Letter to a Prospective Writing Student
Tracy Daugherty | October/November 2003
Samuel Beckett once taped to the wall above his desk in Paris a slip of paper with an appeal on it to help him through his writing days. It said, "Fail. Fail again. Fail better."
And that was Beckett at his most optimistic. In a more somber mood he wrote, "Nothing to paint. Nothing to paint with." Donald Barthelme, Beckett's most faithful American disciple, echoed the Irishman's uncertainty. "What an artist does is fail," he said, adding that "not-knowing"-at best having a "slender intuition"-is "crucial to art, is what permits art to be made."
My subject is Master of Fine Arts programs in Creative Writing-or more generally, writing communities-so it may seem odd for me to begin with so many negatives about making literature. But I want to suggest the mystery and power of creating new worlds, which is precisely what poets and storytellers do, and it is what teachers and students embark upon whenever they gather to build a community. Just as a page holds nothing before we mark it with words, a setting, a place, an institution, a town, can be spiritually empty without enormous cooperative and creative effort. "Let us build us a city!" says the Book of Genesis, and the mystery and power behind that simple statement lies in the implication that out of nothing will come-somehow, gloriously-something.
Back to that blank piece of paper: say you draw a line on it, the beginning of your favorite word. If the paper is waxy, your pen may slip. If it's lightly wrinkled, your line will skitter off-center. Noting all this, a scientist might say blankness has properties that affect what is. Beckett and Barthelme would argue, after Shakespeare, that nothing determines the kind of something we get. Here's Leontes, from The Winter's Tale:
Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
... Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight?...
Why then the world, and all that's in't, is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing...
nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.
From the slenderest provocations-whispers, little nothings in the ear, the thick ticking of a tin clock-worlds are built (in Leontes's case, a world of paranoia). Nothing, or as near to nothing as human affairs can get, is something after all. It is what permits the universe to be made.
In the beginning, says the old story, the earth was without form and void. Then language asserted its power: "Let there be light!" Now here we sit, if we are members of a university writing program (and let's imagine, for a moment, that we are), soaked in the light of snicking fluorescent tubes in the classroom ceilings above us. We have someone to pay the electric bills, to keep the lights burning. We have shelter, infrastructure, a viable economy, all founded, if you believe the story, on a single sentence, a grouping of words so light as to be nearly nothing: miraculously, mysteriously, we have built us a city. Here, in our little subdivision of it, we meet because we do believe in stories.
But this place (let's try to imagine this place) will be uninspired unless we animate it by turning our whispering, our wishing, above all our writing, into a communal something. Just because we've plunged into a writing program (for we've heard this is the way to become a writer nowadays, even U. S. News & World Report says so), we have no guarantees that the world we've entered will succeed. I'm not speaking, here, of the tangibles-budgets, publicity, academic support-though those are crucial to any institution whose imprimatur we seek. I'm thinking of the intangibles invisible to surveys and productivity charts, but that will ultimately determine the kind of something we get here. Personal chemistry. Cooperation. Generosity. Imagination.
What an artist does is fail? Communities fail, too, daily. Inevitably-like each word-developed page-they fail to meet our expectations. Tensions mar them. Glitches. They are vulnerable to hazy planning, bad timing, unforeseen circumstances. Entering an academic program, we invite all sorts of risk. Will we be generous enough, cooperative enough, imaginative enough to overcome our frustrations with bureaucratic burdens, insufficient resources, and each other to fail and fail again, better, more productively, until from our faltering comes whatever we agree to call success? Is this really the place for a young writer to be?
In 1967, there were only 13 creative writing programs in the United States, according to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Now there are nearly 350, receiving, annually, over 20,000 applications from aspiring authors. Literary agents and editors mine these programs for talent (often to hand-feed them to Hollywood), universities milk them for money, so whatever our concerns-the professionalizing of creativity, or the promotion of a shallow celebrity mentality-it seems moot to ask if this is the route young writers should take. They are taking it, some with spectacular success. For better or worse, for the foreseeable future, a generous portion of American literature will be MFA-inflected.
