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Wednesday’s WIP: Refreshing Remarks on “the Writing Life”

cover_bossThanks in part to the writers I follow on Twitter, the past week has brought plenty of references and reactions to “Sandwich Girl” and a certain Canadian author/professor. (Nope, not going to link to them.)

But I wish that I’d seen far more references to something else I discovered last week on Twitter (h/t @LMecham): a terrific and utterly refreshing interview on The Rumpus instead. For me, at any rate, Abigail Welhouse’s interview with Victoria Chang on the occasion of the publication of Chang’s third book of poetry addressed far more personally urgent and resonant concerns that I don’t see articulated often enough.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll share some selected quotations:

Abigail Welhouse (AW): “In my most perverse fantasies, everyone who isn’t me writes for hours a day….Also, they do all this while I’m at my office.”

AW: “There are narratives…that I hear repeated over and over about what kind of life constitutes ‘a writer’s life’—and working in an office full-time usually isn’t included in these stories.”

AW: “I recently attended a panel at the Slice Magazine Literary Writers’ Conference that ambitiously billed itself as ‘Life After An MFA’….The panel…consisted of five writers whose stories shared many similarities. According to the represented stories at the panel, the normal ‘life after an MFA’ seems to be this: write fiction or memoir, live in New York, and teach writing part-time.”

AW: “As a fellow poet who works in an office, I wondered how [Chang’s] full-time office work influences her writing—and I also hoped to figure out the secret to managing to write three books of poetry while working nine-to-five.”

Victoria Chang (VC): “I’ve always just liked writing poetry, but it’s much later that I’ve discovered that there’s this whole poetry world out there, that you almost have to be accepted into, like this little club. And it’s based on art, whether people like your work or not, but it’s also based on a lot of other things—geography, who you happen to connect with and where they sit in that ladder—and all of that felt really isolating and disheartening to me when I figured it out.”

AW: “Living in New York, I notice how easy it is to be doing what could be called ‘a writer’s life,’ while actually doing very little writing. Because you’re going to events, you’re talking to other writers, you’re doing all of this other stuff.”

VC: “Sometimes I wonder, though—I have friends that sit around and just write all day. And I think it’s the coolest thing. Imagine that: while they’re writing, and thinking, and dreaming, I’m on the phone constantly, and working, and running around like a maniac…and this or that. I don’t get that time, at all. But I wonder if that kind of lifestyle makes me—for me—a different kind of writer. I know I wouldn’t have been able to write any of these kinds of poems if I didn’t lead the life I led.”

VC: “I feel like I give myself all day long to other people and other things, and I still seem like I have something to write once in awhile. Not often, though. I haven’t written anything since this book was written two years ago, short of editing those poems here and there. That’s a new thing for me, because I used to think, I have to write every day.”

VC: “As a poet, I don’t sit around and say, ‘Oh, I want to write a book and get it published in the world.’ Anymore. I used to, when I was younger, when my goal in life was just to publish a book. As I published books, I realized, that’s not really what I want. I don’t care about the books as much anymore. I just want to write poetry.”

VC: “I was telling the poetry editor at McSweeney’s that if I never wrote a poem again, and never published another book, I really could care less. That’s just the phase of life that I’m in. I realize so much that it doesn’t matter. Yet, I’ve spent my whole life trying to do all this. Now that I feel like I’ve done these books and stuff, it just doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I could be one of those candidates that drops off the poetry world, and you never see me again, and I wouldn’t mind. Or, I could come back and write something in two years, or ten years.”

VC: “I’m not sure that I love being around [“the whole poetry world”] or in that. I love being part of poetry conversations. I love talking about what I’ve read. I regularly talk to poets, and it’s just like, ‘Have you read this?’ Me, being as busy as I am, I’ve read a lot more than most of the people that I know, except for one of my really close friends reads way more than I do. But, in general, I find that poets spend a lot of time thinking about themselves, and not a lot of time thinking about other poets, or other poetry. Unless they think about how it affects them, or how it could impact them.”

VC: “I love when I meet generous poets, and generous meaning nice people, who give to the poetry community, who do interviews, read other people’s books, and talk about them, spread the…love, I guess. That means a lot to me. It’s surprising—you don’t meet a lot of people like that. For the most part, it’s a world of artists that are very in their own heads.”

And a few reflections of my own:

  • When it comes to writing routines and ways to integrate a writing practice into one’s life, I find it much more instructive to hear from writers who aren’t writing full-time, and/or self-employed, and/or teaching part-time (often supported by a fully salaried and benefited spouse), and/or teaching as “full-time” tenured professors with 2-2 (or lighter) workshop teaching loads and sabbaticals and summers to themselves. It’s simply not as illustrative and inspiring for me to hear about how they get their writing done–at this time/point in my life, at any rate–as it is for me to hear from a Victoria Chang.
  • I appreciated what Chang had to say about writing less (and less regularly) in this phase of her life, in part because I haven’t completed and placed a new short story since NPR commissioned “Fidelis” in 2011. (A piece that appeared subsequently in JewishFiction.Net was extracted and slightly revised from a novel manuscript that dates back about a dozen years, and I’ve drafted two short stories that aren’t really “finished” yet.) I have, however, published quite a few poems, essays, book reviews, and other writings. This interview helped me articulate something important for myself: I am a different writer now than I was when I was an MFA student specializing in fiction (and wasn’t working 9 to 5 in an office). Not necessarily better or worse–but different. Chang’s experience also prompted me to appreciate that, like the rest of our lives, our writing lives needn’t be (aren’t) static and unchanging. That it’s okay not to be the type of writer I previously longed and worked so hard to become. Moreover, one never knows what will happen “in two years, or ten years.”
  • Without going into specifics, and while acknowledging all of the good fortune and support that I’ve enjoyed over time, I have to say that I identify strongly with Chang’s discomfort with “the whole poetry world.” (I just wouldn’t limit that world to “poetry”.) Like Chang, I have come to value—so, so highly—all of those generous writers whose paths I’m lucky enough to cross. They represent the very best of what the community is and can be.
  • What sorts of thoughts/impressions does this interview evoke for you?

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    3 Responses »

    1. There’s a nice bio of Wallace Stevens in today’s Writer’s Almanac that focuses on this topic of writing and working.

    2. Hi Erika.

      I appreciated this. I am retired (age 68) and it has only been in the last couple of years that it has become apparent to me that writing is so important. My past work has included nursing, dance, martial arts, massage… varied and not writing oriented.

      I lucked out by finding a fabulous teacher (Barbara Turner-Vesselago: http://www.freefallwriting.com/freefall/home.html) whose method of teaching is so supportive and creates generous dialogue amongst participants. As a result, I am in an ongoing and supportive writing group that meets every month to share our work. Generosity, loving respect and compassionate honesty make it such a healthy environment to help all of us do our best.

      Keep up the great stuff that you do. Immensely appreciated.

      Sending the best,


    3. @Sarah–It has been such a crazy day that I haven’t even read The Writer’s Almanac yet–thanks for the heads-up! @Fran–Such a lovely and inspiring comment–thank you for sharing!

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