Girl making sand castle
Photo: Andrew Eccles
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.

We don't know, exactly, what we're doing when we're starting something. We have a vague and skeletal and oafish idea that we articulate to ourselves as a justification for beginning, but that's about it. It turns out, thank God, that what we end up with is more intricate and subtle than that. Mostly because it turns out that our intuition is a greater genius than we are. And mostly, too, because we're not declaiming when we write fiction; we're exploring. We're turning characters that we're getting to understand with more intimacy and confidence loose in certain situations, and observing their behavior, and what we believe and feel is then being mimed back to us. We're in the process of teaching ourselves, and allowing the reader to follow along. Grace Paley's nice way of putting it is that we don't write about what we know; we write about what we don't know about what we know. Tobias Wolff's version is that every time you write you're stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light.

If that's true, and we don't know what we're doing at first, then at least for a little while when we're trying to compose something, we need to remember to cut ourselves some slack. There'll be plenty of time for brutality later, when revising the mess we made. But we need to be allowed to make that mess in the first place. When we shut ourselves down prematurely, it's as if we came across a child happily playing in the sandbox and asked what she was making, and when she said she didn't know, we told her, "Then get out of the sandbox. If you don't know what you're making, you have no business in there." Or if she answered, "I'm making a castle," we responded, "Oh, a castle. That's original. No one's ever made a castle before."

That girl in the sandbox has every right to respond, "I don't know if it's original. I won't know until I've made it."

We need to do everything we can, when writing, to stay in touch with pleasure. With fun. With the passionate engagement that we all manage, as children. Not only because that will keep us going but also because it will generate the freedom and the energy that allow us to exhilarate ourselves, and so exhilarate others.

Or here's another way of putting it: At one point I was writing in my family's hometown in rural Italy and thereby flummoxing my relatives, who had no idea why a healthy man would stay inside the house for hours on end on a sunny day. One afternoon I heard one relative outside my window ask another, "Is Jim working or playing?" And the other said, "I don't know." And it's occurred to me since that that's an indeterminacy to which I should be aspiring. Because as far as we're concerned, when we're doing what we love most, there no longer should be any distinction.

Jim Shepard's collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, was a 2007 National Book Award finalist.



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