So, once more, let's imagine we've joined the club. What are some of the advantages we can expect? What will happen here that will make us better writers? Already, at the outset, we're lucky enough to be accompanied by invisible comrades, only a few of whose names I've invoked-Beckett, Barthelme, Shakespeare, Bernard Malamud ("the thick ticking of the tin clock" is from his story, "Idiots First") and Ernest Hemingway, who sprinted with Shakespeare's "nothings," trailing behind him a dark web of nadas. Ghosts circle us-whispering absences, carrying on with us the world's literary conversation. And our personal ghosts are here, too, losses and failures which often support our boldest stories and poems.
Let's face it: many of us have reached this point because of failure. The world has failed to satisfy us, so we want to revise it. Our revisions have let us down, so we hope to improve them. Our family's demands, our peers' pressures, have left us unfulfilled, so we've thrown ourselves at the mercy of a slender intuition, and wound up-of all places-in an MFA program. And of course, from here, you're expected to fail again, despite the spectacular successes of the few. You know the story. The publishing world is rudely competitive and the literary market is shrinking. Even if you do publish, you won't earn enough money to live on. Teaching jobs are scarce.
I won't dispute any of these assertions, or promise that an MFA degree will be the light of your life, an entree to art, a ticket to gainful employment. I can't foresee the somethings you'll create out of your experiences. I can only hope that you'll fail better, not worse.
Ultimately, only you can determine what your talent is, what will nurture it best, how and where to sprint with it. An MFA program offers time, structure, and companionship that can help you clarify these things. It offers appeals to get you through your writing days. Frankly, that's about the most a good course of study can guarantee. But on such slender assurances, worlds are built.
You understand that nothing may come of your efforts, that your best work may wind up skulking in corners. In part, that uncertainty-the need to face it-is what brought you here. And I want to encourage you to see this not-knowing as one of your strongest assets. Anxiety, like light, is a fine source of energy, failure a robust motivator.
Let me end by offering one more filament of hope cloaked in the negative: it's the useless we're chasing, the intuitions and emotions that nearly elude our words-whatever is, for each of us, sublime. These things sustain us, abide with us, but can't be put to firm use. Whatever is used routinely, merely to fill a function, is soon faded, worn, broken. Art does something else.
Thinking about baseball, William Carlos Williams wrote:
The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them
all the exciting details
of the chase
and the escape, the error
the flash of genius
all to no end save beauty
To find the delights in uselessness, the flash of genius in error, the somethings in nothing-that's why we gather, here and there, with only the slightest notion of what might happen, to build communities of writers. That's why we fill empty pages, to risk the mystery and power of creating new worlds, which can explode in every word. In his first short stanza, for example, Williams offers us the useless delight of a pun: the word "uniformly," noting both the crowd's solidarity, and the visual spectacle of uniformed men on the field. And the final lines: eternity, of course, has no end, but "no end" also means, in Williams's context, "no purpose." The word "save" does double-duty here, whispering both "salvation" and "exception."
Rescue by exclusion-stripping things to the near-nothing of their strictest essence. No end to no purpose. These were the hallmarks of Williams's art, from which we all can learn. They are the kindsof things we hope to learn in an MFA program, the lessons on which we build a literate-and useful-society.
- Samuel Beckett. "Three Dialogues" in Disjecta edited by Ruby Cohn (New York: Grove Press, 1984): 142.
- Donald Barthelme. "The Sandman" in Sadness (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1972): 93; "Not-Knowing" in Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews edited by Kim Herzinger (New York: Random House, 1997): 12.
- William Shakespeare. "The Winter's Tale" in The Riverside Shakespeare edited by G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974): 1573.
- Bernard Malamud. "Idiots First" in The Complete Stories edited by Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1997): 273.
- William Carlos Williams. "At the Ball Game" in The Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1969): 31.
Tracy Daugherty directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Oregon State University. His most recent books include the short story collection It Takes a Worried Man, the essay collection Five Shades of Shadow, and the forthcoming novel, Axeman's Jazz.