Writers on Writing #29: Mary Elizabeth Pope
A Case against Genius
In James Baldwin’s famous talk “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” he says: “It would seem to me . . . that the poets—by which I mean all artists—are finally the only people who know the truth. Soldiers don’t, statesmen don’t, priests don’t, union leaders don’t. Only the poets.” This statement terrifies me. By this definition, I couldn’t possibly be a writer since I tend to think plenty of soldiers, statesmen, priests, and union leaders probably know a hell of a lot more about truth than someone who has spent her entire adult life in the privileged and sheltered environment of academia, where, believe me, far too many people are convinced that they alone know the truth. Anyone who has ever attended a department meeting will know what I’m talking about here.
But perhaps it is because of my presence in academia that I find Baldwin’s statement so daunting, because the truth is that there are a few geniuses like James Baldwin out there who do seem to be channeling truth from the ethers. It is this handful of writers like Jonathan Safran Foer (whose college thesis became a successful novel) or Joyce Carol Oates (who, when pressed, once admitted she cannot recall how many books she has published) that make my creative writing students believe they cannot possibly be real writers, because real writers’ prose flows effortlessly and gets published instantly, and does not return to them littered with my comments about comma splices.
Which is perhaps why I see it as my job to disabuse my students of this myth of the writer as genius. Sometimes I go to extreme measures to do this. I show students unflattering comments that editors have made on my manuscripts. I pass around my rejection slips. I project my Submittable account onto a movie screen so they can see that even for someone who has earned promotion for her publication record, there are far more red Declined than green Accepted notices there. I have writer friends who are horrified by this approach, mainly, I think, because most of us are too embarrassed to look at our Submittable accounts in the privacy of our own homes, let alone in front of a group of students who think we’re experts. But after years of writing and teaching others to write, I think telling the truth as a writer has to start with telling the truth about writing so that we don’t give up just because Sherman Alexie is said to have read The Grapes of Wrath at age five.
I was not reading The Grapes of Wrath at age five. At age five, my 1977 report card suggests that on top of mediocre abilities in pretty much every subject, I have poor work habits and problems with self-control. Evidence of my limited imagination also appears in a 1978 issue of Mt. Pleasant, Michigan’s daily rag The Morning Sun, where a reporter interviewed kids at my elementary school for a Mother’s Day issue, asking what we’d give our mothers if the sky was the limit. I am quoted as saying, “Five dollars.” Which may only reveal that my low expectations were set at an early age. In fairness, though, my mother spent a lot of time clipping coupons. Perhaps I thought she needed a break.
There is also actual proof of my writing abilities during elementary school, where each year we wrote stories on special paper which we stitched together, then bound with cardboard covers decorated with scraps of wallpaper. Messardian the Wizard tells the story of a kind queen with my mother’s loopy curls trying to soothe an angry king who sports my father’s porkchop sideburns. My Dog Mack announces that my family owns a German Shepherd that bites, and features an illustration of my father dragging the dog down the stairs. And Alabama #1 chronicles our family trip to (you guessed it) Alabama and contains riveting sentences like, “We visited my father’s friend, John Miles.” This statement is accompanied by an illustration of John Miles’s thirteen-year-old daughter making out with her twenty-year-old boyfriend, the crayon image (complete with impressive cleavage) suggesting that my parents let their seven-year-old keep questionable company.
So. Not a prodigy.
But the reason I can tell you what I wrote in these stories in the first place is because, in spite of the fact that I annually humiliated my family with each new volume, my mother still keeps those little wallpaper-bound booklets on a shelf at home. They sit next to the publications that now pepper my vita—volumes of journals and magazines featuring essays and stories in which I continue to discover truth that comes to me not from the ethers, but from the prosaic details of my own life, ranging from the seven guns my father stockpiled under the bed each night in order to sleep to my mother’s confession that she only married him because of how he looked in his navy uniform, and now, forty-four years later, wants to shoot herself every time he starts reading off the prices of duck decoys from Cabela’s.
And yet, incredibly, my parents never seem to take offense. My mother just adds each new publication to the collection of little wallpaper-covered books I wrote thirty-some years ago and sends them out to extended members of my family. Perhaps this devotion can be chalked up to the fact that she is my mother, and mothers are known to be proud of their children. But I don’t think that explains it all. I think maybe it is because my mother is glad someone has noticed the things I write about. I think maybe it is because the truth I've found in my everyday life—the only truth I believe I can ever really approximate—is close enough to her truth that it actually does speak for her in some small way, that I have bridged the gap that separates people, and connected with another human being as an audience member.
This is the very thing we writers are all trying to do in the first place when we move beyond those wallpaper-bound booklets and start submitting our work to those presses and journals that define our success or failure as professionals. And perhaps if we are lucky, we are James Baldwin or Jonathan Safran Foer or Sherman Alexie, and we slay audiences with that other truth, the one channeled from the ethers.
Or perhaps we don’t. Perhaps our truth comes to us from the events of our own little lives, and we shape it and mold it and every once in a while hold our own against that handful of geniuses out there. But that’s not to say it isn't rough going. I've been at it off and on for seventeen years now, and though I've had some success, I often tell my students that finding an editor to publish your work is a little like finding someone who is willing to love you. I mean, how often does anyone really get any of us? And how on earth do we go about finding the people who do?
After so many years of seeking an audience for my writing I've come to think it’s pretty difficult, but this past week, after the last meeting of one of the writing workshops I teach, I was reminded that it’s not always as hard as I've lately come to think. I was on my way to the annual college Christmas party when I fell into step beside a student who’d just written a hilarious piece about her family’s antics at Thanksgiving dinner.
“That’s a great essay,” I told her.
“Thanks,” she smiled, and I was about to suggest that she submit it to a holiday-themed call for papers when she said, “I’m going to print it off on nice paper, and give it to my Mom.”
Mary Elizabeth Pope is an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emmanuel College in Boston. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Florida Review, Bellingham Review, PMS: PoemMemoirStory, Passages North, Ascent, Sycamore Review, Fugue, Upstreet, Crab Creek Review, Ampersand Review, Descant, and Dos Passos Review, as well as the anthologies The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (Pearson) and Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs from Michigan (Michigan State University Press). Her short story collection manuscript Divining Venus was a finalist for the 2012 Autumn House Fiction Prize.