Some Things I Think I Might Know For Sure: Advice from an MFAer
Writer, You are a writer. You are a writer because you put words down on paper, then change them. Many times.
You are a writer because the words you put down don’t stay there. They follow you around, fighting for improvements. Sometimes people have to repeat questions to you. Sometimes you fill out forms incorrectly or forget to listen to directions.
Sometimes, writer, you are a royal pain in the keister. Sometimes, when we go to a restaurant, I want to leave you sitting at the table by yourself. With the bill.
And sometimes you have the gall to tell people you hate what you do. Not so, writer! We both know it’s the normal blah-blah off the page and outside the constant-party of our minds that we can’t stand. So if you must insist that writing truly causes you pain, writer, know that deep down, you love pain. Congratulations! You are a masochist, and I don’t feel sorry for you.
Writer, now that we’ve established that you’re a writer, you are free to read a few of my more general rules about writing. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Make Beauty. I believe that good writing is debilitating in its sadness and funniness and irreconcilable strangeness. I believe that those three things make up beauty, and life is (fundamentally) beautiful. Don’t ask me why, writer. I aim for that kind of beauty and see what happens. Usually it turns out okay.
2. Write to Someone or Something. Writer, the universe is expanding. The stars are going out one by one. You are an unlikely event on a squished ball caught in the gravity well of a yellow star. A star that will vomit radiation and spaceflames on this squished ball before it, too, expires.
And you, writer, don’t have that great of a shelf life. Flour and bottled water are jealous, but not much else. Look—even that turtle at the children’s museum is laughing at you. (Yep. The one that lives in a kiddie-pool and is touched by toddlers with sticky sandwich-hands ALL DAY.)
Today I ruin a big, little secret of mine. I write to the stars. I write to those puppies because they’re older than Ents. Older than words. Older than yer mom.
Ever heard of the Big Freeze? It’s the theory that the universe will continue expanding until it’s too cool to support life. (“Cool” as in “really frigid,” not “totally rad.”) Billions of years in the future, long after humans and all their contraptions have fried, pulled apart, and become unrecognizable, the last stars will burn out with nobody there to see them.
Let me repeat that: the last stars will burn out with nobody there to see them. Nobody to wave goodbye. In the Big Quiet. Alone.
I like the stars. They make me think of Peach Nehi and metamorphoses and all the things I’ll never hold or know. So I write to them now to try to say goodbye. If I can tell the stars goodbye, maybe dying won’t be so bad. Does that make sense? Nope. In no reality does that make any sort of sense. It’s just what I do.
Writer, you’ve got to write to something or someone. Another writer you admire who will put you on the straight and narrow. Your wise old dog. Your dead uncle or grandma. God. Stars. A person whose pants you admire.
When you write to people/things that absolutely matter to you, you find at least two amazing things happening:
(1) the lies you’ve told people--yourself, your parents, your priest, your congregation, your friends--won’t be enough for you anymore. They can’t be enough. You can’t afford not to be honest. You can’t afford not to say what you mean, and mean it. You can’t afford to accept the mediocre anymore. Writer—you’re growing! Because
(2) you’re driven by the impossibility of your mission. That’s right. Your mission is impossible. There is no way you can empty your brain-pan sufficiently enough for that person/thing before the Big Quiet. There is no way in existence to say exactly how you feel—yet. You’ll know that the thing you are attempting is impossible, writer. And you’ll find that that’s exactly why you’re doing it. That’s exactly why you have to work your tail off for it. That’s exactly why it must not suck.
Are we crazy? Most certainly. And don’t ask that question like it’s a bad thing. Congratulations! You can entertain yourself with a pen and paper for hours. Your brain-pan is your personal entertainment system, your psychologist, and your car. You carry a devastating beauty in you, and I don’t feel sorry for us.
3. Be Gutsy. Good writing is not safe. Interesting writing is not guarded.
Make me feel something, writer. I dare you. Drop the baby. Say all the words. Stuff your mouth full of cookies and fling your arms wide. As long as reading your stuff isn’t a drag, and you don’t betray my trust with needless fluff, you’re forgiven.
Be gutsy. Writer, you have a special luxury. You are not a scientist. Your crappy metaphor isn’t a failed vaccine. You are not a military strategist. You can’t destroy a city of innocent people with your dropped articles (though sometimes it may feel that way.) You are free to make draft upon draft stupid mistakes in the comfort of your own home!
For once, being the Great Ignored of society is an awesome thing. Real consequences do not plague you. Your world has lakes of cat’s-eye marbles and napalm tigers and tigers-for-real and souls the shape of feet–if you want it to.
Ifyou can make it work.
