Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lower Your Standards, Try Again

Last Friday I returned to Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY, where I taught fifteen years ago (!), to do a reading. I was invited back by Tom Denton, Director of the DCCC Writing Center, and one of the most thoughtful and engaged teachers of writing I’ve met. It was great to be back on the DCCC campus, to re-connect with fellow teachers from all those years ago, and to hear news about former students that I still remember from my days there.

Tom asked me to provide a “statement on writing” prior to my visit. I thought I’d include what I sent him here on the blog today. Not sure why I've also included a photo of Buddha in the snow here; just seems to fit somehow, on this cold, rainy day, with spring seeming constantly just beyond our grasp.

Writers and writing teachers are fond of quoting poet William Stafford, who, when asked how he managed to be so prolific, to find subjects for so many poems, is reported to have said, “Every day I get up and look out the window, and something occurs to me, something always occurs to me. And if it doesn’t, I just lower my standards.” What Stafford provides here, of course, is the cure for any and all forms of so-called writer’s block—the hesitation, the fear, the feeling that one has nothing valuable to say, all the things we say to ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, that prevent us from simply writing.

I often tell my own students that there are two kinds of writers in the world: those who need more discipline and restraint in their writing, and those who need less. But the truth is, I think most of us who write typically need both. We need the discipline and restraint to say, I’m writing now (from 5 to 6 AM, from 12 to 1 while eating lunch, from 9 to midnight, after the kids are in bed—whatever windows of time our lives afford us). I’m writing now, and that’s all I’m doing. Don’t bother me. But then, once we’ve staked out that time and space for us and our work alone, we need to shut up with the discipline and restraint already. I’m writing now. I’m not reading. I’m not editing. I’m writing without even looking at it. I’m not testing every word before it hits the page. I can do all of that later.

And we have to mean this part—the “I’ll do that later” part—too. So here, again, comes the need for discipline and restraint. It’s like that, a constant back-and-forth, and if you can somehow find a way of balancing both, of sitting in your canoe and paddling fast for while, then floating and looking around you, then turning and pushing hard again, maybe this time with your eye on the shore, you might just write something good.

Here’s another thing that all writing students and all writers must learn: You have to attempt this balancing act over and over again, sometimes for quite a long time, if you want to write something really good. “It has always seemed to me curious,” Mary Oliver writes in A Poetry Handbook, “that the instruction of poetry has followed a path different from the courses of study intended to develop talent in the field of music or the visual arts, where a step-by-step learning process is usual, and accepted as necessary.” In other words, writing—like music, like art, like athletics, like any endeavor in which someone hopes to achieve true competence—requires lots and lots of practice.

Maybe years of it. I was thirty-six when my collection of short stories, Tell Me Everything, was published. After that, it was ten years before I published another book, my novel In Hovering Flight. It seems to me that with every writing project I begin, I have to learn how to do it all over again. Lots of false starts, lots of faulty pages, until, like a motor that’s gotten corroded and slow, I turn my words over and over until something catches—a phrase here, a passage of dialogue or a lyrical moment there—and then I’m revved up again, running smoothly, humming along.

Or, some days, not so much. Some days it’s all stuck in the gears, stuck in my throat, just not working. But if you’re a writer, if you feel like it’s simply what you want and, on a very basic level, need, to do, you’ll get up the next day, claim that window of time, however small, for your writer self, lower your standards, and try again.

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