Writers on Writing #42: Jonathan Fink
The Eagle Symbolized Freedom
What I remember most from my first creative writing workshops is how my peers and I wanted to write about “big” themes: suicide, love, death, sex, violence, etc. We felt that those initial workshop submissions were impervious to critique and revision. No matter how kind and perceptive the professor, or how insightful, nuanced and instructive his suggestions, he couldn’t reach us. My peers and I knew that the stories we submitted to workshop were immutable things, insurmountable. They were not talismans against the world or impressions of the world—they were the world to us. Timid and inexperienced in life, we thrilled on the page. No cliché went untried.
The anecdote I tell most frequently from that time (ostensibly to illustrate a point to students about unnecessary explanation, but really to revel in those same clichés) grows from a story one of my peers submitted in that first workshop. A nameless narrator, without motivation or context, decides to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff. As the narrator falls, he catalogues the things he sees: feathers, rocks and old tires, a letter jacket hanging on a tree branch, diary entries, a still-working television, and a portrait of the narrator’s mother. The story ends in the moment just before impact. In class, the author read aloud the final lines with building passion as the other students cheered and the professor buried his face in his hands: “But before the man hit the ground he looked again at the cliff and in a nest there he saw an eagle—an eagle taking flight!—and the eagle symbolized freedom!”
Jonathan Fink is currently an Associate Professor and the Director of Creative Writing at University of West Florida. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, the St. Botolph Club Foundation, and Emory University, among other institutions. His poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, New England Review, TriQuarterly, The Southern Review, Southwest Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, and Witness, among other journals. He has also received the Editors’ Prize in Poetry from The Missouri Review.