Sunday, July 8, 2012

The world doesn't need another story (or poem)

The world doesn't need another story -- it's a point that my mentor and thesis director Kent Haruf used to make to me and my fellow fledgling fiction writers on a regular basis when I was studying at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (gulp) getting close to twenty years ago.  Kent didn't say it to be mean (he's one of the kindest, gentlest people I know), but he wanted to emphasize that if we wanted to be writers, the drive would have to come from inside of us.  No one would care, no one would even notice if we stopped writing -- and certainly no one was going to beg us to get back to it.

Kent was a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop; he went through it at the same time as novelist John Irving, and he used to claim that besides him and Irving, none of his classmates ever published anything after earning their MFA from Iowa.  They apparently needed the incentive of producing for an instructor and to get a grade and finish the degree, but once those fairly concrete incentives were removed, they didn't appear to produce anything.

Just this morning I was indulging myself in reading the Master, William H. Gass, and I rediscovered his take on this very issue in the preface he wrote more than thirty years ago for the republication of his classic collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (originally published in 1968).  Gass wrote,
The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene.  He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose.  Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need.  The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. [...] Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. (Nonpareil edition #21, xviii)
 He must proceed from a reckless inner need.  Indeed.

One of the reasons I've been thinking about this fact is because of the writing workshop that my writing friends -- Lisa Higgs, Tracy Zeman, Meagan Cass -- and I have been leading this summer in Springfield, Illinois.  It began back in May and will run through the beginning of August, with us meeting about every two weeks to discuss issues related to writing prose or writing poetry.  More than forty people registered to participate, but the numbers have dwindled steadily and I suppose we'll end up with about half that original number who will actually stay with it all summer.

Frankly, it was to be expected.  What prevents most people from writing who feel that they want to write is the lack of reckless inner need, as Gass called it.  I have no research to back me up, but I'm going to say that most writers live in households (or maybe situations is a better word) that don't understand their desire to write and don't support it, and perhaps even discourage it, maybe deliberately or maybe accidentally out of ignorance.

For nearly all of my adult life, I lived in a house that didn't get it and spent a great deal of energy discouraging it.  Had I simply stopped writing, things may have been easier at home in some ways, and certainly no editor would've called wondering why I hadn't submitted anything for a while.  But that was simply never an option for me.  I have to write, regardless of whether anyone is reading it or publishing it.

So if you think you want to write, you have to foster that reckless inner need.  For me, being a responsible person, I had to find time to write when no one would care that I was doing that instead of something else, which meant early in the morning.

Perhaps you're fortunate enough to live in a situation where people support your writing, or at least they're not working against it; if so, then it's a matter of developing a routine whereby you find yourself notebook in hand or laptop open every day.  Some writers give themselves page or word goals (they're going to write two pages a day, or 2,000 words, something like that), while others (like me) set a time.  I write for thirty to forty minutes each morning during the academic year, longer in the summer but rarely much beyond sixty minutes.  For folks starting out, it can be as little as a half page or five minutes.

The important thing, if you're serious about writing, is to stop being your own largest obstacle.  Make the time and the psychic space to write ... do it for yourself, do it, as the Master said, for the sake of the art.
Weeping with an Ancient God
Men of Winter


  1. Ted,

    This post really hit home for me as I am one of the group who has not been yet able to attend the workshop due to conflicts both personal and professional that overtook any "reckless inner need" I may have. Thank your for this realistic and inspiring post.

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  3. Thanks for the comment, Kristin. I hope it does inspire you to take up pen or pencil, or touch fingers to keyboard. It's not always easy when you think no one is listening, but, on the other hand, that lack of an audience can also be very liberating: When you're writing solely according to your own lights (and not for a teacher's approval, for example), you can allow your creativity to flow with abandon. Amazing things can happen, and I'm sure they will for you once you tap into your reckless inner need.