Thursday, May 24, 2007

Write for yourself?

My sophomore year of college, I was somehow admitted into an advanced fiction workshop called Readings for Writers. I had just transferred to the university, and knew no one. I spent my lunch hours in my dorm room, eating cold bagels, and my dinners eating with other transfer students. I knew my new school was going to be great, but it wasn't great yet.

Readings for Writers met once a week in the evenings. On the first day, I showed up carrying the entire stack of books from the assigned reading list, and sat down in a circle of students who all seemed older, taller, smarter and more poised than me. It didn't take long to realize that they seemed that way because they were, and by the end of the class I knew I was out of my league. Though every student in the class was amazing, there was one who I was convinced was going to win the Pulitzer the moment he graduated. His name was Bret, and he wrote stories set in backcountry Montana, achingly beautiful love poems to his (undeserving, in my mind) girlfriend, and was working on a novel. He was also one of the most generous and thoughtful critics I have ever had. Being in workshop with him and the other students made me made me consider and reconsider every sentence I put down, every word, in the hopes that I'd impress them. I read those students' comments again and again, and have kept them to this day.

Bret graduated two years ahead of me, and we didn't keep in touch. For years I kept expecting to read about him the New York Times Book Review, or happen upon his novel in the bookstore. About three years after he graduated, I found his name in the class notes of our alumni magazine: Bret was a bike messenger in New York City. A bike messenger? I was disappointed. Still, it had a certain romance: dodging taxis by day, holed up in a cockroach-infested garret by night, wearing those fingerless gloves and writing by the light of a guttering candle. But then, more years passed, and still no book. I had always expected to measure my success against the people from that class, and when I had published a few short stories and still seen nothing by Bret, I felt oddly let down. Competing with him and the other students in college had led me to produce some of my best writing... how would I continue to do that if the other players dropped out of the game?

A lot of people say you should write for yourself. This is a great idea, but for me it just doesn't work. My self is a pretty easygoing sort, always ready to accept a variety of excuses for not getting work done or abandoning projects. My self has laid back on a lounge chair and watched with a satisfied expression while I've organized the closet by color and theme, has waved off an apology for not revising a story with a quick pageant-contestant wrist flick, has taken a toke while I ignore my latest New Year's resolution to write every day. My self's a lot of fun to party with, but not a very good boss.

Instead, I need to write for others. Not a lot of others--that way madness lies (and bad workshop advice, as Sonya so sagely pointed out)--but a few select readers who are themselves writers, and whose work astonishes and inspires me. To write at my best, I need to feel like I'm competing with someone, and always in second place. Otherwise, I get lazy. Thankfully, I've found those people. I married one of them, and found the rest at Grub Street. They're all great critics, but more importantly, they're great writers, and if they haven't had books published yet I know they will soon--hopefully long before me.

A few days ago, a college friend of mine sent me a link to an article in Outside magazine with a mention of Bret. Turns out, he's been living in China for the past seven years, drumming, writing, learning Mandarin, and working on a translation of the Tao. A few things happened when I read this article. First, I became incredibly jealous. Why wasn't I living in China, gathering incredible experiences to write about? Second, I thought: of course. Of course he wasn't schlepping around New York City and eking out a living delivering contracts to law firms during rush hour. Third, I felt a huge sense of relief. I need Bret to be doing something fantastic, so I can keep on waiting for his first fantastic book. He may be all the way across the world, but just knowing that he’s working on his writing makes me want to get back to my own.

In dread,
Whitney Scharer


Sonya C. said...

Hooray for the fingerless gloves! What a great point, Whitney-- and a perspective I totally share. It reminds me of what Calvin Trillin said about writing to impress his wife. How true.

The Writers' Group said...

I think if you keep Bret and his book-to-be in your thoughts as your competitor, you will find yourself published just as Bret heads off to South Africa, or Indonesia, to gather even more experiences. "Perhaps" some day for him, "definitely" some day for you!

Hannah Roveto