Work and world...
Well, i had posted this earlier and then deleted, thinking it was too over the top. But now I see that someone (the ever-generous David Snider) had commented on it so very nicely (i wasn't quick enough with the delete button!) so I'm positing it again. It it's too much, blame David!:
It’s hard sometimes to know how to spend one’s life. So I understand the questioner who wonders if it’s a somewhat selfish indulgence to write stories instead of fixing the world. I mean, the world needs fixing, and who’s going to do it if not us? I’ve had these same thoughts many times, and I don’t think my feelings on this have much to do with the back-door ego of which George writes. I think they have to do with just wondering how best to spend my days, when they are continually dwindling and the earth is on fire. Writing a story vs. helping the world in other ways—this is definitely worth thinking about. I take comfort in a few ways, not all of them great, but you know, I’m human. One thing is that I make sure I always have a volunteer job. Currently, I cook at a homeless shelter once a week. It’s not much, really—to put in a few hours once a week. But it keeps me from having to kill myself. I put in a few hours in a way that I know without a doubt helps other people—and that helps me, A LOT. The other thing I do is tell myself that every day I have the opportunity to put positive ripples out in the world (corny, I know, but there’s no real good way to say it). I try to remember the positive ripples whenever I’m out there in any way interacting with other humans. Because you never, ever know when your actions are going to make a difference in someone else’s life. For instance, I call this elderly woman about once every 6 months to say hi. She was my mom’s best friend and my mom is dead now, so I like having this connection. It’s for ME that I call her. Well, my husband was in Seattle and he actually saw this elderly woman who now lives in a retirement community where my husband happened to be visiting. She said to him “Mary is the only one who calls me.” I can barely type those words. You know I’m going to call her more now, right? And the calls will feed me and make me feel alive. It’s a cliché, but doing things for others is always doing things for ourselves. It’s a gift when someone allows us to do something for them.
George, here in Story Club, sends out positive ripples every week. It’s the best!
How far afield am I going from this week’s post? Oh, well. I want to give the questioner their props for worrying about the world. It’s the right kind of worry. I honor you.
So the other thing I do when I feel the way this questioner does, is that I ask myself what I’m doing here on this planet? What is my purpose? And as I’ve written before, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was put here to enjoy my life. I don’t mean that in a hedonistic fashion. I mean that I’m here to find beauty and joy where I can find it. And writing brings me joy. It’s not so terrible to spend your days doing something that brings you joy and that also happens to be an activity that harms no one else and may, in fact, bring someone else joy. It’s a nice way to live, really.
I thank you, Story Clubbers, for always allowing me this opportunity to post. Where else can I write/say these things and know they will accepted in the spirit in which I wrote them? This is another way you all contribute positively to this world. We celebrate and support one another here. As we keep saying, this is a great place to be.
I’ve found that fiction writers, no matter how large their career, tend to be pessimistic about their place in the world, about their contemporary and historical relevance. On the other hand, I’m found that poets, no matter how small their career, tend to very much overvalue and exaggerate contemporary poetry’s place in the world.
Thank you for this frank reflection on your approach. Lately I've been gifted with more opportunity to write, and I've been feeling like I just need to put my head down and write and not think about anything but making this book work. This post is a much needed validation to stop worrying about who may or may not want to read my work, or buy it, or publish it, and instead focus on writing the book only I can write and making it as good and satisfying to read as I possibly can, and that's it. And when I'm not writing...just be alive and attentive to the world.
Forty years ago, just after I got out of college, a perceptive friend of mine said, "All writers are conceited. They think they have something to say." Accept that, and move on. If you can't live with it, play golf. Also, plumbers cannot afford to get "blocked."
Several years ago I was active in a long-running performance workshop. I took it because I wanted to see through the eyes of the actor. Our instructor was an old hand at theater and film and taught mostly body work, instinctive sound, and movement as it applied to the stage. As we walked out onto the floor to start one of the exercises he would often say, “Remember, if you have a good idea out there, don’t do it.” He meant that if you start overthinking what you’re about to do you will get all tangled up and self-conscious when you should be opening yourself up to whatever is flowing through you. Get too up in the head and you’ll cut yourself off from whatever is trickling in from your shy creative centers, i.e. the good stuff. As David Lynch says, “The big fish are down deep.”
