Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Stegner’s Centennial

February 18 was Wallace Stegner’s centennial. He has always been one of my favorites, and in a fascinating commentary in The New York Times, Timothy Egan reminds me why.

Stegner’s work was rooted in the rough reality of a thankless life in settings that, even when they didn’t (rarely) reek of the dusty sweep of a stark western landscape, you had the sense that they did. It is in his emptiness that I sense affinity; even in a crowded scene, his work breathes of loneliness, the sense that each of us is utterly and completely apart. It is a sentiment I share at the heart of my own writing, though I hide from it in my daily life as much as I can. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that sense of separation, to accept that there is nothing to support us here but the frail fantasy of companionship in the face of a vast, unforgiving universe.

I was surprised to read that Wallace Stegner’s work was shunned by the east coast literary elite, especially after having won both the Pulitzer and National Book Award. It is to me a startling example of a particular bias that views literature as flowing from a very narrow stream. His simplicity and depth, the crisp brilliance of his language, his almost spiritual sense of humanity and landscape, and his wisdom and generosity as a teacher, make him among my most beloved authors.

I have often shared with my writers circle his fatherly advice from a small collection of his essays, On Teaching and Writing Fiction. In “To a Young Writer”, composed in letter form, he warns of the pitfalls along the unforgiving path toward literary perfection; and in “Goin’ to Town: an Object Lesson” he reviews, practically line by line, the creative and critical process of writing one of his extraordinary short stories. It’s a book I return to again and again. I suggest it to every writer.


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A Writer’s Discipline

I began my professional life not as a writer, but as a dancer. From a very young age, I learned to forgo my favorite Saturday morning cartoons (the only time they aired when I was young); and whether I was tired or not, whether the day was scented with spring or a brewing snowstorm, I would put on my pink tights and tie back my hair and go to my morning ballet class. There the endless repetition of pliés, tendues, and ports de bras were a ritual I accepted without question. From this seemingly dull routine I discovered a subtlety of form and interpretation, a relationship with movement and music, and a strange, particular purpose that filled me utterly.

Though I no longer dance, I draw upon that discipline every day as I sit at my computer to write. There’s never a question of whether I’ll be there, or if I’ll blow it off to go shopping or do the laundry or make a lunch date with a friend. It is only very rarely that I allow anything to distract me from the precious time I have set aside to work. And it is work, filled with the often mundane, frustrating, despairingly bad writing that I have learned is a necessary path to something good.

In those ballet days, I often struggled with my balance in arabesque penchée or stomped off the floor after moving too slowly in petite allegro, only to discover a morning when my movements were sparked with brilliance, when I sailed through grand allegro or pulled perfect quadruple pirouettes – yes, once upon a time, I could do quadruple pirouettes! – or when my ever favorite adagio was centered and serene.

Now, instead of pulling on tights and tying my hair in a bun, I make a cup of tea and answer a few emails, then set to work on the slow, focused practice that will hopefully, with daily effort and frequent failure, raise my writing from competent craft to something approaching art. These days I measure my accomplishment in well crafted paragraphs, in polished scenes whose beginnings, middles and ends cohere not only to themselves, but to the greater shape of my story. But I know those good paragraphs and pages must be built on the slow, hard chore of daily practice.

Right now my tea is almost finished, and this writing – like a dancer’s preliminary stretches – is almost through. I can almost hear my favorite ballet teacher saying, “Dancers, take your places. It is time to begin.”


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The circle begins with an embrace

I am starting this blog as an extension of my work as a guide to other creative writers. I call myself a “guide” rather than a teacher because I don’t believe writing can be taught – at least not the part that makes one a great writer.

Salman Rushdie recently said in an interview with Leonard Lopate on WNYC
that the craft of writing is the only thing that can be taught: how to make better sentences, paragraphs, structure and so forth; but that no one can teach a writer to have an eye or an ear, a unique voice, or an uncommon perspective on the world. So my work as the guide in a class I call the Writers Support Circle aims to create a safe space for discovering each writer’s uniqueness and to foster a community that encourages and guides each member to the best self-expression and creativity they can achieve.

My writers are talented and raw, uncertain and confident, emotional and restrained, young and old, published and unpublished. I have attempted to treat each of them as individuals with unique things to say without judgment of their experience or skill. Over time they have each improved tremendously, and many have produced works of great honesty and beauty. Meanwhile, the personal connection and commitment between them has grown beyond me to exist as a thing unto itself.

I learned this nurturing approach from Madeleine L’Engle, with whom I studied many years ago and enjoyed a long association until her death in 2007. In her workshops, she was never concerned with a particular writer’s ability, but with embracing the writer’s soul and breathing acceptance and love upon each one of us. Some of Madeleine’s students went on to publish. Others perhaps never wrote again. But it didn’t matter, because each of us had been taught to express our hearts. I have attempted to do the same for my own writers these last few years.

In this blog, I plan to post various readings that I share with my circle, offering encouragement, humor in the face of struggle, technical advice, an awareness of the vagaries of the publishing business, and any other comments that I hope will support and guide both aspiring and accomplished writers.

If you are already writing, I wish you discipline and hope. If you are thinking about it, I welcome you into our world.