Monday, April 13, 2015

Why Write? and Why Write Memoir?

This originated as a closing letter to students in my last round of Mindful Memoir on Shambhala Online. I realized it would be a good "manifesto" and give folks a better sense of my view of the path of writing. So here you are!

Often, people ask me if their writing is good.
"Is it worth it?"
"Do you think I should keep writing?"
"Is it publishable?"

I am afraid I am never able to give the answer I suspect people want to hear:

Because I don't know what "worth it" means to you.
Because I don't know whether you want to keep writing, and that's most crucial.
And I have no idea, absolutely no clue whether or not your writing will get published. No one does.

I can tell you if I like your writing, if I believe it is important. I can tell you how to edit your work to make it stronger and more market-friendly. But nothing anyone has ever handed me in rough draft is publishable. I remember learning this lesson when I was in Junior High, High School. What I wrote rough draft, first draft, felt like it was IT. Anyone who didn't get it was missing out.

But revision is key. And actually, revision is wonderful. It's powerful. It's also a pain in the ass.  Often you wind up throwing out parts you love because they don't fit, but you also deepen your writing exponentially.

And then there's editing, as well - making sure t's are crossed and i's are dotted.

You have to be willing to go on all these quests if you want to try and publish.

Say you don't? You are writing just to write. Then write just to write.

Either way, you must learn to drop the "Is my writing good/bad?" question. That is not the question.
What the question most people are asking underneath, and why I can never answer it for them is, "Am I good enough? Am I worth it? Do others like me?"

You may tell me that's not why you are asking. But it is. Even Stephen King worries about these things. I promise you. It's just how the creative process goes. And publishing won't make you worry less about what others think - it'll keep making it more complicated, in fact.

Yes, as you age, this concern might calm down.

But if you are asking whether or not I think your writing is good enough, then I know you don't know it for yourself yet. And only when you know that for yourself will I believe that you are writing for something other than to be seen, heard and ultimately, to be acknowledged, loved, forgiven.

That's a tall order.

Then memoir. Oh memoir. You are a far harder task, far more internal. In memoir we question our lives, the histories of our lives, the stories we have told. They become cannibalized, as Annie Dillard says in "To Fashion a Text".  Even if you are just writing so your kids or grandkids can read the basics about how and where you grew up, the very act of writing changes memory. Then, to try and make a story, something others can relate to, follow, with a plot and climax and resolution, you will change your story. And writing your story will change you.

I often get "recovering writers" in my classes. People who are tired of publishing, tired of MFA or career-track journalism or technical writing. People who don't give a flying fuck whether or not others really care about their writing. They need to write just to write. While some of these folks are traumatized, they have a leg up - they know it's a cut-throat and never-ending ego battle - this sharing work, and then trying to publish.

So why bother?

If we can treat the process of writing, of re-writing, of editing, of trying to get published, of getting published (if we do) like a journey, like a practice in noticing with curiosity and learning - in other words, if we can treat it like a mindful aspect of our mindful lives - then it is never not worth it to write.

Let me say that another way:
Writing is never a waste if we write to get to know ourselves and others better.
Writing can, and often is, a waste if we do it just to get published, known, liked.

I know you want me to tell you whether your story is good. No, but I am an exception! I need some solid, non-koan answers, here, Hall! But this is my answer. Really. I cannot tell you you will get published. I cannot tell you you are worth it, that your story is worth it, that your writing is worth it. I cannot tell you because until you believe it, even just a modicum, you will just drift from me to her to him, looking for someone to tell you something only you can know.

But here are hints:
-If you absolutely have to write your story(ies), then do it.
-If you feel curious and compelled to explore your story(ies), then do it.
-If you can write and face cutting a large section of what you write out, face trusting others to tell you what works and doesn't work (PS It is rare that someone's writing doesn't work whole cloth - it usually has to do with revision and editing details), then do it.

On the other hand:
-If you think you will die unless it gets published, don't bother.
-If you think it will be a waste unless it gets published, I also wouldn't bother.
-If you can't stand revision, think that how you write it the first time is as good as it can get, then I really wouldn't bother. Even if you aren't trying to get published. Our lives, our stories, are constantly in revision. It is normal. Yes, we can over-revise. But not revising at all is a mistake.

Finally, if you have no idea whether or not your writing is any good, you don't need a pro to tell you. You don't need me, or others. You need to write more, read more, and develop a healthy relationship with your inner critic. You need practice. Then you'll be able to see better for yourself, and take into account others' comments in a way that is useful.  

This, my friends, is what makes writing contemplative, mindful. That we see it as a process, that we see it as a path, a practice. That we see it as life.

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