On the other hand, confusing and convoluted passages do not equal good writing. Using all the bad words doesn’t make you “edgy.” And for goodness sake, don’t write the baby just so you can drop it. I’m looking at you, writer! I’m talking to you straight! Be gutsy enough to question your own work. You may love “betwixt” and “fulcrum” and “Vulcan,” but they may not love your story/poem. An entire passage that you worked really hard on may need to be cut out. Brutal as it may seem, if one section in your story/poem is a literary sin—a part that doesn’t serve the overall piece, and can’t be fixed—you must cut it out. For it is better to lose something you were attached to than let the entire story/poem gather dust on your shelf. (I’m pretty sure Jesus said that.) You may work on something for months in first person only to find it should be in third omniscient. That’s right, writer: you may need to go through hundreds of pages to pluck out those I’s. It’s scary, I know. You’re out there now. You’re in for it.
Writing is a puzzle without a set answer. That’s overwhelming, writer. It’s frightening as heck. “It’s a dangerous business , Frodo, going out of your door.” (Bilbo Baggins said that. Yes, I’m a geek.)
On the other hand, it’s pretty sweet. Do yourself a favor. Jog down to the nearest library or book store. Have a look at all those impossible little possibilities slammed down on pages, bound up in cardboard and glue. I’m serious, writer: the best ones have these things in common (1) the writer had the courage to write it in the first place, and (2) the writer had the courage to carefully scrutinize everything she/he wrote.
Be gutsy, Frodo. Er, writer. It’s a pretty sweet business going out of your door. I promise.
4. Get Outside Your Genre. Read and write other genres. Not just because you are a writer. Because you are a human being. If you were a rabbit, I would let you do the same thing every day. But you’re no Flemish Giant, and I expect you to read Eugene O’Neill and Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac! Poets must read drama—it reminds us of how people actually talk! Non-fiction and fiction folk must read good poetry—it reminds us to be devastatingly pithy! Trust me.
5. Learn How to Cook Rice and Eat it Plain. Writer, you’re a writer. The world had a meeting, and agreed that it owes you nothing. (No, you weren’t invited to that meeting.) Better get used to it and sing a joyful song when you have one.
6. Be Kind, Eh? It’s the last rule in this list, but it’s pretty important. According to one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters, it’s the only rule—the one you can’t get around. I buy that completely. If it were a cake, I’d eat it. No reservations.
Even on paper, be kind. You’ve heard this all before. Love your characters. You can put them through hell and watch them put others through hell as long as you forgive them—the ultimate form of kindness. If you can’t, why should the reader care about them? Crazy kindness, crazy love, crazy honesty—these are why writers write.
And, while you’re at it, be kind to real-life people. They deserve kindness even more than word-and-paper people. Because, you know, they’re real.
Be kind to fellow writers. Even if you don’t like their work. Even if they don’t like your work. (And no, writer, it’s not considered “kind” to talk about the work of fellow writers behind their backs. It’s hard to refrain, sometimes. But you’ll feel guilty if you do it, and you should. Leave workshop when you leave workshop.)
I will let you in on a little secret. All writers, at heart, are like picky kids at a dinner table. Some won’t touch the peas, others can’t stand potatoes, and a few are vegetarians. And that’s okay, writer. That’s what makes us writers—our attentiveness and pickiness, and the maddening justifications we develop for the crazy things we do with words.
You will encounter insane, awesome varieties of picky kids at the dinner tables of advanced writing classes. That is an awesome thing. There is so much to learn from other picky kids! How to hit other kids with peas when Mom and Dad aren’t looking! How to build a Devil’s Tower out of your uneaten mashed potatoes! How to feed the chicken to the dog without getting caught!
So, remember to be kind, even if others are not kind to you. Mature writers/readers meet the piece of writing where it is in terms of style and purpose. Never shy from telling the truth about a work of writing in fear of hurting someone’s feelings—because that’s not an act of kindness—but know that the truth doesn’t have to be snarky or cruel. (And yes, snarkiness is a form of cruelty, even though it’s deceptively diluted.) If you think that the truth is cruel, you simply haven’t thought enough about what you want to say.
Be kind, because you’ve got to know better than that. Every writer, no matter how picky, has got to learn to eat plain rice.
So smile, writer, stargaze and pass the coffee.
Amelia B., MFAer
In Amelia Brubaker's own words: "I graduated from NMU ('11) and just finished up my first year at the University of Idaho for poetry. I owe most of what I know to the folks at Northern, I owe thanks to my parents for letting me know that it's okay to write and make other questionable decisions, and I owe my sister and brother-in-law a superawesome birthday present. Honestly, though, I owe something to everyone I've met so far."