I was always struck by how many people in that class took voluminous notes about being present, being in the moment, being mindful or whatever you want to call it. It’s an idea that’s been around for a long time and most of the writers and filmmakers I like seem to work that way to some degree, i.e. instinctively. Me, I would never write anything down, partly out of laziness but also because I felt he was training us to incorporate these lessons into the body and not to fill up some corner of the brain with instructions to self. If the instructor saw us trying to be too clever he’d stop and gently redirect us. This post of George’s approach to writing reminds me so much of those days. Those teaching are in my bones and not in some dusty notebooks, though I have too many of those filled with story notes. I will reread them on occasion and see how little I actually used as most of the actual good stuff came out in other ways.
I’ve always considered it a positive practice to make art and offer it to the world. It seems to me that creating art is subversive in its own right. I know it changed me in a good way and man did I need changing. Yikes… It’s a different way of giving to the poor suffering world. Now I sound like an egomaniac so I’ll end by exclaiming how cool those coffee mugs are!
Question 2 is so big that it's crushing. Breathlessly so. Who, singular among us, can stop world wars, climate change, human inhumanity when we ourselves are human & thus, at least to some extent, complicit? I think our aim, by sheer definition of our not-God selves, must be smaller, very much smaller: do what good you can when you can with what you have at the time. As for how that applies to writing, here's the poet William Stafford in his essay "Writing the Australian Crawl"*: "A person writes by means of that meager but persistent little self he has with him all the time. He does not outflank his ignorance by intensive reading in composition class; he does not become brilliant about constructions by learning the history of language. He is a certain weight of person, relying on the total feeling he has for experience." And what is this experience? What is that certain weight? I think it comes down, literally, to such small, nearly minuscule, actions as, say, holding the door open for the person behind you. It's a gesture, a means of making way, of acknowledging the other. That's what I think we're supposed to do, what I think the best writing does & what I think every one of us does if only we'd give ourselves credit: make way.
*There's so much more wisdom in this one essay than I've quoted here & which you can find in Stafford's Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation, U of Michigan Press, 1978, Ann Arbor.
Needed this today. I sometimes get bogged down in my own lack of profundity that I freeze up, unable to produce anything, let alone anything of value, but as you mentioned here, this really is putting too much pressure on your work, a pressure that no work can ever live up to. Better to continue producing and value the specific over the profound, and let the reader glean from it what they will.
Well, glad to know I don’t need to be keeping a notebook of pithy sayings and things I overhear. Way too much effort! I really appreciate this post about why writers write and that doing the work, the diggin, is the main point, and us who are so privileged as to have the time, the resources to be able to spend time on writing, and rewriting, well, then, just go do it. I still want to write stories, even though I am age 71, and even though I have no idea why I want to, and why not just quit and go read the latest about how to save the world from burning up sooner than later? Why do I have hundreds of bookmarks for good causes and subscriptions to good ideas and good things to read, and soon? Need to simplify. That is a very good idea.
Yeah. A lot of newbies don't get that writing is a lot like panning for gold. You dig up a lot of mud, then slosh it around a lot, and if you're lucky you find a fleck or two; but first you've got to go dig up the mud. When I was starting out, I took to heart the dictum that you had to write x number of words a day, Period. Sometimes I'd get something good, sometimes it was litterally me just babbling to myself on paper just to get the words down. Yet, in the sludge I might suddenly type something that would make me go "that might be interesting" and go off on that. Professional writers know that a huge part of the job is just sitting down and doing the damn work and seeing what the writing gods send you. Everything else is just disguised excuses for why you don't want to work.
1. "So: it’s just me and the existing text, and my job is to go in blank and see how I react to it, a day at a time. And everything is contained in that approach.
That’s the aspiration, anyway."
That's the *inspiration* I get from you, George.
2. "Valid ideas are insistent and persistent – they keep coming back, like an intense salesperson. And if an idea wilts or drifts away, it likely wasn’t that good anyway."
I think I'm like many writers. The valid idea persistently arrive when I'm on a walk, or in the shower, or driving. I've had many good ideas drift away. I have a good memory, but memory *is* fallible. The stressors of the day/world affect memory too. So I often will jot the notes on notepad if I find the persistent idea rather insistent or interesting. I think most of those ideas are rewritings rather than original thoughts, though I have plenty of notes for "story ideas" and "potential titles." If I can't figure out what my note means after a week or so, I delete it - those have wilted or drifted away. If the idea still appeals to me - I'll turn to it during writing time.
