This semester I am teaching a graduate course on creative writing pedagogy, and I have a student who is quietly but persistently trying to shift the murderous and tortured language with which I, and so many other writers, talk about the writing process to something more positive. Why, he asked last class, do we talk so often about how hard writing is rather than what a joy it is?
He has a good point.
Of course writing is hard. And often one of the first things a professor must teach a class of creative writers is to hold their writing to a higher standard. I often tell my graduate students that they must treat writing as a job. I often tell them that nothing—no job, no blank space of time, no amount of caffeine—makes writing easy. And I tell them—often—that they must make sacrifices—live cheaply, be open to jobs all over the country, get up early, stay home—if they are serious about their writing. From the outside it might seem as if I am not teaching students how to write so much as I am persuading them not to even try. And I suppose there’s some truth to that—some dreamers need to be woken to realities, and creative writing programs are full of dreamers.
But still—I write because I love to write. Why don’t I talk more often about that?
I suspect to some extent the writer’s trumpeting of her own suffering is a defense against the world’s suspicion that she is getting away with something—being paid, however modestly, to play.
Once when I was visiting my parents during a winter break, I lay on their living room couch, decidedly doing nothing, and my father turned to my mother and said, “Do you think she is writing right now?”
They laughed so hard I departed the room for my childhood bed where I could lie around doing nothing uninterrupted.
I then heard my father say, “I don’t think she’s going to dedicate her prize-winning collection to us.” At which point, I may or may not have slammed my childhood door.
Because let’s face it, sometimes writing looks exactly like doing nothing. And this, I think, is one reason writers emphasize our struggles so much. Because writing looks easy when in fact it is hard. But what is the effect on ourselves when we do that? Wouldn’t joy and fun bring us more quickly to the desk? Wouldn’t a sense of play as Karen Russell described in her keynote address at the 2015 AWP conference benefit our writing?
My student really does have a point. And I’m going to make a much greater effort to shift my language toward the positive—and to introduce more playful exercises into my creative writing classrooms next semester.
This semester my creative writing pedagogy course meets in the music building, and as I walked its hallway last week, I heard one music student say to another, “I have a blister on my tongue.” At least writers don’t have that, I thought to myself at the time. But maybe I wish we did—a mark of our own hard work might alleviate some of our need to prove it. Maybe with blisters to show for our efforts, we’d feel free to boast about how much fun we’re having.