Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Answers to student questions about being a writer

At what point in your life did you decide to be a writer?

I always find this question impossible to answer, because it’s not as straightforward as it sounds! If you decide to become a veterinarian or a plumber or an astronaut or a fireman, you need to undergo a specialized post-secondary training and become certified to practice your trade. That’s not the way it works with writing. Everybody writes in school; those who “decide” to become writers, like me, are those who love it so much they never stop.

What this means is that you are not deciding to start doing something you’ve never done before, but to keep on doing something everybody else gives up; to get really good at something most people do poorly. To that extent, you are like an athlete or a musician, because the only way to get good is to practice, endlessly. Although there are lots of writing programs around, some even granting degrees, no one can actually teach you to write. They can only teach you how to revise and edit what you’ve already written. You still have to produce something from nothing on your own.

Also, writing is not really a profession in the ordinary sense: most writers have to earn money another way and keep working at their writing until they get published, and then keep publishing until they get lucky enough to make money, and even then, most writers still have to hold down another job to pay the bills. So “deciding to become a writer” doesn’t mean that you will earn a living at it; it means that you have made an internal commitment to the craft and will organize your life so that you always have time for it. And recognizing that you may have to give up other things in order to put the writing first.

What motivated you in that direction, and what are some experiences you had that eventually led you to this point?

I worked in publishing for a couple of years and then as a university professor for many more years and found myself obsessively editing everybody else’s work, and yearning for more time to work on my own stuff. I was never very interested in the business side of publishing, or the administrative side of academia; nor was I interested in literary theory for its own sake as so many of my colleagues were. I always wanted to take stories or plays or poems apart and see how they were made.

What do you enjoy about being a writer; what are the perks?

I love writing for two reasons. First and foremost I love making things with words; I love entering that state of intense mental excitement and working towards the best way of saying something. And secondly, writing is how I learn about the world. I find out what I know about things by writing about them, and writing forces me to learn new things all the time.

What do you dislike or wish to change about your occupation?

It can be lonely; you work in solitude all the time and rarely have people to share your work with. It can be frustrating: you send work out to be published and then wait for months and months for a response. It is very poorly paid. The tax laws are not geared towards writers, who may earn virtually nothing for several years and then get paid all at once, at which point they are taxed heavily. And being self-employed, writers have a hard time getting health and disability insurance, and therefore are doubly vulnerable financially.

Another problem is that other people think you are not really working because you’re at home, and they can’t see visible evidence of effort, so they don’t respect your time.

Do you find yourself writing more about personal experiences, or about imagined scenarios? Why?

In my poetry, I draw a lot on personal experiences, though I always see myself as an individual example of events that are universal. That is, I use my life as a repository of people, places, and things that I know about, through which I can explore subjects that interest me. So the “I” of my lyric poems is never straightforwardly me, myself, but the voice of that particular poem, which might or might not borrow something from Susan Glickman’s actual life.

In my fiction there are invented characters, so I have a lot more freedom to imagine experiences I haven’t actually had. Still, I have to draw on my own understanding of the world to be able to make convincing characters so to that extent I am limited by my own “self”, even when I don’t speak as myself.

What is the message you hope to put across to the general public through your writing?

No message; never any message!! Why? Because any message that literature could put across would be so vague and general as to be useless. War is Hell; Life is complicated ; Love one another or die: what use are messages like that?

Contrary to what most high school English teachers tell you, how literature works is not by sending out messages. Literature gives us the space and time to imaginatively inhabit another person’s life and empathize with his or her situation. In daily life we never get to enter anybody’s mind but our own, but literature gives us the opportunity to be lots of other people. This is really the moral dimension to literature: that it insists that we transcend our egos and be empathetic.

As Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in “A Defense of Poetry, "A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own."

When you write something you are creating a world for the reader to enter, building scenes for that reader to experience. Each individual work may grapple with certain themes that become a moral focus for the characters and therefore for readers as well, but this is not the same as being didactic and having a “message”.


Charles Stephens said...

I have not often read something so sensible about the nature of writing in many a year. All that you have said makes perfect sense to me. I started writing at the age of 13 and have not stopped, even though I have scarcely been published. One just goes on, and on........ The great thing is that new ideas, new possibilities emerge and one gets to put them into words.

Charles Stephens said...

The first often should be taken out! That is what comes from editing in a hurry - apologies. On second thoughts the whole of the first sentence does not really work - but I think the meaning is clear. I must work harder on my words!