As a writing teacher, I may be overly fond of my own pronouncements. Here’s how to write, I proclaim to the fiction workshop, sharing lessons I learned from teachers and craft books and from my experience hacking through the thicket of works-in-progress. Here’s what you must do.
Some students take my advice; others ignore me. My role’s limited: I can only tell them what I know, and the rest—rather, most of it—is up to them. I pass teacherly judgment on the artfulness of their work, but I don’t judge these beginning writers by wondering who will “make it” and who won’t. I was no big deal in my graduate program, and whether I’ve “made it” or not, at least I’ve published some books, which was the goal of my life from first grade, when I first learned that stories were written by real people.
One pronouncement is on the first day of class, as we’re getting comfortable as a group. I announce that no one knows everything about writing, that we’re all learning. I pause, my gaze sweeping the table in encouragement. “I’m still learning too,” I add. My voice hovers between friendly and benevolent as my eyes meet theirs in shy admission that we’re all in it together. I say, “I love your questions and challenges. I love a class that makes me think.”
I do. Of course I do. Yet I trust this gaze reminds them that even so, I’m smarter, and I’m in charge, and let’s please not forget that, okay?
I’m lucky that in the graduate programs where I teach most of my students want to learn from me, so in the weeks ahead, I’m confident our workshop will overflow with challenging questions my repertoire of pronouncements will address.
My favorite pronouncement—and the bedrock of all I believe superlative writing to be—is my belief that the writer must dive into the dark place to find the best, truest material. This premise is hardly my own invention: Anne Lamott’s classic, Bird by Bird, notes, “The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within.” And, in Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes, “Where is the story? The story is in the dark.” My favorite metaphor for this journey within is the myth of Orpheus, the poet/musician who travelled deep into the underworld hoping to recover his dead wife and bring her back into the light. If I didn’t discover “the dark place” from Atwood, I certainly picked up the metaphor there. In my workshop, the “dark place” theory typically emerges early, when we discuss student work that is accomplished but lacking urgency, and the phrase “the dark place” becomes part of our shared vocabulary. “This scene isn’t working,” someone will complain, “I don’t think the writer has gone to the dark place.”
If I’m lucky, a moment arises during workshop—honestly, I finagle this moment myself—where it’s natural to launch my rant on the “dark place,” citing Orpheus as I proclaim that all stories have been told so what we have is the telling, these unique voices, drawing upon our individual knowledge and pain and deep experience; I declare that readers yearn for what they’ve never heard before, something only YOU can bring to the page, that story you don’t dare tell, that thing you want left secret, that hard and true darkness that you can—must—dredge up from the underworld.
I love this speech!
I love the recklessness of it, and the audacity. I love throwing down this gauntlet. I love that what I’m advocating sounds true and imperative. I love the keyboard clicks as my students race to catch the magic of my words; I love that the class sees me riled, that even if they think I’m full of horseshit, at least I’m entertaining.
Honestly, and I shouldn’t say so, I would love to be videoed during this speech because I would love to watch my crazed and loony passion even as I would cringe and never utter another word. I love that when I’m rolling out this rant no one dares question my authority.
I especially love that last bit because I was a big fraud. The “dark place” is fucking scary, and once you’re down there, who knows what you’ll uncover or how you’ll escape. The trick of the Orpheus myth is that he returned from the underworld, living to tell the tale. “As the best authorities have it, easy to go there, but hard to come back; and then you must write it all down on a stone,” Atwood wrote. It’s called the DARK PLACE, not the sunny-let’s-eat-ice-cream-and-chitchat place. It’s where we hide family secrets, deepest fears, and every ounce of shame. That place, the place where the guts to type, “I was a big fraud,” came from. And this: I couldn’t even admit I was a big fraud.
Oh, I’m a hundred percent right; the best writing comes from the dark place. As a teacher, I’ve got to tell them that. But as a writer, I know we don’t muck down there all the time. I mean, there are funny books, and skillful stories that don’t require guts splayed on paper, and practiced writers learn to distract readers with style! Intellect! Tricks! All sorts of glittery baubles work, or seem to, keeping the writer safely distant from the dark place while getting published.
For several years, I had been in a different sort of dark place, the one where every other writer in America had a new book being rave-reviewed and winning A Major Award. I had written a beautiful novel that had been rejected by every publisher in America. This was actually the second novel in a row I had written to be rejected by every publisher in America. The notes from my agent were getting brief. Because I’d focused on writing novels, I didn’t have many short stories to send around for a possible hit of lit journal publication, and anyway, the short stories I did have had been rejected by every literary journal in America. My favorite things about my writing life then were leading workshops, making pronouncements about writing, and watching students improve under my sharp eye. I can still teach, I thought, at least there’s that.
