Thursday, November 15, 2012

Joyce Kornblatt on three great writers on writing

Writer & writing teacher Joyce Kornblatt
 Three essential writing books, newly appreciated by a master writing teacher.
Joyce Kornblatt's essay offers insights into the "deeply intuitive", often mysterious process that writing is: essential reading for thoughtful readers as well as writers.

During forty years of writing, and teaching writing to others, I haven’t found many worthwhile books on the subject. Too many are ‘how-to’ manuals, reducing a deeply intuitive art to the kind of carpentry that has little art in it, and promising fame and fortune if the instructions are followed. All serious writers know that writing is more like prayer than anything else, though it is important to have the tools to shape the prayer into something beautiful, durable, and polished in the way we polish good wood:  transparently, so the grain shows through in all its mysterious natural perfection.

Three books about writing that I treasure share that reverence for  the writing process, and each leads us into a particular dimension of the  dream-like activity out of which wonderful literature emerges.   Annie Dillard’s THE WRITING LIFE, Gail Sher’s ONE CONTINUOUS MISTAKE and Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD offer  personal insight into the nature of creativity in its written form.  With intelligence, humour and vulnerability, each of these women—wonderful writers of fiction, poetry and memoir—invite us into their own hard-won wisdom.  

 Acclaimed for her powerful accounts of the natural world and the spiritual life as zones of knife-edge revelation, it follows that Annie Dillard offers a vision of writing as a risk-taking necessity in which fierce faith trumps doubt and logic: “Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.” The gravity-defying desk may be whimsy, but it also points us toward  an understanding of writing as the highest order of courage and generosity.  “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time…. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

I find her passionate intensity inspiring, because it is in no way sentimental or mere bravado.   She knows all about the difficult days and the failed drafts and the loss of confidence.  But her love for the gift of the writing life sustains her.  “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as if with a dying friend,”  she says.” I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” I return to the THE WRITING LIFE again and again, for the sheer beauty of Annie Dillard’s language, and for  her unshakeable belief in writing as an act of awakening:What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?"
Gail Sher also experiences writing as spiritual awakening, but her voice has the quieter quality of the long-time Zen practitioner she is. Reflecting on the writing process through a Buddhist lens, she brings to ONE CONTINOUS MISTAKE: FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS FOR WRITERS  the Zen principles of discipline, compassion and  not-knowing.  “Writing-related fear and low self-esteem both arise from straying attention.”  Her book in an ongoing invitation to come back to body, breath, pen, paper, this moment’s perception translated into words on the page.  Much as a Chinese brush painter experiences each stroke as a breath, Gail Sher invites us to breathe into the next word, and the next, and the next.  
And as Annie Dillard advises, so the Buddha said, centuries ago, that “nothing should be clung to as ‘me’ or ‘mine.’”  Gail Sher articulates it with characteristic directness: “For writing practice to be complete, we must give it away: the efforts, the results, and identification with results….You become a vessel through which creative spirit flows.”  
Writing as a gift we offer, rather than a product we produce or a truth we keep private:  she is uncompromising in her counsel, yet never unkind. And in the true spirit of Zen, she is, in the end, a teacher with no instructions:"Writing teaches writing. No one can tell you your own secret.”
Anne Lamotte, author of Bird by Bird
If Annie Dillard offers us a mystic’s manual, and Gail Sher a Zen koan’s counter-logical handbook, then Anne Lamott’s book is like a volume of letters from a cherished friend who loves us enough to speak the truth. In BIRD BY BIRD, she’s a genius of the telling anecdote, the wry zinger, and the open-hearted confession.  And in this way her book models the kind of writing to which she urges us to surrender. “It helps to resign as the controller of your fate,” she suggests. And: “Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck.”

This is a book that gives ongoing permission to write imperfectly, and to write as if your life depended on it. When Anne Lamott says, “Find out what each character cares about most in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake,” that’s the same advice she gives herself and us:  “Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go into.  
What moves me about all three of these books is the generosity each writer brings to the page, the willingness of Annie Dillard, Gail Sher and Anne Lamott to reveal their own struggles and terrors, and also to own their earned authority.  

Each is a wonderful companion on the writing path.  Composing this essay, I’ve felt as if they were all here with me in my study, the four of us talking together for hours, intimately and with much laughter, about the deep mysteries of the writing process. What a joy.  

Joyce Kornblatt taught writing for many years at a leading American university. Since coming to live and write in Australia, she has continued to offer lucky writers at many stages of their writing lives inspiration and guidance that draws on her Buddhist commitment as well as her writing experience. Her own books include The Reason for Wings and also Nothing to do With Love which - in a lovely turn of events - was published in the UK by The Women's Press, London, founded by Stephanie Dowrick. 
Ready to read the books that Joyce Kornblatt suggests? Please use our affiliate links (above right). This Book Club receives a small % on all affiliate sales. We also love to have your comments and opinions!

1 comment:

  1. I feel very much in tune with this account, and share the long term relationship with Dillard's A Writing Life. (I love the way she also manages to be very funny about some of the psychological melodramas of writing.) I also know Bird by Bird, but thankyou for the introduction to Gail Sher, and for the calming thoughts about what can be a fraught process!