I often speak to writers, individually and in classes and workshops, about establishing and sustaining a life-long writing practice. Most are hungry for what I have to say, and remain rapt for my entire spiel. But last week, speaking to the participants of this year’s Fiction Writing Intensive at UC Berkeley Extension, for the first time, I encountered skepticism.
In a nutshell, I told the participants seated in a U-shape around me, that in all my experience with writers, both in MFA programs and among my private clients, I have culled a collection of ingredients I deem essential for nourishing our relationship with writing.
First, I told the group, you need to think of yourself as a writer. And it helps, I added, to tell others that you are a writer as well. “Keeping it a secret is counter-productive.”
I say this because over the years, I’ve encountered countless writers who believe they have not yet earned that title–they haven’t published, or published enough, or received good enough reviews. It’s my belief, born out of experience, that if you don’t own that you are a writer, eventually you’ll stop writing.
Next, I mentioned the importance of feeling that you deserve the time to write, whether for fifteen minutes or three hours several times a week. I’ve heard so many writers say that they feel guilty taking the time to write, that it feels selfish when: their family needs them, there is so much to do around the house, their parents are old and failing and could use help, they are not giving anything to the world, which is in a woeful state.
By the time I had finished discussing this second ingredient, I noticed that the keen interest with which the group had greeted me, had grown soft. Actually, I had perceived some softening immediately, when I announced I was not going to offer the group a list of rules for sustaining a writing practice. “There are no rules,” I maintained. “Each of you has to establish and nurture your personal relationship to your writing.”
Several hands went up. “I don’t have any trouble finding time to write,” one participant declared. “I want to write my novel, and I’ve been writing it for the past eight months.”
“I tell many people I’m a writer,” another participant ventured. “Whom I tell just depends on the questions I think they’ll ask; and is not about my feeling undeserving.”
At this point in my talk, I’m usually looking out at a sea of nodding heads and hopeful looks. “You mean I’m not the only one,” someone might say. Or, “I’d love to learn how to feel comfortable about taking the time to write.” So, I have to admit, I was flummoxed by the lack of enthusiasm in this group for what I had to say. But instead of responding in the way I now wish I had, I carried on, certain that I’d hook the group with the next ingredient I mentioned.
It wasn’t for another half hour or so, after another participant said she didn’t understand how anyone had trouble doing something they wanted to do and loved doing, that I got smart. “Laurie,” I asked the instructor, “you graduated from the MFA in Writing Program at University of San Francisco. How many of your classmates do you think are still writing?”
“Maybe 10%,” she smiled.
A collective gasp rose from the classroom.
“That’s impossible,” someone protested.
“No,” Laurie shook her head, “it’s only about 10%.”
I waited a few beats, then continued my talk.