Open Book News

By Way of Introduction

Pleased to Meet Me

If, as I am given to understand, the point of a writer-in-residence, whether virtual or actual, is in part to hold forth on the mechanics and practice of writing, then let me start by laying bare my understanding of the subject: I believe that you should do whatever works. Which is to say that I think trial and error is essential. Which is to further say that I don't think there are any easy or quick answers. Meaning: any advice or pointers I might inadvertently let slip over the next month or thereabouts should be seen to be highly subjective, if not downright flawed. They will be, in other words, basically worth the paper they're printed on.

Likewise recommendations. You're not me. I'm not you. Years of working in music stores taught me that taste is a crapshoot, or a series of snubnosed darts launched blindfolded toward a very small bullseye. If Celine Dion moves you, then she moves you, no matter how cold she leaves me. I'm not here to preach. The canon is a shell game, and has more to do with who's campaigning for a given work than it does the relative merits of the works under consideration (or no consideration at all). So while I might suggest books over the course of my residency, my recommendations will be strictly of the I-found-this-amazing variety, and shall bear no claim to universality.

This squinty survey of the literary landscape might be the result of a lack of understanding on my part, or my luck in having avoided the Academy more or less completely. A really great writer in a position of influence at a big US program once offered to exert some influence on my behalf over the folks at a well-respected small New England liberal arts college with an all star faculty. I was cheered, and possibly even flattered. Then I looked up the cost of tuition. I've been house poor since the turn of the century, and the proud tender of first one, and then, suddenly, three very adorable and very expensive children for much of that time; the only equity I've got is of the sweat variety. Hard work and attention are what I've chosen to pay to the discipline. Where that'll get me is still an open question, though the early results feel promising.

I was recently in the company of another writer who tried to engage in a conversation about writing. I ran the other way. My actions revealed my bias: I fear that talk of craft and practice can quickly lapse into exhibitions of self-seriousness. It might only be that I've recognized that that's where it'll lead me; I fully acknowledge that there are a boatload of excellent writers whose thoughts on these subjects are usefully informative and even entertaining. But the ratio, I think we can agree, skews heavily toward the ones whose theories outweigh their practice, and I suspect that includes me, so are we really losing anything if I don't use my platform here to give you an exactingly detailed account of how I sharpen my pencils?

Just sit down and do the work, is how I see it. And stay receptive when you're not working, to books, to thoughts, to people, to the world as it vibrates beneath and about you. Butt-in-chair is my method, though maybe you've found luck with the infrequent visitations of white-hot electric inspiration. Good. I mean this: however you get it done – and whatever “it” is – I'm glad you're doing it. The only real requirement is that the final product succeed in expressing what you'd hoped it would. Once it exists, what's to be learned from the messy and inexact process which produced it?

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