25 01 2011

In college, I had an instructor who idolized Raymond Carver, who worked as a janitor (among other occupations) and would do twenty or thirty revisions of his stories, sometimes writing in utility closets on his breaks. With a family to raise and support, he was not known for belonging to one scene or another, like so many other artists, though he did serve as an instructor at various points in his life. Following an all too familiar path, life’s pressures led him to dependance on alcohol, which he would never shake. It wasn’t until after his death that his work achieved wide-spread appreciation.

Carver’s story is a sad one, but also inspirational. He had a meticulous work ethic (pre-alcohol) all writers should all strive for. Painstakingly crafting stories in a dim dust and ammonia filled closet! That’s the point my instructor really tried to convey. A brilliant writer can arise from the most unlikely of environments. As a student, with no real life experience comparatively, I found it hard to convince myself that my own writing could ever contain the same clarity, such eloquence and authority. Obviously, I missed the point (revise, revise, revise, revise), and continued to miss it for over a decade.

The one thing in your favor when delaying a career in writing is life experience. But is it worth writing about? Going out on a limb, I would say, yes, any experience can be worth writing (and reading) about. The success depends on the skill of the writer to make it interesting. This goes beyond the Composition 101 lesson of show don’t tell. As I reader, I want writers to cast a spell, to concoct an intoxicating brew that you can smell, touch, and feel, not just see. It’s a painfully high expectation that leads to many disappointments. (Context, as well, is important. I don’t expect such wizardry from a staff writer at the AP, although I have read a story or two in the New York Times where a writer took the meat of the facts and glazed it with some artistic license).

As a writer, I hold myself up to these same standards, even though the record itself will show my words to be frequently less than magical. With age, I have warmed to accepting this. Yet, young and still fresh out of college, I could not live up to the unreasonable standards I had set for myself, some due to certain literary circles but otherwise self-imposed, which is why there is missing from a ten-year period of my life a single cohesive written work. But now that time has passed, and my anxiety and insecurity has softened, I can look back on that time away not only as a period of growth, but also as pure, raw material.