Okay, this is cheating because usually a Guest in Progress piece is original to this blog, but I couldn’t resist featuring my Converse low-res MFA fiction colleague Marlin Barton and his inspiring remarks to a group of young writers, found here on the Alabama Writers’ Forum site.
I’ll excerpt a fair bit, but do read the whole thing. I promise that afterwards, you’ll feel ready to face the empty screen:
Those of you here in this room know that success in writing takes more than some vague desire. It takes some level of talent; it takes time (when there are a million other things you could be doing. As the writer Harry Crews once said, “The world doesn’t want you to write. The world wants you to go to the fair and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”); and it takes commitment. Some of you, perhaps many of you, are beginning to contemplate a career (or a “career”) as a writer. So here’s about a pocketful of advice from me, and a pocketful is about all I’ve got. …When a teacher suggests a certain book or poem for you, there’s probably a reason. Read it; read it carefully. It probably parallels your work in some way—but it’s better than you are, at least right now. Learn from it. I read writers all the time who are better than me. Hopefully I’ll learn from them. Craft can be taught to a large extent, but true artistry can’t—not by a teacher. The closest you’ll come to learning artistry is through those books that are closest to your vision of the world and to what you’re trying to do as a writer. …But criticism is necessary for our growth as writers, and it is a major part of our lives as writers. It is simply a fact of life. And a workshop is trial by fire, but think of it as basic training, like in the military. While you’re crawling on the ground under the barbed wire the people shooting are aiming over your head, and the bullets are rubber. So listen to them whizzing by. Learn from them. Grow. Become stronger.Now, when you begin submitting to journals and agents and editors at publishing houses, it may sometimes feel like those sons-of-a-gun are shooting at you. I once received an NEA fellowship rejection the day before Christmas and a Sewanee Review rejection on a rewrite that they’d asked for the day after Christmas. It was as if they were saying, “Merry Christmas, sucker!” It felt a little like they were gunning for me. But they weren’t. It was just part of the business of writing. ……I think what’s hardest for most writers is the fear that while they may know they have some level of talent, they suspect it isn’t enough, that they lack just that little bit that would allow them to write a truly fine book, that they don’t have quite what it takes to be published by the best presses. (Maybe writers like Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison have achieved enough success that they don’t have this fear any longer. I don’t know.)On a bad day, the fear can be even worse. Instead of thinking you don’t have quite enough talent, you think you’re a fraud and will be found out, and that every little criticism and every rejection is proof you’re a fraud. Handling these fears can be difficult because no matter how many poems or stories or books you may publish, these feelings won’t go away, at least for most of us. But here’s the thing to remember: While these feelings may be bad for us emotionally, and they are—they are good for our writing. If you ever lose these fears, you will probably be writing poorly, and you won’t even know it. …And finally, from a somewhat more contemporary American writer, Andre Dubus, who has sadly passed:“An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, [then] writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s own blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk, and when a writer does this work steadily enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and, more dangerously, despair, convinced that the work is not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed.”These are all beautiful words, and they are true words, but I have to add, while they are wonderful to hear, they are harder to live. You have to live them every day. Because ultimately what’s most important is what we put on the page, and that does have to be its own reward. ….