“I think the biggest myth that writers might have about themselves is that we’re somehow more important than we really are. I always cringe a little when I hear a writer say it’s our duty to make social commentary, expose social injustice, etc. I don’t think it’s my duty at all. My duty as a writer is to tell a good story, and to tell it well. If I’m faithful to my characters first and foremost, then it often happens that some sort of social commentary occurs. But honestly, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s not my job to be lofty, or to somehow ‘have my finger on the pulse of the nation.’ I’m just a writer, a modern-day storyteller. If I thought I was anything more, I’d get frightened and completely shut down.”
~ Nancy Peacock, A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning & Life
I am at a writing retreat with two critique friends, deep in the heart of Texas. Have been here since 11:30 this morning. Two other writers arrive tomorrow.
Have written some fiction for me, some nonfiction for my friend Em. Before e-mailing Em’s to her, I read over it, as every conscientious writer knows she should, and discovered the nonfiction may be more fictional than the fiction.
Em will just have to deal with that.
I am tired. Fatigued. Exhausted.
And the phone will ring at 8:00 in the morning.
I shall retreat to my bed, where I shall dream about sweaters.
It sticks with me because what Woodring says is true. Uncomfortably so.
She says if we write because we want something–wealth, fame, a room of our own, shoes–we’re destined to fail.
To write well, we have to ask what the story wants. We must write out of love.
I have at times worked according to the love principle: when I wrote an eight-chapter satire on life in the teachers’ lounge; my first couple of short stories; a segment of the Mystery in Four Parts for the annual Austin Sisters in Crime celebration; the daily assignments for the retreat in Alpine last year; the very first, and unspeakably horrible, draft of Molly; every post that appears on this blog. The less the product matters, the more I’m willing to consent to its requests, and the more I love to write.
My Friday critique partner and I even wrote the love principle into the title of our partnership. Recognizing that publication would not be a slam-dunk, we lowered our expectations–or as my thesis advisor once recommended, modified our aspirations–and named ourselves the Just for the Hell of It Writers.
Somewhere along the way, however, I meandered away from the ideal. I focused on getting it right the first time, being perfect, failing to trust that something would come from nothing. I wandered away from the playground and haven’t found my way back.
While wandering, I suggested to CP that we change our name to something more serious, more business-like, a name we could take out of our tote bags and flash around at writing conferences, a name that would look good on our resumes. After much discussion, we chose Waterloo Writers. We even voted. The motion passed unanimously, 2-0.
Ah, the pomp and the circumstance. One could almost hear the strains of “Land of Hope and Glory” replacing Willie Nelson from BookPeople’s speakers overhead.
(Epiphany: As I write this, a Frasier marathon, compliments of Netflix, plays on TV. I just realized I am a Frasier. Uptight. Perfectionistic. OCD. No wonder I’m not having fun.)
Anyway, I haven’t loved Molly for quite a while. I haven’t asked what she wants, and I’ve ignored her attempts to tell me. Even when she’s yelling. She yells a lot, all day every day. And at night when I’m trying to sleep. I can’t make her–or her passel of friends–shut up. No one else hears them.
Ignoring the cacophony takes energy. And sugar. Today the shouting was so intense I plowed right through the sticky, cloying chocolate thingies my husband bought at Wal-Mart to take to work for lunch. Enough for the next two days, he thought. Tonight, to make amends, I baked brownies, which I have already sampled. If I go to bed soon, they have a chance of lasting till morning.
Obviously sugar isn’t working. It never does.
Giving up isn’t an option either. In the words of another critique partner–one I consider my mentor–“Writing is part of my condition.” I may stray from the rule, but never from the desire. The voices in my head keep clamoring, and there’s just one way to calm them.
For this writer’s brand of schizophrenia, the only effective drug is the one Susan Woodring prescribes: love.
Plus, I would add, equal measures of faith and hope. The three have a history of joyful collaboration.
Susan Woodring’s latest novel is Goliath(St. Martin’s, 2012). She lives in North Carolina. More information about Susan and her books is available on her blog.
Picture of Susan Woodring by Suzanne Carey, via Flickr, CC BY- NC 2.0.
My mother told a story about the first time she hosted Thanksgiving dinner in her own home. She’d laid out the china and the crystal and the sterling and the silver gravy boat my grandmother insisted every married woman must have (even when the married woman was going to live near an oil field where the silver would immediately turn black.)
Finished with the table, she indulged in whimsy. She went outside and picked some purple wildflowers she thought particularly unattractive. (“Ugly” was her exact word.) She arranged them and placed them on the table.