I wondered if that might be enough. I had published two books and one had been reviewed in the New York Times. Wasn’t that what first grade me wanted? Weren’t my books in the library (rather, hadn’t they been, before getting dumped for books people wanted to check out)? Could I be happy guiding the next generation, reading my name in the acknowledgements of their books? Might that be more than enough? If what I cared about was ART, must it be MY art?
I mentioned my thoughts to one person only, a poet immersed in bad writer’s block who hadn’t written for ages, also a writing teacher. The question felt sacrilegious to me, and as I was fumbling my way to a complete sentence, he interrupted: “I know what you’re thinking, and no. That’s what I thought, oh, teaching will save me! Oh, future generations! And no. No. No, no, no.” His eyes seared mine, or that’s how I remember it as he enunciated: “I will tell you right now. It is not enough.” If the Devil popped in looking to exchange his soul for one perfect sonnet, he’d say yes. As would I.
I could create a new career by changing my name, genre, age, and Gmail.
I could take up web design.
During this time, I met a genial and chatty student I’ll call Dale, starting his first semester of the low-res MFA where I teach. He was a former baseball player, and I love baseball, so we talked about that, and he was an open-minded reader, so we talked about books. Maybe because he came from a sports background he had a noticeable respect for the authority of the teacher-coach, and I gravitate to students who seem eager to learn (no surprise, I guess). I was assigned as his mentor this first semester, which in a low-res program, I secretly call the ice-bath semester, when the shock of being back in school combines with the cold reality of how far one’s own writing must inch forward to be able to glimpse the hem of the masterworks being studied. Dale survived the ice-bath semester, and though I didn’t mentor him again until his final semester, we became friends in this small, tight-knit program. He was one of those guys with a million questions— about writing and books, follow-ups on the lectures and readings—and he and I talked often outside the workshop. He truly wanted to learn. Sometimes so many questions can become annoying, but I was never annoyed. Perhaps I was flattered—to him, what I said about writing mattered; he wasn’t bothered that every writer in America had a novel out and my last novel had been published eight years ago, which is practically ten years, which is a decade, which is forever. I could teach him, I thought, Dale for sure would slide my name in the acknowledgements and would double-check the spelling.
It was the last night of the 2012 summer residency on campus, after ten long days crammed with workshops, lectures, readings, and late nights. All of us had just finished an emotional dinner watching our beloved graduates cross the stage and shake hands with the director; boxed wine and cheap beer flowed; various students were plunking and twanging guitars, with songs ranging from Johnny Cash to AC/DC, making it impossible to feel settled in a groove. I was weepy. I had to pack and drive eight hours in the morning. I didn’t want to go home and face the stories I was writing that might be a book or might be nothing, and that either way weren’t getting published and weren’t a novel I could show my agent.
Dale came over. The room was set like a crummy wedding reception, with large round tables of ten and cheap folding chairs, and a swirl of multiple conversations meant it was possible to speak privately despite the crowd. I may have had several glasses of red wine. I felt maudlin, watching students graduate, about to forge on without me, all their shiny promise ahead. Surely, being in South Carolina, it was hot and sticky, and even inside, everyone’s skin slicked with sweat. The disorganized guitars clattered on.
Dale asked what I’d be doing over the summer, and I said something like, “Writing stories that no one wants to read for a book no one wants to publish.”
He laughed but immediately figured out there wasn’t a joke. “Umm,” he said.
“Yep,” I said. “Just part of the writing life, the part they don’t tell you about,” though I meant, the part I don’t tell you about. I, the teacher. Time to learn!
He passed along some thoughtful comments about what an amazing writer I was and how he was sure I was wrong and that sort of thing: feel-better compliments that didn’t make me feel better.
I responded sort of like this: “I’m old [not that I ever revealed exactly how old], and my novels weren’t best-sellers or movies, and I wrote two books I couldn’t sell, and no one reads anyway.” I didn’t even bring up the part about every other writer winning A Major Award. Let that be part of the surprise ahead. I may have whined out something like, “There’s a different way of writing now. When I was in school, it was minimalists and ‘the New Yorker story’ and now it’s meta-this and vampires in literary stuff.”
The thing about athletes who play team sports is that they tend to be very optimistic. They also tend to persevere. Perhaps I sounded like any discouraged batter in a slump or bonehead infielder who just watched the ball roll through his legs. Anyway, my bitter remarks triggered an instinct in Dale, and he launched into a pep talk. I enjoyed being told how great I was, how inspiring my winter workshop had been, how this-and-that, words I couldn’t believe but that seemed pleasant drifting past. This went on maybe until I finished the wine in my glass.
Then he said, “Well,” and sucked in a deep breath. I braced for one of his questions. A whoosh of air, and then this: “Would you say those books you didn’t publish went to the dark place?”