3. “We want so badly for our work to be consequential. We’re worried about this, aren’t we?” And your response to that voice might want to be: “Right. We are worried about this. But let’s not let this worrying obstruct us. Let’s put it to bed once and for all, so that, twenty years from now, we’re not still asking the same question, which we will be if we don’t get moving, because there is no conceivable answer that is going to free us from those worries, because, come to think of it: we shouldn’t be free of them - they are actually the essence of craft.”
This reminds me of Henry James's story "The Beast in the Jungle" and John Marcher, curiously awaiting his spectacular fate."
Of course, the most appropriate response is..... "John who?"
4. My partner/gf gifted me with a gray Story Club t-shirt with a the SC bird mascot on it. I love it and can't wait to run into someone who knows what it is. Just a matter of time.
Thanks for the office hours, George. Always a pleasure.
These Office Hours words of wisdom, plus the thoughtful comments of story club members, were just what I needed to read. All the anxiety and doubt applies to me… times one hundred. But I am gradually coming around. And best of all, today my best-ever gift to myself came in the mail: two Story Club coffee mugs (the little chick and the curly haired story girl). And it’s a spectacularly beautiful day here in Wisconsin. Life is good.
Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic talks about how best to relate to FEAR [of failure, of success, of fame, etc] in creative endeavors. She says FEAR is a natural part of creativity, and we should invite it along for the creative journey. But FEAR stays in the back seat and can’t drive. 🚗
I’ve thought a lot about this question of “should I even be writing when…” I think one part of my answer to this dovetails with the art/worth/money question from last week. It feels like this kind of “artist’s guilt” is directly tied to a culture’s worth of art itself. Guilt arises from the economics. This is reinforced when art is treated as excess, not an important subject in education, not easy to make a living from, etc. In turn there’s a feeing of frivolity or excess to even engage in what is actually (hopefully) deeply meaningful work.
And so the artist ends up laden with a guilt bred from economics that most other professions aren’t burdened by.
As I tried to make my life as a writer, I worked for a decade as a chef, and never once during all that time did I beat myself up thinking “maybe I shouldn’t be cooking but doing something important…”. I think part of this is because that job was considered “legit.”
What’s interesting is during all those chef years I did lament that I “should be writing.” So I think another part of the guilt voice is that it’s a really good procrastinator in disguise. Thinking I should do something more important undermined my own work, precisely because of the fear that George addresses.
It’s also interesting that, no matter how meaningless or petty I might think someone’s job, I would never be like “hey why the hell are you doing that work, you should be doing something meaningful and important.” I’m often awed by how rudely I’m willing to talk to myself in ways that I’d never talk to others.
Ultimately I quieted the voice by admitting that it’s not an either or question. If I really want to do social/activist work, I can do that AND write. That sort of humbled me and got me back to the work at hand.
As George notes, "worry is the essence of craft." I think this may be one reason why this is Katherine Mansfield's favorite Shakespeare quote (or at least the one on her tombstone): I tell you, my Lord Fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.
Great questions. And, as we've come to trust, great answers from George. What they (the Qs & As) remind me of is my own tendency to TRY too hard and by doing so to get in my own way and make a muddle of things. And I seem unable to get out of my own way.
I'm a huge European football (soccer) fan, especially of the English Premiere League and Liverpool F.C., coached by the indefatigable, defiantly optimistic Jürgen Klopp. Football at this level is merciless, demanding of every aspect of a player's being. While relentless work and talent are necessary for an individual player's success, it is FAR from sufficient. Too many uncontrollable factors arrayed against you. (Sound familiar?) Klopp, consistent as a metronome, yells during practice, implores in the locker room and if necessary takes you by the shoulders and looks you all the way down to your heart's skivvies and says, "Are you having fun? Enjoy this. Do you know what a privilege it is to be able to do this? I know you want to win. I want to win. But what I really want is to be lost in the 10,000 things that put me in a position to win. If you love this game and are grateful you have the opportunity to play it at this level, what could be more satisfying? Enjoy this. If you can't, do something else."
Okay, this more a compilation of things I've heard him say, i.e., I'm projecting what I need to hear. Also, it sounds better in Klopp's German accent. Still, this helps me to remember to have fun.
George works very hard at his writing. Obviously, he's "trying" at a pretty high level. When I read his fiction though, I'm struck by how much freedom he's allowed himself and how much fun it must have been to come up with the final product.
Generous, genial, genius. Thank you George. Insightful, incisive, instructive. 🌟