Recently I’ve been preparing to teach two intensive short-term workshops––one here, and one here––and I have therefore been immersed in one of my favorite activities. Re-reading. I have re-read Cheever, Munro, Didion, Ozick, Dillard, Virginia Wolff, and also dipped in and out of favorite passages in modern memoirs, and instructive first and last sentences. I have been thinking about sentences, structure, character, setting, voice, tone, plot. The new chaise I bought for my office is covered, just as I imagined it would be when I bought it, with books and papers. And my mind is full, almost bursting, with thoughts about the creative process.
I confess that I have mixed feelings when it comes to teaching craft. There are brilliant teachers of craft, and I know they don’t feel the same way I do about it. When I think of teaching craft, I picture myself standing beside an old car, perhaps a vintage car, that has run efficiently and without incident for many years, and deciding, just for the hell of it, to open its hood and poke around. Oooh, what’s this? A piston? What’s a piston? I’ve been driving for years, without knowing, or needing to know. I often tell my students that if they’re sitting down to write while thinking about structure, point of view, setting, voice, plot, they’re setting themselves up for misery. That kind of self-consciousness has no place in the creative process. There is an intuitive freedom in the getting down of a first draft, and so often, students make the mistake of thinking that the burnished prose of published, completed work just came out that way. It almost never does. It takes draft after draft after draft, and at a certain point, it may require knowing what a piston is. So to speak. But not when beginning! Never at the beginning!
Lately I have been enduring a time of waiting. I’m working on my book about writing, but my next novel is proving elusive–as, if I am completely honest with myself–my novels always do. It’s only when I reach a point of true despair that I begin to see through the forest to the next work of fiction. I can’t fake this despair and fool the muse. It doesn’t help to tell myself that this always happens and eventually I will find my way. This time, I am convinced, it’s different. I have nothing. My interior life a blank slate. Yesterday, while re-reading an interview with Cynthia Ozick, I came across this gem: “The only thing more tormenting than writing is not writing.” I took comfort in this, as I always do from the words of my fellow writers. And, in the meantime, I wait for what Ozick calls my “private heart” to once again reveal itself to me. “It’s probably impossible to define,” she writes, “but it’s not what the writer does––breakfast, schedule, social outings––but what the writer is. The secret, contemplative self. An inner recess wherein insight occurs.”
Ozick goes on to say something that I want to impart to my students over this next month, on these two retreats: “The writers self is perhaps coextensive with one of the writer’s sentences. It seems to me that more can be found about a writer in any single sentence in a work of fiction, say, than in five or ten full-scale biographies. Or interviews!”
This strikes me as a deep and powerful truth. And it exists in the place that knowledge of craft cannot touch. It exists in the dark recesses of waiting. Of enduring. Of reading and re-reading and thinking and not willing anything into being, but rather, allowing the possibility for a whole new shape to form.