Platform, while helpful, will do little to awaken mystery, stir my imagination, provoke paradox, unearth wisdom, deepen my humanness, all of which is why I began to write in the first place. I realize if I maintain a steady diet of techniques, I’ll soon be setting an impoverished table for not only myself, but also for my readers, who come themselves needing sustenance.

Subsistence work is not easy. Rather than grabbing cellophane packages of meat and fish from the meat counter, I have to go out into boats, I have to use knives and muscles, I have to cut off heads, pull out guts, spill real blood.

It’s a physical engagement with the material world. Reading the best writers is not unlike this. It takes more effort to read longer works. Blood will be spilled there as well as we wrestle with the deepest, hardest and most profound stories of dying and living. But this is how we will subsist and be sustained as writers for a very long time.

When I sit down to my first meal of grilled salmon this winter, I will remember where it came from, how it felt in my hands. I will be so well-fed, I will want to write about it, and will set the table for others to join me in the feast. I hope my work will feed others as well as I have been fed myself. With some labor, and yes, some blood, it can happen.

What kind of reading are you returning to for “extravagant subsistence”? How can we make more time for this kind of reading (and for sustaining physical labor)?

“This I Believe”: Creating a Writer’s Manifesto

Making another addition to the Manifesto!

This I Believe was a series of wildly successful radio broadcasts hosted by Edward Murrow from 1951 to 1955. Murrow introduced the series this way:

“’This I Believe. By that name, we bring you a new series of radio broadcasts presenting the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all
walks of life. In this brief time each night, a banker or a butcher, a painter or a social worker, people of all kinds who need have nothing more in common
than integrity—a real honesty—will talk out loud about the rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic values in their lives.”

What are the rules we live by as writers? What are the “basic values” in our art? Few of us have taken the time in the midst of our writing lives to identify what we believe about writing, about our work as writers, about its place in the world. I had been writing for decades before I began to form my own credo. Almost immediately, I discovered it was a powerful antidote against the many discouragements we face as writers. And the tonic begins the moment you start composing. But wait! There are rules to follow as you begin.

1. Have fun with it. This IS about ultimate things, but it’s NOT about perfection–grammatical, linguistic, or otherwise.

2. Don’t worry about originality. Many other writers have expressed brilliant thoughts before us. Beg, borrow, and steal from them (with attribution, of course!).

3. Consider it a living document that will grow, deepen, and re-shape as you move further into your art and your faith.

4. Post it somewhere you can see it, so it can prod, re-focus, and inspire you as you work.

That’s it. So here is part of my ever-changing manifesto. I share it with you simply as an illustration. Each writer’s credo will bear the marks of her own passage and thought.

* There is no part of human experience that is not worthy of attention, illumination, and restoration.

* I commit to writing not simply out of curiosity, out of delight in words, or a desire to entertain. All these are good enough motives, but will produce lesser works. My best and most honest writing will be done where my skin meets the world in the thinnest, rawest places.

* Writing is a vocation, a calling, a kind of pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible, but the writing inexorably, day by day, moves us closer to holiness, the city of God.

* Words contain power to slay and to resuscitate. Every work describing the world as it truly is will do both: there cannot be resuscitation without death; there cannot be death without resuscitation.

* Writing is a response back to a word-creating God who invites us–just as he invited Adam–to name all that is, to complete a creation that is still undone, still unfinished. We speak back because creation was intended to be a conversation, not a monologue.

* Writing recognizes that faith and spirit are not disembodied abstract ideas, but are incarnated in the world around us. Our faith calls us to the things of this world—to mud and fish slime, to huckleberries and stingrays— to love them, to speak their names, to find in them the glory that was spoken into their very cells.

* Writing from faith is not an attempt to contain or explicate God, to unravel mystery, the wonders that surround us, but rather to articulate mystery, that it may draw us, first, to the edge of his cloak, then closer . . .

Enjoy the process! And count us in! Share at least one of your own writing beliefs with all of us here. Perhaps we’ll add yours to our own!