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Monday, September 29, 2008

Ask the Archives: What does it mean to be a writer?

Before the existence of doctors and lawyers, there were writers: struggling in their own worlds. They are the ones whose lives depend on expressing the germ inside of them. They can’t leave that piece of paper or blank computer screen even if they're physically moved away from it. Like its scientific counterpart, a story germ doesn’t go away without treatment and will continue to grow more persistent, larger, until it finds its destiny on that scrap of paper. Even then, after that small germ has manifested itself into a novel or a poem, a new one will start up, questioning the finished work, asking if that’s all you could make of it. The reason for this unending battle of mind and paper may possibly be because the work creates itself: the writer or poet is only the channel through which it gets expressed; however a battered, tired channel it becomes.

So why write? Why torture yourself with the need to create the next great novel or poem? For many of us, we write because it’s our air. We read because it’s our water. To be so connected with a story that you don’t realize your house is burning down. It’s not always pleasant and it doesn’t always let you sleep, but it can fill you with a sense of comradeship to know you are not alone. Even authors who have published many stories or poems still feel the indescribable connection to the germ waiting to be turned into something great. As the interviewees from the HFR archives explain below, writing is a way of life. Something you can’t turn away from, but instead, you must fully embrace. To be a writer is to be brave, strong, and willing to take the time to cultivate that germ.

Michael Cunningham, 2003: “A faculty member, who should probably remain nameless, took particular pains to tell me I wasn’t really very good, and should maybe consider hotel management or some other more suitable line of work. It rocked me at the time, but surviving that- deciding I’d write anyway, even if this very authoritative person had no faith in me- was a big, important step. I was never again so delicate."

George Saunders, 2000: "I read "Ping the Duck" and thought, Jesus, I can do better than this, everyone knows ducks don't talk. However, I was wrong. I mean, I wasn't wrong about ducks not talking, in fact I think I was right on the money there, but it turned out that "Ping the Duck" was a timeless classic, and I was just too much of a moron to know it. So I found that intriguing, that I could be, you know, a moron, and then I found that, when you're a writer, you're a moron about 99% of the time. But then there's that 1% of the time, when you're not a moron, but are writing white-hot prose that will cut a swath through the moral sloth of your time and change the world, which is pretty sweet, although then there is the day after the 1% day, when you reread what you've written and discover that it was actually pretty stupid after all, and that you were being a moron even then. But in all seriousness, that's what keeps me working: the reminder, everyday, that nothing is permanent or cast in stone, and that everything I'm "sure of" needs to be constantly reassessed. In my opinion, that's morality and that's art: constant reexamination of one's position, with true openness and humor."

William Kettredge, 1991: (speaking about the first book he loved) “It was like somebody opened the door. I wanted to write one myself. I thought, maybe I can do that. I think I’ll try it. I didn’t know it, but I was trapped forever." (and later) "You start thinking you can escape toward what you perceive to be freedom, which turns out to be more chaos. We have to be careful- I have a story called “Be Careful What you Want.” I ran freedom into the ground. Wrecked a marriage. All kinds of things. It gets to the point where you’re literally suicidal. There has to come a moment of recognition, the kind we see in stories all the time and talk about so easily. I doubt I would have had the moral courage to just walk away and try another life.”

Gloria Naylor, 1990: "So you start out with something and as they become people in your own life, and that's what they are I believe, using you to tell their stories, then they'll let you know. There's a situation and then that personality acts out in that situation."

Richard Ford, 1989: “I knew if I would just get myself started doing something unassailably important, I’d be at my best advantage whereas if I had to constantly be saying to myself: ‘Are you doing the right thing?’ Is this the best decision?’ I’d drive myself nuts and never have the chance to do anything worthwhile.”

John Updike, 1988: “Well, the questions one asks oneself are almost the best p[art] of course in the form of fiction, of dramatizing aspects of your own self and taking an impulse and turning it into a person. That manipulation of the alternative that we all have within us is the most creative and honest thing we do.”

Have a question gnawing away at you? Ask away, either in a comment to this post or in an email to, and we'll run screaming through our archives to get you some answers.


the unreliable narrator said...

Only question gnawing away at me: Will George Saunders bear my love-child??? Dreamy sigh.

Beth Staples said...

You'll have to fight me for him! By the way, are you familiar with the "The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers"? Here's a link: Ben Marcus interviews George Saunders in it, and the interview is one of the most amazing I've ever read.

the unreliable narrator said...

Reading it now, courtesy of "Search Inside This Book!"--in which it is revealed that 1) his wife's name is Paula; and 2) "Ideally, I aspire to write stuff that takes into account the fact that we are all dying." Dreamy sigh x 2!

TELL ME you read his NYer piece last week--the one impalin' Palin.

Beth Staples said...

I'm on it! Thanks.