“No,” I said, suddenly knowing they didn’t. “What about the new stories you’re working on?” he asked. “No,” I said, suddenly knowing that they could. “But they could,” I said. “I guess.” I slopped more cheap wine into my plastic go-cup. I sipped.
Warm as spit.
“They could,” he repeated.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Aren’t you always telling us—?”
“Yes,” I said.
I felt the point had been made. Perfectly.
Apparently, he was a better teacher than I had understood because he said, “You told me last semester when we worked together that I wasn’t writing from the dark place. And now you need to do the same thing. How about we have a contest, the two of us, to see who writes the darkest story. We’ll swap next semester, at winter residency.”
The tepid wine filled me. It didn’t seem dignified to enter into a writing contest with a student. Or responsible. I glanced around to pinpoint the director of the program, whether he could possibly overhear this conversation. He was with the guitarists. Then I realized the contest was actually with myself. I suspect Dale already knew this. Dale is a smart guy, and I suspect he understood the gift he offered me.
I shook his hand. “You’re on.” Dark vs. Darker, we called it, and because we were sports fans, he came up with the Test at the Crest, since the winter residency would be held at the Pinecrest Inn. We were Ali and Foreman. He even sent me a T-shirt.
During the fall, we exchanged a few emails, with some smack talk and encouragement. At one point, he told me he had written 1500 words in one day, and I responded, “I love this pressure! 1500 words in a day is great, esp. since those dark words are often harder to squeeze out. I’ve been revising away, deleting all references to sweet rainbows and puppies.”
What’s funny is that the “dark” story in this instance wasn’t at all hard for me to squeeze out, unless you consider that it took a lifetime. But I scribbled the first draft at a coffee shop, atypically writing by hand, in a single swoop that brought me to tears at the end as I shook cramps from my fingers. This story heaved me right to the dark place.
It’s a story about my first husband, who died of an unexpected heart attack when he was 37, and, as it turns out, all the stories I wrote for this new book were about him. After my conversation with Dale, I solidified my assignment; each story in the collection would contain one hard true thing from the terrible experience of losing my husband. I would write as if I were learning how and take crazy chances with form. I would write as if this were the last book in me, as if I would get no more chances to speak. I would write as if I didn’t give a fuck about the dark place, as if nothing scared me, not dying, not oblivion, not indifference. My dark story was the first I wrote this way.
I revised my dark story. I read it out loud. My writing group made helpful suggestions. I would never say a story I wrote was perfect, and if “making it” means publication, this story didn’t: not one of the sixteen literary journals I submitted to wanted it. Another lesson: sometimes publication is irrelevant.
On December 20, I sent an email to Dale: “I am all in on the dark story–planning to read it at my [faculty] reading. Yikes. Looking forward to seeing what you’ve written–bring along a copy.”
On the night of my reading, I stood at the podium, staring at a blur of students and faculty. I chose to be the first of the two readers so I wouldn’t chicken out, not that I had a back-up plan or another story to read. I was all in. I had gone to the dark place, and part of the journey is surviving to tell the tale.
I read my introduction, which, control freak that I am, I always write out: “I love how the students I meet here at Converse inspire me in countless ways, whether it’s through hearing about challenges in their lives, or witnessing their dedication to learning the craft, or asking me hard and interesting questions about writing, or, sometimes, just being really good at giving an old- fashioned pep talk at exactly the right time. My reading tonight is dedicated to those students, and to one in particular.”
I looked right at Dale, sitting halfway back.
I read my dark, darker, darkest story, the one plucked from the silent depths of my life, those sentences I thought I could never write. I did not cry, though other people did. I read each word, and when I was done, the room looked the same and I was still standing.
Is it bragging to call that reading a knockout? Or is it simply speaking the truth? Muhammad Ali would not feel a need to be delicate, so let me say that it is the truth.
Afterwards, in the flurry of congratulations and book-signing that follows any reading, I waited for Dale, who wove his way to me. We hugged, and he handed me the folded sheaf of papers of his story, which was a fine and brave and dark story, one I was proud of him for writing. I wish I remember what he said to me that night. I wish it was easy for me to find the story he gave me— which is tucked in a box of important papers—and the note he wrote on top, conceding “defeat.”
Of course, there was no winning and no losing. There were grand writing pronouncements, there was the drudge of real writing, and then there was magic: writing made better by finding a good teacher. There is a name in my acknowledgements page to let him know exactly this.
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of This Angel on My Chest, a collection of linked short stories, awarded the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Her historical novel Reversing the River was serialized by the literary app Great Jones Street. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, and Washingtonian.
Delmarva Review publishes compelling new prose and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and book copies, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.