Friday, July 13, 2012

Taking the long view

    Yeah, that's me, a couple of years ago, after I ran the St. Jude Memphis marathon.   Since then, I've completed the Mid-South Championship marathon once and the Little Rock marathon twice, bringing my grand total of marathons completed to eight.  The marathon isn't actually my favorite race distance--that would be the half-marathon (which, interestingly, was cited as the favorite race distance of runners en masse in a recently published Runners World magazine study)--but the marathon has so many metaphorical connections to so many life ambitions that on both an existential and a literary level it becomes the one unavoidable contest.  I've already blogged about the nearly seamless comparison between novel writing and marathon running, so I won't do so again today.  Anyone interested in reading further about such matters should hustle out right now to buy, borrow, or steal Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.   What struck me the other morning in the middle of my daily constitutional six mile trek (this one a double loop around the lovely Cobb Island, Maryland, where I happen to be vacationing) was that distance running doesn't just make a superb metaphor for the act of  novel writing but for the sum of one's writing life, whatever kind of writing that means.  Both distance runners and creative writers are required by their disciplines to take the "long view."  By this I don't mean length in the page numbers of our individual projects, but length in terms of our perception of our creative lives.  Writers are often informed that they will need a thick skin to survive all the rejection they will receive--and this is true; writers are often told, in fact I tell my students this frequently, that persistence is almost as important as talent--and this is true.  (The great William Matthews put it very succinctly to a class that I once happily found myself enrolled in.  "There's a lot of talent in the gene pool," Matthews told us.  "Talent isn't the issue.  The ones who keep publishing are the ones who keep getting the work done.")  But even persistence is not quite what I'm writing about today.  What I mean is that to have a successful writing life, or any kind of writing life, one must conceive of it in terms of decades not months.  Because while a month, or maybe a year, or maybe several years, will lead to an apparent nothing, through decades of continued work, effort, and activity one eventually makes for oneself a livable and satisfying creative life.  For each person this will mean something different.  It could be the pleasure of several successful public readings; it could mean seeing one's plays performed; it could mean publishing a novel; it could mean winning a major prize; it could mean working as a teacher of creative writing; it could mean the publications of stories or essays in periodicals you respect; it could mean contributing regularly to a newspaper you love to read; or it could simply mean producing work that is treasured by the people one knows and loves best.  For some people it could mean all of these things.

But one will never know what kind of writing life one can really attain unless one adopts, from the very beginning, the long view.  In my years of teaching I've seen so many students exhibit dire hopes and high plans for themselves as writers, only to find out a few years--or only a few months--later that they've given those hopes up just because they couldn't get a brilliantly satisfying and creative job right out of college.  Or get that one story of theirs published.  I think it must be true for all of the fine arts--for filmmakers and dancers and actors and sculptors and painters--but it strikes me as especially true for writers that they must live out their creative lives with as much as patience as possible.  Not to be macabre, but to give up too early and quit too absolutely is akin to taking one's own life.  At a conference I attended at the end of June (see my recent post), one of my students and I were talking about the tragic phenomenon of suicide.  We agreed that maybe the saddest aspect of this horribly sad act is all the things that the victim will miss out on, things that he could never have imagined for himself when trapped in that well of isolation and despair, but real--or potentially real--all the same.  I feel the same way when I hear about talented writers who got diverted by law school or by parenthood or by buying a fast food restaurant.  Of course, everyone must do what they feel is finally right and necessary for them--and by no means does going to law school or becoming a parent or owning a pizza joint mean that one can't or shouldn't write again--but my reaction when I hear news like this is to think, "They'll never know what they're missing."  I've been writing creatively literally for decades and for a variety of reasons (which I'll have to blog about some other time) 2012 is shaping up to be among the most satisfying years of my writing life--and it's only halfway done!  It's not just me either.  A colleague of mine, in his mid-fifties, after countless and deeply frustrating years of rejection, will soon be publishing his first collection of short stories.   I've never seen him so excited about an accomplishment or so determined to make a project succeed.  So should he have quit at fifty?  Of course not.  Think of what he would have missed.  Why didn't he quit?  It was impossible for him to.  Because this man lives  and breathes the long view.  Writing is his life's mission, one from which he refuses to be diverted.   At the same conference mentioned above, I heard a South African writer read a wonderful short story.  The woman is fifty-one and the story she read was the first one she ever published.  This publication happened only about five years ago.  For decades, she thought of herself as someone who wanted to and should and eventually would write. She held in her head the knowledge (let's call it the long view) that she wouldn't leave the planet without turning her talents to literature.  Finally she did, quite successfully to judge by the numbers of her publications and by the prestigious grants she's already received.  But grants, awards, and publications isn't finally what I'm writing about or the reason for the long view.  What I mean is that by keeping and supporting and indulging that view, and working from inside it, one cannot help but to make a life for oneself in writing--I didn't say a living, but a life--a life that maybe isn't the one the twenty-two year old dreamed of, but is one which the thirty-six year old or the forty-three year old or the sixty-seven year old can't imagine living without.


  1. Hey all. Shannon, a longtime reader and former student sent me a long comment that I accidentally deleted. Sorry, Shannon! Here it is, in its entirety, recovered from my email.

    "I would agree in the long view - but it's that long view that may lead someone down the road of pizza chain owner, parent, etc (why are those 'diversions' - isn't experience part of what helps us give characters voices?? I couldn't write about love when I was a teenager, but now, after seven years of marriage, I have a concept of love that's far more mature than rom-coms. I understand self-sacrifice as a parent. The feelings of wondering how we're going to make it next month. The relief when we do. These give me a wealth of information that let's me create characters that are more than just two dimensional cliches).

    I've wanted to write a novel since I was about seven years old. It's what inspired me to take two of your classes, oh about eight or nine years ago (so you probably don't remember me LOL). You gave me some incredibly positive feedback and while I'm still not a novelist yet, I haven't given up the dream, and I haven't stopped writing either. In fact, I would argue that the detours I've made in my long term goal, have made me a much better writer. I can point to milestones - like when I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time last year. I wrote a 50k story and it was utter crap that will never be read by anyone (hopefully) but I'd never written that much in one 'sitting'. It taught me to ignore that inner critic - and it was *hard*. But I did it and, once again, my dream of writing a novel worth submitting for publication (or hell, self publishing) seems much more day.

    But it doesn't look like it on the outside. I'm a stay at home mom and a pastor's wife who wants to homeschool her kid (less for religious reasons and more because I find the public school system to be terrible). Yet, I write everyday. Most of it will never be seen by anyone but me, but I write...and I still plan on publishing a novel, even if it doesn't happen for another 20 years :)"

    1. Now I can reply, Shannon! You're right, of course, that life experience is crucial for developing one's writing. And, as I said, whatever one's job or life choice one can and should keep writing. So much the better to get writing that comes from so many different perspectives. You're not the one I'm addressing! In fact, clearly you keep the long view.

    2. And that's fair LOL :) I think more than anything I just wanted to encourage you and say that even if you see someone on the outside and it feels like they've given up, that maybe they haven't! Ever the optimist I suppose (and a little insecure perhaps; I took the housewife approach to life while many friends headed onto graduate school). I like to think perhaps certain dreams stick with us and just sometimes they get a little dust on them, or they get shelved when we get discouraged, but they don't really leave - they're there. Waiting. :D I think that was my initial point. I also shouldn't write comments before breakfast :)