On the first day of every Introduction to Creative Writing class, I tell the students that for the course of the semester I want them to live like writers. It doesn’t matter, I say, if they want to be professional writers, or if they are taking the class for fun, or simply to fulfill a credit, I want them to live like writers. Then I make the requisite joke about how that does not mean staying up late with a glass of wine and a cigarette, nor does it mean attending bullfights, nor does it mean drugs. What it means, I tell them, is three things.
- Be observant
- Acknowledge complexity
- Pay attention to language
I really believe those are three keys to strong writing. And I really believe those things don’t come to you when you sit down to write—you have to collect them as you go about your day. But I’m also trying to get my intro students to write literary work—without telling them that they have to write literary work. Because it’s writing literature—that which encourages reader and writer to engage with the world, not escape from it—that best serves my students as they strive to become better people (as we all strive, I think).
Becoming a better writer involves becoming a better person. I really believe that. Sometimes I say it.
My graduate students, who all want to become professional writers, get a similar talk, phrased a little differently. Live in such a way that generates writing, I say. Live in a way that reminds you you’re a writer.
And what does living like a writer mean for me?
I collect words, titles for stories to be named later, I collect sentence structures and rhythms and Mad-Lib-type endings to the phrase “_____ is the kind of person who ____.” I collect names to fill in that first blank. I have such a fondness for the names Fergus and Angus—haven’t found a place for them yet though. I read so much that people who read a lot make fun of me. I make notes on who did what and how. I keep a list of favorite stories and novels in chronological order of my life. That is how I organize my life. I live like a perpetual student. I research the sponge divers of Simi, the soft palate of the mouth, the flora and fauna of Southwestern Virginia, and the history of Armenia. I go to art museums and gardens and battlefields. I listen to live music, and live readings, and talks on who knows what. I ask everybody—everybody—have you read anything good lately? I kiss babies and hold hands; I hold babies and kiss hands. I drink coffee before writing but not before reading. I look for the second side, and the third, and the fourth. I acknowledge the complexities of life and still find most of life to be quite simple. I listen more than I talk, I throw away as much as I keep, I fail regularly, sometimes better, I quote Beckett, I quote Kafka, I quote Morrison, I take comfort where I find it, and I lie down on the floor a lot, sometimes to stretch my back and sometimes just because.
I don’t get paid very much.
But I wouldn’t want to live any other way.
I suppose I want my students to know that too. Sometimes I say it. Though not usually on the first day.