It was Day One of my writing program’s Fall Residency, and I was feeling my usual doubts about whether I’ve got the right stuff to be pursuing an MFA in writing. I’d signed up for a nonfiction workshop with eleven other students and knew that the next morning I’d receive critiques from them and my teacher, Ana Maria Spagna, of a chapter of my memoir. I’d also attended the first session of my other course, a Directed Reading in Literary Journalism taught by Larry Cheek, and was wondering how I’d get through the list of nine books and handful of articles on the syllabus for the semester. And that was just the morning.
After lunch, I plunged into the afternoon line-up of three, hour-long workshops by guest faculty. As often happens at the residency, I wanted to be two places at once for the last hour of that day. I had to choose between a session about “Working with Editors” led by freelance journalist Michelle Nijhuis (her earlier talk about nonfiction story ideas had been terrific) or an hour with David Oates
|Writer and Teacher, David Oates
for the first of his three sessions about “The Writing Life.” As much as I craved to learn more about editor-writer relationships from Michelle, a contributing editor for High Country News, I opted for the group meeting with David.
|The view from the outdoor workshop spot
David writes nonfiction, poetry and fiction about the paradoxes of nature and culture. That, as well as the knowledge that his session was to meet outside, intrigued me, but what drew me even more was the word “joy” in the workshop blurb. David began by quoting Adrienne Rich who used to ask her students, “Are you in it for the long haul?” By 4:30 on that first day, I was wondering the same thing, or at least was feeling uncertain of the how of making it through the next nine days, not to mention the slog a writing life can sometimes be.
I learned over dinner one evening that David has spent time around Quakers, so it’s no surprise that questions sprinkled his talk, and his writing prompts resembled queries. How to persevere as writers was the question David set out to help us answer in Part 1 of his series. He urged us to “keep sight of where the pleasure is in this arduous, solitary pursuit, and let that radiate in everything you do.” Then he asked us to write in response to these queries (I mean writing prompts):
What was the last moment of pleasure you can recall in writing? Can you reconstruct what it consisted of?
Think about your writing life generally. Jot some notes to yourself about your typical moment of “Ah” or “Aha”—when you know you have a potential story/poem/essay. What is the pleasure there?
Where else (or when else) do you get a glow of satisfaction, or a burst of pleasure, in your writing process? Is there any pattern about where or how this “writing pleasure” happens?
After the rigors and stimulation of the first day of the residency, I felt my shoulders relax and my forehead unwrinkle. I smiled to myself as I let my fingers tap across my keyboard thoughts about the times words sing and come together in ways I don’t expect. I wrote of my pleasure in the repeated experience that writing leads me to understandings I don’t access in any other way.
Next, David turned to an exploration of how the writing life is full of paradoxes, too. One of the contradictions for writers is the challenge to, as he described it, “write from your gut, write from your heart,” and also write for the reader. “Follow your lead and persevere,” he advised. “Be grounded in your process as a writer so that your writing isn’t dependent on what others think.” He urged us to put our work out in the world and let it find its readers. “Take pleasure in that,” he said, “pleasure in whatever audiences receive your writing.”
Which leads to another puzzle for writers: defining success. “What I want in my writing life is enoughness,” David said. “It’s ok to not be famous and fabulously successful.” Instead, he seeks contentment in his writing life. “Have incredibly high standards, and be easily pleased,” he counseled.
Writing to David Oates’s prompts helped me make it through the residency’s incredibly high standards andpleasures and reminded me of the rewards of the writing life. In the coming weeks I’ll likely encounter more tests of my personal definition of enoughness; there undoubtedly will be rejection letters; failures as I try new writing techniques; the juggle of my school nurse job, course work, and my own creative writing. But today, in the midst of a pile of dirty laundry, handouts and notes to file, and the beginnings of a schedule for upcoming reading, writing, and critique assignments, I know the joy of being a writer. I light a candle and enter into silence before I begin to write. While this may be solitary work, I know I have the support of my MFA writing community and my writing groups here. And I have readers like you. More than enough.