Showing posts with label the writing life the story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the writing life the story. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

We Tell Stories

Some years ago, a writer I greatly admire commented that writing fiction right after the 911 attacks was hard to do. Like television sit-coms and sports, it seemed frivolous in the wake of such tragedy.

I think maybe creating fiction at such a time can actually seem worse than frivolous. Disrespectful, tasteless. Fiction, after all, is merely made-up stories. The stories might be light-hearted, and who can laugh now? Or tragic, which might be worse—to invent sadness at such a time.

I remember watching the news footage of the attacks and their aftermath—those long days, then weeks of searching the rubble—from my couch. I had just quit teaching and was preparing to begin work on my MFA. My husband and I were also trying to get a family started, but that day—September 11, 2001—while our entire country watched the details of the tragedy unfold, I was facing a personal tragedy. There I sat, alone in the house, watching everything on TV, and, at the same time, bleeding through my first miscarriage.

Writing has been good and useful for me over the years for a number of reasons. When I was young, it was fun. It was an intellectual exercise—through writing, my brain learned logic and syntax. Order and creativity. As I grew older, it became cathartic and then psychologically essential. If I didn’t express myself, I would go crazy. Fiction-writing has also been my escape, a means of forgetting my real-life’s troubles.

It still does all this for me. But there’s more: writing is life-affirming.

Joan Didion says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She was speaking primarily about nonfiction-story-telling, about how we assign the confusing losses and utter mayhem of this life narratives to cope. (You should read this essay, btw. It’s the title essay of her collection, The White Album.)

She’s right, of course, she’s brilliant, but I might say this about writing, specifically about fiction-writing: We make up stories because we are alive. I believe it is absolutely essential to our humanness. This is one of the--if not the--most fundamental human traditions.

Of course, when I lost the pregnancy, I cried. I crawled into various hiding places. I buried a bloodclot in the backyard. I watched too much of the news coverage.

But then, eventually, I sat down at my desk and re-entered the story-telling tradition.

No matter the country’s or the world’s or your own personal situation in this moment, I think we really must understand how important this writing-thing is. And I don’t mean only for personal fulfillment or to try to inspire another person. These are certainly important, but there's something else, something a bit closer to the marrow. I think we have to write—we have to make up stories—because it is a symptom of our being alive. We humans do these things: we build buildings and empires, we love and we hate, we plant things, cook things, clean things, destroy things, we have babies and we die—and we tell stories.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Faith in the Story: Believing What You Don't see

In this writing life, you will encounter fear.

It may come to you in any number of incarnations: fear of giving too much of yourself away, fear of rejection, fear of tripping upon little bits of your deepest darkest self you'd rather not see. Criticism from others, however well-intended, can be crippling. I've feared writing would make me crazy. I've feared not writing: what if I woke up tomorrow and simply couldn't do it? Or, what if I keep writing, but no longer enjoy it? What if, in my pursuit to always, always write better, I start to really hate it? What if, the harder I try, the worse I write?

And, each day, I face a particularly harrowing fear: I'm going to open up the document to whatever I'm working on, and, upon reading a few lines, discover just how much it sucks. More than anything, we fear failure, but, don't you think it's actually fear of exposure? Fear others will see the truth about me and how incredibly stupid and naive and untalented I really am?

Fear, as I've seen it, is a crisis of faith. And this, in my world, is where religious faith and writing faith converge. My bible tells me to be still and know that God is God. In my worst bouts of writer-fear, I have to summon the same brand of faith: be still and know that the story exists. The story knows what it's doing even when I don't--sometimes, especially when I don't. I can't see the story at this moment--just like I can't physically see God--but I have to trust it. It's there. Lean on it, risking falling, or, as E.L. Doctorow says, hazard yourself, and only then can you trust its soundness, how very sturdy and there it actually is.

And, maybe the particular document I'm staring out really does suck. Maybe it's unsalvageable. Maybe I really am incredibly stupid and maybe I've wasted over a decade of my life--more--pursuing this writing-thing.

This is flawed thinking. We as a culture are too worried about so-called "wasted" time on pursuits that don't measure up to money or attention. A topic for another post, perhaps, but I really think we all need to evaluate exactly what we mean by the word success. And, on a personal note, I firmly believe that writing is an act of worship in the same way that cabinet-makers worship God by carving wood: any time I use a thing God has given me in the way he intended me to use it, I am worshipping him.

And even if you can't quite do the God-thing with me, and if you're not quite willing to change how you see success, I'm hoping you will grasp the immense beauty of creating. Fear is about me, but the work is about the work. Even if my creation is ultimately no masterpiece, I've done this much: I've made something.

But, also, let's remember the story. It's spirit rather than flesh, but it exists. I believe in it, don't you? I think that's where we let our fears carry us away, where it separates the cabinet-maker from the wood, we are distracted by how much we suck or how much time we're wasting and we forget why we're here: it's all about the story.