Author Jim Shepard shares his fears, fantasies, intuitions, and insights into making a world out of words.
The very first year I started teaching, back in the middle Triassic, I had the startling good fortune to stumble across one of the most talented writers with whom I've ever worked. I celebrated her ability with an (I'm sure) unsettling zealotry, and seemed to be urging her every 30 minutes toward a career in fiction writing. (She was, of course, good at everything, and already planning a career in medicine.) Finally, at one point when I was teasing her about some foot-dragging on a revision, she made a remark that changed forever the extent to which I would proselytize the writer's life, no matter how much talent I thought I had discovered. "I don't think you realize," she complained plaintively, "how hard this is for me."

At that point, no, I hadn't realized. The same way when I looked at the Empire State Building, I thought, "What a beautiful building," and not, "Whoa. I bet that was a pain in the butt to build."

When writing is going well, it's hard, and for most of us, most of the time it's not going all that well. When students ask, "When did you know you might be a writer? How did you know?," one of the things I tell them is that they may be designed for that life if (a) they need to do it in order to feel good about themselves, even though (b) doing it almost never makes them feel good about themselves.

And that's before we get to writer's block. All of us, beginners and veterans, run head-on into those despair-inducing stretches when the blank page just peers back at us and even the dog looks over in pity while we sit there, exposed and empty-headed, our mouths ajar. What made us think that we had anything to express? Or any facility with language with which to express it?

What are we supposed to do when the analytic voices on our shoulders intervene too quickly and start attacking every impulse or idea in its cradle by announcing that it's simply not original enough, not arresting enough, not good enough? Well, as far as I'm concerned, it's not just, as a famous writer once famously suggested, a matter of lowering our standards. It's also a matter of remembering that we need to reconnect with the notion of this sort of creation as play.



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