Sunday, February 07, 2010

Why Bother?

Shoveling? Thirty inches delivered over the weekend, and another twelve due for midweek.

Writing? Dani Shapiro, novelist and memoirist, pens a powerful, must-read essay pubbed in today's LA TIMES She describes the uncertainty of creating a writing career; indeed, she tells her new students that their degree will guarantee them nothing.

Indeed, as she states, "Every single piece of writing I have ever completed -- whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review -- has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess.

Call it stubbornness, stamina, a take-no-prisoners determination, but a writer at work reminds me of nothing so much as a terrier with a bone: gnawing, biting, chewing, until finally there is nothing left to do but fall away."

I've been pondering the MFA lately, whether to pursue some formal education in the science and art of writing. But even though a recent small inheritance puts the degree in financial shooting sight, Shapiro's essay makes me queasy; I still haven't defined what writing 'success' means for me.

Why I write varies each day I pound the keyboard. The days my characters or my plot or my inability to spit out words with more than one syllable make me want to heave my laptop through the window and make ruby red jars of raspberry jam; after all, how wonderful to actually produce something tangible, useful, and valued? Then there are times when words are the only thing that anchor me.

Like The Week Before My Father Died. My grief poured out that week, and still manifests itself in stories, poetry, other scribblings. This essay, an entry in the EDITOR UNLEASHED "Why I Write" contest*, sums up best why I write.

If YOU write, why? If not, why not? Peace, Linda

*Essays are open to popular voting through February. You must be a registered member of the EDITOR UNLEASHED forums. I appreciate your honest vote. While there, please ponder the other essays describing this madness called writing.

Photograph taken by my husband Henry.


  1. Shapiro's essay is now online, and it's very good. Thanks for alerting me to it!

    The whole notion of "writing 'success,'" with or without the internal quotation marks, freaks me the heck out. In recent years I've pretty much just tried to keep my head down, plugging metaphorical fingers in my ears, humming "LA-LA-LA-LA..." to myself, and just keep writing. I'm almost afraid to consider what success or failure might mean (beyond getting the complete story on paper). Ignorance, meet bliss.

  2. Linda, we live in the same area, so I’m sick of the shoveling too. Can’t wrap my head around the idea that we’re buried in snow and there’s more coming.

    I don’t have an MFA but have a master’s degree in writing and am not sure how it compares to earning an MFA (I imagine the MFA is much more intense). Anyway, I think as a writer the workshop experience is worthwhile and, if you plan to write and not teach, more so than the actual degree. Spending a year or two dedicated to your craft and interacting with other writers is good as well.

    For me, I write because I would feel incomplete if I didn’t. There are a lot of things I could give up and be fine not having, but if I didn’t write, I would feel it nagging at me. When I’ve had long periods when I didn’t write, I felt guilty about not writing. Of course, I know people who feel the same thing and they’ve seemingly just given up on writing. Ask some of them the last time they wrote and they can’t remember.

    I think the aspiring writer has to set aside notions of what constitutes success and focus on writing and craft. You might not make a living on novels, short stories, or poems; you might have to get a real job. You have to accept this and make writing a daily discipline (fitting it into your busy schedule somehow) and work on your craft. It took me a good 15 or so years to figure this out.

  3. I miss snow...but not that much. I like the twist you did into writing here, the hopelessness that sometimes effort feels futile.

    I read your entry at EU, fantastic, and voted too. I find writing a success when I reread a story/essay/prose of mine and it still moves me-there are some writes I've published that I'm sad to say I'm not as proud of or wish I could change, and then some I love dearly, but haven't published yet.

  4. I write because it is something I have to do. I write because I want to write better. I write because I want people to read what I have to say. So for me, success will be publication, and one reader,just one, who loves it. (Hopefully more!) Of course it may take years, and my writing diploma won't get me there,and I'll never be a bestseller, but I have to believe, that someday, I'll finish the novel, and someone, somewhere will like it enough to publish...Otherwise, I wouldn't bother!

  5. que Lindaaa!

    So I've read (and experienced when I get off my lazy pootukus) that exercise is a stimulant for creativity. Has all the shoveling helped the words?

    I feel for you guys but as long as you are posting that means you have power, so you should be okay. You can stay warm, tune into the weather, melt snow for water, and if the supplies run many kids did you say you have? :-)

    Why do I write? Well, if I had a 42 inch vertical leap I would play basketball. If I could run the hundred yard dash in 9 seconds, I'd compete in the Olympics. (Just kidding, I'd be a wide receiver for the Cowboys). If I could pick up a guitar and play any song that I heard, I'd be a musician. I don't think my writing gifts are anywhere near the equivalent of a 42 inch vertical leap, 9 second 100 yard dash, or perfect pitch, but they are all that I have and I would be remiss to let them go to waste.


  6. Maybe, just maybe you write because you enjoy it and the angst that goes along with it.
    Let's face it making jam is only making jam, but when you fill those blank pages with words-be they good or not-you have actually created something much more mystical than jam. A bit of your heart and your soul goes in to the writing process,but I think not with jam making.
    I look at it like this if you want to do a MFA bacause you will enjoy the experience of doing it, then do it. Life is too short to not do the things that we really want to do if the opportunity presents itself.
    The snow didn't come this far north, we just got the freezing cold temps.
    Take care, Gillian

  7. Very thoughtful discussion here... thank you all. JES, thanks for alerting me to the link. I'd embedded it in the text, but an html error prevented it from beaming to my readers. Fixed. And yes, the la-la-la approach is one I often take myself.

    Christian, the idea of immersing myself in the act and discussion of writing with like-minded folks is my goal with the MFA. I teach now (sigh) and not in writing (double sigh) and I've had enough. As well, I've workshopped, am more than comfortable than getting picked apart and doing likewise; it's invaluable for a scientist such as myself who does not have that grounding. I am considering an MA program in the area.

    I do write daily; feel shortchanged and cranky if something interrupts my early am routine. Good advice on focusing on craft; I looked for an agent WAY too early with novel #1.

    Virginia, go, go, go girl! You sound like a fox terrier, tenacious and committed. I'm with you.

    Erin, thanks for your kind words on my essay -- I only subbed it because you suggested I do so on my blog post. I completely agree -- success is when your work moves even ONE reader.

    John, you have mutiple talents. But I'm glad you're writing and not slam-dunking basketballs; otherwise, we'd not have 'met'.

    Gillian, yes I write to keep sane. Life is the greatest prompt, no? Thanks for the reminder of life being short and all... it is that.

    Off for bread, milk, booze -- more snow sneaking in this afternoon. Peace, Linda

  8. You write because it nourishes your soul, I know this about you even though we have never met. As an educator you know that value lies in the education and process and is not necessarily a means to an end. Plenty of non-MFA people have successful writing careers and plenty of MFA's have never published. Calvin Coolidge said: There is nothing more common than an unsuccessful man with talent. Additional edu at this stage will of course be work and effort but I think would pay huge dividends for someone with as much talent as you. Take a look at low-residence programs - QUEENS here in CLT has one with a national rep and very well regarded faculty including Pulitzer winner Elizabeth Stroud. You will make the best choice for you.

    Re the snow, more coming: RUN!