It’s residency time again at my MFA alma mater, Whidbey Writers Workshop, and it started out a little rough for me. I was plenty happy to see classmates and faculty who have become friends. But I slid into the familiar pit of self-doubt as we settled in to study accomplished writers, several of whom (Ryan Van Meter, Nancy Rawles, Andrew Lam, former Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken among others) had joined us as guest faculty. During free time, I returned once again to Chapter 1 of my memoir-in-progress, Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, for yet another round of revision. The critic sneaked up behind me, whispering that my words are nowhere as “good” as those of my classmates, my teachers, my favorite writers. Even though this program granted me a Master of Fine Arts degree, I was feeling far from being a proficient writer.
Then I went to Bill Kenower’s session about a different kind of mastery for writers—emotional mastery. “Once we learn craft, we rarely forget it,” Bill says, “but a writer can forget where his or her confidence resides at any time.”
In those first days of the residency, it seemed my confidence had remained at home. Bill’s talk, and his new book Write Within Yourself, helped me brush off the critic and resurrect my confident writing attitude.
Writing is work—work in the fullest sense that theologian Matthew Fox describes as, “that mystical, awe-filled rightness” people feel when engaged in meaningful work. As with any kind of work, writing requires mastery of skills—the craft that I come here to study.
Sound tedious? Perhaps. But anyone who has produced the balance of crumb and crust in a loaf of bread, or has pressed feet against the wall of a pool at the precise moment to propel into the next lap, or has set a nail in a piece of wood with three swings of a hammer, knows the satisfaction of both the trying and the achieving.
Along the way to mastery (if anyone ever really does arrive there), I believe writing can be fun, enlightening, frightening, rewarding, and healing. It’s a craft that tolerates—even demands—experimentation. Novelists tell a story from one point of view, then try it again from another. Poets break lines and stanzas in one way, then a different way, then perhaps scrap the stanzas all together. Essayists—the very word essay means “to try”—seek meaning from many angles in an effort to get to deep truth.
In a few days, I’ll return home and will resume my daily practice. I’ll arrive at my desk in early morning, set the timer for twenty-five minutes, and write. When the chime signals, I’ll step away from the keyboard for ten minutes and brush the dog, stoke the wood stove, fold laundry, or stare across the bay. Then I’ll go back to the chair, reset the timer, and return to the words. On a good day, I’ll repeat this cycle until noon, trying to make sense of life through rough (usually really rough) drafts, second drafts, revisions, and more revisions and more drafts. It’s that unraveling of the deep truths that is the reward for me as a writer. And it’s the gift that I receive over and over as a reader —whether through fiction, poetry, or nonfiction—because writers remember where their confidence resides and have done their work.