The Church of Creative Writing

I didn’t have a post-MFA slump. Not immediately. I took about two weeks off writing and then began work on a long short story. When that was done, I tackled my novel. I didn’t necessarily write every day but by the November after graduation, the 50,000 words of NaNoWriMo didn’t seem hard to reach. I was unemployed and didn’t have much going on in my life; I had nothing but time.

Then I got into a play. Two plays, actually. At the same time. It turned out that developing two separate characters for the stage drained my creative reservoirs, and so I gave myself a break on the writing front. If it happened, it happened. If not, more time to memorize lines.

The work resumed when the play ended, but with a little hobble. My novel characters seemed distant–I’d forsaken them. I had new ideas about shape and style that required massive rewrites. I spent my writing time producing outlines instead of prose.

We moved. I finally had an office of my own. I had a creative surge and then–I got pregnant. I told myself I’d finish the novel before giving birth, no matter what. Except that didn’t seem feasible. People told me it wasn’t feasible. People smirked. I got depressed, and since I was growing a tadpole inside me, nauseated. I spent a lot of time on the couch with 1930s horror movies and library books, though browsing the stacks always made me dizzy. When I started feeling better, I started hauling my laptop to a local coffee house once a week, hoping the change of scene would magically imbue me with creative drive, but generally ended up having coffee with a friend who was on maternity leave and her cuter than cute baby girl. Okay, so I’d do NaNoWriMo. Except my husband and I bought a house, and the deal closed in November, and we moved, then almost immediately flew to California to spend a week with my family for Thanksgiving, then came home to unpack and host a packed lineup of dinners introducing our friends to our new home. Now I’m out of town, back in Pullman, because my husband’s company wanted him to attend a holiday party this weekend, and why not teach a couple training classes while you’re out here? Next week I’ve got neighbors coming over for cookies and cocoa on Monday (if they got the cute invitations I stuffed in their mailbox and actually feel like meeting us), then on Wednesday we’re hosting a 30-50 guest office party in our new home (for the office where my husband works day to day–tomorrow’s is for his “group” which mainly works from the Pullman office), then both my parents and my in-laws fly in for Christmas, giving us overnight company for a total of seven days, and I’ve got a couple of fairly complicated homemade gifts to finish before they get here. Whew.

I’m sure very few of you have stuck with this post this far, wading through my slough of excuses. Those of you who have probably figure you’ve wasted five hundred words’ worth of time, and maybe you’ve still got coffee to drink and have visited all your other websites for the morning, and might as well stick with it. Or maybe it’s refreshing to hear someone else’s whining for once instead of your own. Personally, I’m sick of whining. I’m also sick of the feeling of despair that an open Word document brings. It doesn’t feel like that long ago when I had a never-ending flow of story ideas and my novel seemed completely doable, when the motivation to write lay somewhere in my soul instead of my brain.

Sometimes I think I wrote because I was lonely. I was most prolific (if not most skilled) during a single semester of undergrad when I’d quit the theater, parted ways with my closest friend, and pushed through my gen ed requirements so as to transfer to a four-year school, when my stories came straight from my gut. Unfortunately, you-know-what comes out of guts. But still, I put words on paper, no matter how much they stank. Then I transferred and made a few friends, met the man who would become my husband, and pushed myself through an average of eighteen credits per semester so I could finish college in four years and thereby save my parents money. I wrote some original pieces for my creative writing classes, trying to imitate stories I didn’t particularly like but that teachers and the Best American series insisted were good, but also turned in older work when my choice was between writing something new and passing geology.

Sometimes I think I wrote because people were looking. Teachers, fellow students, friends: I had to impress them. I had to show them I could do this thing that I’d so long wanted to do. Grad school helped with that. But now I’m going to admit it: Grad school was also lonely. I never felt like I really fit into that world. Though I’m friendly with quite a few of them, I only count one of my grad school acquaintances among my close friends, and her interests lie chiefly in poetry and teaching, two areas I can’t quite relate to. And yet, though my attempts at personal friendship generally failed, I was part of a community of writers–just not a central part. Even if I wasn’t the greatest at parties, I did spend a significant chunk of my week discussing fiction with my peers and professors, whether I agreed with them or not, and I was enveloped in an atmosphere where creative writing mattered.

And that’s it, isn’t it? That’s the idea we need in our heads to get writing. We have to believe it matters. Without support, belief fades. That’s one of the reasons people go to church. Faith, of whatever kind, is difficult to sustain on its own. Sometimes the faithful are hard to find, or we’re separated by denominational differences (for example, I do not relish a writing group that focuses on mysteries or romance), but even if we can’t find a Sunday service we like, we have to find evidence that others feel as we do. I think that’s one reason I participate in Bark. It’s why I’m Facebook “friends” with writers I’ve never personally met, especially if they post inspirational quotes about craft.

I was raised in church, and I’ve been disappointed by quite a few congregations. I haven’t regularly attended services since my parents stopped requiring me to, sometime in late high school. My parents quit not long after that. I’ve had conversations with my mother about finding churches where we might belong, and we’ve generally agreed that we don’t look because we don’t want to be disappointed. That’s exactly how I feel about writing groups. From time to time I look them up online, or find opportunities in odd places (the woman who sold us a sleeper sofa couldn’t shut up about her group after asking what I “did”–almost to the detriment of her sales pitch) but I sniff out some potential annoyance (like the six-page, pompous bio on the website of the author who leads the saleswoman’s group) and never end up going.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a writing group I’ll love, and I have less hope for a church. Our beliefs and our passions are such personal things that the like-minded can be difficult to find and the precisely like-minded probably don’t exist. But I know, if I don’t get more people who believe in creative writing in my life, my belief could fade. And that would be a terrible thing.

1 Comment

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Great post — and it feels so true. The hard part is finding the right community. And that might only be a handful of people, plus online resources, readings, books, festivals, etc. But that handful of people feels crucial, at least to me.

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