When my grandmother arrived, Mother said, “What do you think of my centerpiece?”
My grandmother, missing the humor, replied, “Well, dear, I think you did as well as can be expected, considering what you had to work with.”
That line entered the Waller Book of Familiar Quotations. We used it for every achievement: making pies, mowing the lawn, climbing on top of the house to turn the TV antenna, explaining first semester grades from college: I did as well as can be expected, considering what I have to work with.
I wish my parents could read that story. I wish they could see other things I’ve written. They would laugh at Miss Pinksie Craigo whacking her cane against a chair, and Mr. Archie Parsons using his favorite (marginally) un-blasphemous expletive, and Aunt Lydia…Oh my, I can just imagine them reading about Aunt Lydia.
Some old ladies are worth more than an ode. Some, however, are marked 75% off–too good to resist.
My parents were generous. They gave me language and laughter. I think they would approve of the way I’m using them. They would be pleased to know I’m trying.
If I could ask, I believe they would also grant permission: We gave you words. Use them as you will. No secrets. No holding back.
With such a blessing, a writer doesn’t have to be ruthless or to rob anyone.
She just has to do as well as can be expected, considering what she has to work with.
The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one….If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. ~ William Faulkner
One of my instructors, citing William Faulkner’s statement that good writers are ruthless about their art, asked the class whether there were any subjects we could not write about.
One of the students came up with an extensive, and very funny, list of things she couldn’t write about.
But for anyone aspiring to publish, it’s a serious question.
In her memoir, Limbo, A. Manette Ansay writes that to tell her story, she had to tell a story about her father as well. It was a memory so painful that he disclosed it to her only when she was experiencing a deep personal crisis and he believed hearing it might lessen her pain. If he hadn’t given permission to tell his secret, she would not have written her memoir. Her father was more important than her art.
Against all the rules, I’ll digress to say that Limbo is a wonderful book, and everyone reading this post should run to wherever you go and borrow or buy one. I borrowed the book from my library, when I had one, and received no perks for stating this opinion. I say this in a spirit of full disclosure and a certain amount of pique that I have to say it at all. (Actually, since this isn’t a review, I probably don’t have to say it, but I’ve always wanted to use the word pique, and this way I have an excuse to do so.)
Back to the original topic. Because so much of my so-called inspiration comes from people I’ve known or heard about, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what I can’t write about. Is there anything in my life or that of my family that would be best left alone? Is there anything I cannot use as fodder? Anything really really good that, if I were lucky enough to get it into print, might be considered indiscreet? I can use my grandfather’s roll-your-own Bull Durhams and my Cousin Ruth’s statuesque leg, but is there anything that simply must not find its way into the bookstores?
I’m talking about family here.
Of course there are things I can’t write about.
In my case, family includes a whole raft of people I’m not related to, I hardly know, or I’ve merely heard about from other people. For example, my grandfather once knew a man who, as a boy, saw General Robert E. Lee sitting astride Traveler.
There’s nothing wrong with writing about a boy seeing Traveler (who both my grandfather and I knew was much more important than General Lee), but, for the purposes of my art, I consider that boy part of the family. It’s complicated.
Anyway, back to the question, What can’t I write about?
Like many other answers, it depends. Fiction allows–requires–the writer to stretch the facts to get to the truth. Characters aren’t people. Plot isn’t memoir. With that kind of leeway, the possibilities are endless.
And let’s face facts. I am neither a William Faulkner nor an A. Manette Ansay, and I’m in no danger of producing anything that will cause readers to confuse me with Keats. Or even with Janet Evanovich, more’s the pity.
Still, if I were forced to give a straight answer to the question, I would agree with Ms. Ansay.
Whenever I read Faulkner’s declaration, I think of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Keats took comfort from the urn. I take comfort from the poem. “When old age shall this generation waste,” those things of beauty will continue to delight. It’s difficult to put a price on that.
But then I think of all the old ladies I’ve known.
From what I’ve read about him, I believe even Keats would consider them worth more than an ode.
Is there anything you can’t write about?
Another disclosure: Zemanta didn’t help me write this post, but it did provide the pictures and the link below, which accesses an audio archive of William Faulkner’s lectures and speeches. According to the accompanying article, the author was “quite the wit” and would “routinely slay audiences.” I’d planned to say I felt guilty for using Zemanta, but I’m so pleased at getting to hear Faulkner speak that I’m going to allow Z to assist me as often as it wishes.