State of the Art
by Eric Witchey
Packing up to head off to the Willamette Writers Conference to teach a Masters Class and generally engage in the literary debauchery that goes along with a conference, I am struck by the fact that I’ve been doing conferences for a very long time. Some of the beginning writers I met at conferences a quarter of a century ago have become New York Times best selling authors. Some of the writers I met so long ago are dead. Teenage students I first met at speaking gigs twenty years ago now have families and solid careers. Others have left the world in search of brighter days in Elysian Fields.
In short, things change. They also stay the same.
Since I first realized I was a writer, I have known that the only sustainable motivation for writing is love. Writers have to love sitting in the chair and arranging the little black squiggles in rows until they feel right. If they don’t love that process and all the little puzzle-solving moments that go with it, eventually they will become frustrated, angry, and resentful of lost time and life.
Fiction writers have to love stories. I mean that on a profound level. Arranging the squiggles is enough for most non-fiction work; however, it is not enough for fiction writers. A fiction writer has to be deeply, obsessively in love with the idea of creating the illusion of life in the mind and heart of another person. They have to love to experience the illusion created by other writers, and they have to love creating that illusion.
Now, at this point it would be very easy to drop into a diatribe about how many aspiring writers I meet who don’t actually read. I won’t bother. They are self-limiting creatures, and my righteous indignation will neither help them nor stop them from making their mistakes. Some might even learn that they need to read, and that might lead to love of reading and better creations. It does happen.
I could also drop into a riff on the limitations of the desire for fame or money, but I’d only be presenting a straw man. If you want a riff on artistic purity of heart and mind as necessary to creative health of artist and culture, I recommend looking up and reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s take on the damage of commodity thinking in the arts. Once again, the people who focus on money and fame will either limit themselves or succeed and discover a level of unhappiness the universal heart of all things has created just for them.
Instead, I want to focus on a moment in time.
Way back when, I had a degree in English and an MA that included Theoretical Linguistics, Computer Science, Literature, and training as a writing teacher. I’d been working in high-tech for a while, and I had sold my first short story to a national market. The world was a bright and shiny place filled with potential, but the mail brought rejection after rejection. It was depressing. Hadn’t I studied for years? Hadn’t I gone into debt learning everything I could about stories and writing and language?
Shouldn’t there be money? Shouldn’t there be fame?
Instead, there was only time in the seat arranging the squiggles and drinking lots of coffee.
Eventually, I had to admit that I knew Jack Shit. In fact, Jack and I were way too close. I took him to parties with me and presented him to others with pride as if just knowing him should launch me into social circles where international celebrities of letters chatted casually about the death of existential literature and the advent of post-modern, hysterical Jungian fantasy literature.
Me and Jack! Oh, the places we went.
As with all co-dependent relationships, the day came when I looked at Jack and my dreams of fame and fortune and realized they were tools I used to avoid facing my own fear—my own deep heart. As long as I had Jack and my fame and fortune fantasies, I could go anywhere and pretend I was full of knowledge and potential.
Well, let me tell you something. Combine Jack with potential, and you’ve got a recipe for spiritual, emotional, and literary bankruptcy.
So, I sought out a teacher I had heard good things about. I went to a week-long seminar. For two days, I hated him. He was a no bullshit, blue-collar work ethic, nuts-and-bolts writer who had no tolerance for the mysticism of talent.
Oh, I hated him.
I hated him because he didn’t see how much Jack had taught me and how much potential I had. What an asshole!
Patiently, I explained that I had degrees and had sold a story.
I fumed, but I did the exercises to prove Jack and potential were alive and well and living in me.
By the third day, I knew Jack was dead.
By the fourth day, I understood that potential was pointless.
That was the day I stopped being an aspiring writer and became an actual writer.
Writer is the agentive form of the infinitive to write. It is a verb manifest as person. Writer is a doing and being, and it only happens in the moment between heartbeats and breaths. Right now, I am a writer. Right now, I am solving the puzzle of this essay. Right now, I am arranging the little black squiggles. Right now, I am learning and moving toward new tools of craft that allow me to create compelling illusions in the hearts and minds of readers.
What is the point of being in the writing? Of being a writer?
Yesterday, I got an Amazon review that embodies the point. It isn’t fame. It isn’t fortune. It is a parent who left five stars and said that their 12 year-old boy loved my book and said he wanted to read more stories set in that world.
No award I have won for my fiction has ever validated the million moments of creation as much as that one review.
I still know Jack. I might still have potential. Sometimes, I even think about fame and fortune.
The interesting thing a quarter century after meeting that teacher and as I approach the conference Masters Class I’ll be teaching is that I know beyond doubt that in the moments between heartbeats and breaths when I am a truly a writer, Jack is dead, there is no such thing as potential, and the only validation of my skill that matters is one 12 year-old boy.
That is the state of art.