Thursday, December 8, 2011

on writing

I haven't been writing here lately because I'm in the throes of a personal essay-writing class. It's taught by a prolific essayist -- a woman who earns her living writing these things, freelance, publishing her work in glossy mags and newspapers on a regular basis. The objective of the class is to refine your craft, learn some tricks of the trade and get your work published -- and many of her previous students have succeeded in this. The instructor knows the industry well and offers great insight (sometimes shockingly) into her students' work. At times, the class feels more like a group therapy session than a writing workshop, and while that's a little weird for me, it can get interesting. There are ten people in the class, and based on the early drafts I've read, I'd estimate 2/3 are writing publishable material. Yes, I realize that leaves us with a fraction of a person, but it's still pretty good.

In taking this class, I've learned that I don't have much love for the personal essay as a genre (I didn't really know what I was signing up for when I registered). Most personal essay writing is somewhat glib for my taste -- easy to swallow life-lessons, and it's not really my bag.

I wasn't taking the class to get my work published. My B.A. is in journalism and I worked as a writer for a few years after college, absolutely hating it, which is why I wound up a librarian. I adore the written word, but find it painful to write on command in a voice that is not always my own about things that do not move me. So instead, I chose to surround myself with the words of others.

But I still love writing. Over the years, it's become therapeutic for me. Since I mostly write about myself these days, it affords me a different kind of control over my life. I'm able to craft a narrative, assign symbols, and make connections among things that are not necessarily related so I can make some sense of them. It's comforting. I journal frequently and write here sometimes, and maybe this sounds silly, but it's a way to give my world some meaning.

I took this class because I wanted to become more disciplined about my writing, and maybe get some ideas going with an eye toward writing something long-form in the future. Maybe. I was testing the waters. But I was embarrassed by the essay draft I brought to class Tuesday night. For lack of a more apt metaphor, I thought it was a piece of shit.

In the course of writing the essay, I decided I was a fool for taking this class. I was struggling with the personal essay formula my instructor had prescribed. There was a format, and I didn't know how to make my writing comply. Reading the first round of my classmates' drafts the previous week, I was surprised by the mostly consistent tone of their writing: breezy and conversational, and in some cases, quite witty. When done well, it's a style of writing I often admire in others because it seems so effortless.

By comparison, my own writing feels heavy and twisted, complicated and literary. I mean this in the worst possible way. Just because something is literary doesn't mean it's any good. And that's how I felt about the essay I brought to class Tuesday night: it was the work of someone who couldn't master the personal essay trying to disguise it with the affected voice of literary fiction. I didn't do it on purpose, but it's the only way I know how to write about anything personal -- with the distance my narrative voice affords. And I hated the parts of the essay where I had to talk explicitly about the way I felt -- what the instructor calls "your ugly paragraph(s)." I wasn't used to writing this way. I shy away from spelling anything out for a reader, and prefer to communicate my feelings through scene and metaphor.

I tried to put a positive spin on it. The class hadn't been a waste of my time. I'd learned a valuable lesson from this experience: I don't want to write for other people. I don't want to be published. Maybe it was time to put my pen away. And what was I doing with this stupid, sporadically updated blog anyway? It's embarrassing and I should probably just delete it. Keep this stuff in my journal.

You can probably guess where this is going, so I won't detail the overwhelmingly positive feedback my essay received, and my instructor's insistence that I publish it. As my classmates handed copies of my draft back to me, I kept seeing the same comment scrawled across the top: "write a memoir." "memoir material." "have you thought about writing a memoir?"

The essay I wrote is about buying my mother a dog, but of course, that's not what it's really about. I haven't decided if I want to submit it anywhere because I don't know how representative it is of my style as a writer. I made a lot of compromises.

I'm not sure why I'm writing this. Maybe this is a blog post about when I started to take myself more seriously as a writer. Or maybe it's a more general commentary about how unforgiving and critical of myself I can be, and how maybe I should lighten up. But I'm not sure that it's either of those things. I've come to no conclusions, which is probably why I'll never be a good personal essayist.


Crystal Lee said...

I love the way your write, and I would love to see your work published. Just because you made some compromises in your writing doesn’t mean that the work isn’t authentic. It’s still your story, personal to your experiences and how you perceive those experiences. Anyway, everything in life is a compromise on some level, don’t you think? As long as you’re not compromising your values, I don’t see a problem. I’d like to read your story.

P.S: Publish!
p.s.s: Dinner soon?

Judy Gloom said...

Thanks Deth

allison orphan said...

i enjoy what you write....always. reading your blog makes me wish i was more of a writer myself! as to echo the comment left before me:

ps: publish
pps: running the same event soon?


Judy Gloom said...

thanks so much allison! are you doing any halfs in the future? i was thinking about joining your runner's club, but i'm waiting on my schedule for next semester (i currently work til 8 on wednesdays, but that may change...)

allison orphan said...

13.1 in venice on 1/15/11. i think that will be my first. flat course, familiar streets! if you are free, you should sign up!

Anonymous said...

I don't know you. You don't know me. I started reading your blog because I thought you were cute when you were skating.

But I've come to really admire your writing. I think you are insightful, and your voice is distinct. I am compelled to learn more about your relationships to family and friends.

I regularly check back here to see if you have written something new.

I don't take you for the sort of person that shies away from pain. I don't think you will succumb to crippling self-flagellation. And I look forward to reading your work wherever it appears in the future.

Judy Gloom said...

allison -- i'm gonna look into the venice race. i've never done a road race! i should probably expand my horizons.

and thank you, anonymous.