A friend working on her MFA graduating lecture, on the topic of writing community, asked me about my community and whether I belonged to a writing group. I sent this response:
…it’s not the kind of community you might expect. We rarely read each other’s work pre-publication but we always share our published works and promote each other. We are nose-to-the-grindstone writers, producing pages every single day. We don’t even have to check in, we simply know that about each other. We generally know what we’re working on and at times we write letters discussing our progress. We share words of encouragement and then celebrate when one of us can send the message, ‘I finished it today.’
Looking at this response again I’m thinking about the phrase, “not what you might expect.” What did I mean by that? It’s on my mind because I attended a large writer’s conference last month, the annual gathering organized by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). I noticed how so many of us as writers have fixed ideas about what a writer should do, how one operates.
I tend to hear the same, or at least very similar questions of authors at public events.
There’s a trap to this kind of thinking.
- Do you write every day?
- Are you in a writing group?
- Do you have an MFA?
Is that story/novel autobiographical?
If you believe you’re supposed to operate a certain way as a writer, you will punish yourself—possibly even by giving up altogether—if you fail to meet these false guidelines.
Robin Black, in her excellent new book, Crash Course: Essays from Where Writing and Life Collide
, observes, “A lot of writers seem awfully prone to self-hatred. Try to cut yourself some slack.”
I don’t mind talking process—it’s taken me a long time to shape mine and I’m aware talking about it could help someone seeking a different way of working. But I’m quick to offer the caveat: this is my way of working. You have to find your own way of being a writer
, and I mean in everything
—how you write, how you’re in community with other writers, how you hone your craft.
Your own way will always be the suitable way as long as it leads to your desired end: being published, completing a manuscript, landing a teaching gig. Our work is hard enough without forcing ourselves to work someone else’s way. “The best you can do is the best you can do,”
Robin writes in Crash Course
. And she’s right.
Now here’s the thing: You may not know your way immediately.
You might try writing for an hour every day. If it works for you, great! If you find it too stressful, try another routine.
I have a writing partner who lives two time zones away from me. We meet several times a week via Google Hangout. We chat onscreen for a few minutes but then we write for a few hours, each of us working on our own projects. It’s kind of like sharing an office only he’s in Colorado and I’m in Connecticut.
I never would have thought such a set up would be a part of my routine, but we’ve been writing together this way for nearly three years now. It simply works for both of us. In A Little Chaos
, a film directed by the late Alan Rickman, a landscape designer tasked with building the gardens of Versailles sits overwhelmed by the endeavor until he receives some advice from his wise assistant who tells the young man to just plant something, get his hands in the dirt. “See what grows,” he says.
I invite you to act likewise. Try something. Try something else. Try again.
The same goes for the MFA experience. For many years I held close to my heart the desire to go back to school to get my MFA in creative writing. I had this feeling I was in a place where such intensive study would help my art immensely. But whenever I shared this thought I would get some combination of these two responses:
- You don’t need an MFA, you’ve already published a novel.
- Why? Do you want to teach? Teaching is not all it’s cracked up to be. You won’t be able to write. You won’t be able to find a job; the market’s saturated.
For some time I listened to these responses and kept the idea of an MFA to myself. However I found myself consistently returning this thought: Yes, I’d written and published a novel. But I felt as though it were an airplane contraption I’d built on my own in my garage. I managed to get it off the ground and it flew and flew well. I had the sense that I could build a jet, maybe even a rocket, and I needed help to do that.
I finally decided to go for my MFA in 2011. You can read about the journey that took me to the decision in my essay “A Change in Direction” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers
. I enrolled in the low-residency program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), graduated in 2014, and it was the best thing I ever did for my writing life.
I say all this because I want to cheer you on. When the author Richard Bausch spoke at VCFA as a visiting writer I remember he said, in reference to writing, “Isn’t this an amazing thing we get to do?” I remember his smile and his sense of wonder when he said it.
He took me out of my head filled with lectures, workshop reading, and craft discussions and brought me back to the essence of what I loved and was there to do—write. I try to remember that essence as I move through my days. I want to be aware of what moves me toward it and what takes me away from it.
How to be a writer? First, discover the essence of what moves you to write.
Then find your own way of being a writer. If you do, I have no doubt you will become one.
Sophfronia Scott is author of the novels All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press) and Unforgivable Love (William Morrow) and the essay collection Love's Long Line (The Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books). Sophfronia holds a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing, fiction and creative nonfiction, from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Currently she is working on her next novel as well as a nonfiction book about her virtual mentorship with the monk Thomas Merton. Her website is www.Sophfronia.com.
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