At Saturday's Poets&Writers LIVE event in San Francisco, my MFA friends and I found the most interesting panel session to be Why We Write, modeled after the magazine's column of the same name. Melissa Faliveno, the magazine's associate editor who moderated the panel of five writers and poets, referenced a prior stage conversation between David Shields and Caleb Powell regarding their recently published collaboration I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, in which the two debate the merits of being wholly devoted to art or to life.
"My job is to curate my feelings as a writer," said Shields, author of 16 books with four more coming out in the next year. He spoke about the weaving of a psychic wound into art: "The best art is in conversation with that wound, even if it never talks about it."
In an excerpt we watched of the upcoming film adaptation of the book by James Franco, each man pointed to a physical accident and resulting injury that shifted their trajectories toward becoming writers. The prolific Shields, who teaches at Warren Wilson College, said he became "addicted to writing books." In the P&W article "Art vs. Life," he addresses the cost of that singular kind of focus: "I always wanted to become a human being, but I overcommitted to art." Shields accuses his former student Powell, a stay-at-home father of three young girls, of doing the opposite: "My conception was that you wanted to be an artist, but you overcommitted to life."
It was the perfect jumping-off point for this panel of writers who were asked about the challenges of showing up for writing "when family, jobs and other obligations throw a boulder in your path."
Here are some snippets from that conversation that I scribbled into my notebook:
Michelle Tea, an author of five memoirs and two novels, said it was easy to show up for it when she was writing fervently in her twenties. She mentioned her "insane relationship" with her own writing in which she can't trust her inner critic and is baffled each time she sits down to write a new book, and described her writing approach as "barf a bunch out and clean it up later." Tea, who also just had a baby, admitted, "I don't know how I'll ever write again."
D.A. Powell, an award-winning poet who teaches at my alma mater USF, talked about writing as a process of turning outside what we have a natural tendency to do internally (in our observations and introspections). He said quality time means "I'm going to devote this moment" and encouraged: "Keep assembling your language. Something will come from it."
"Consistent practice like a pianist," recommended Alejandro Murguia, an American Book Award author and the sixth San Francisco Poet Laureate. To move past stumbling blocks he reads others' work, which allows him to then "enter my own text creatively inspired." He emphasized the value of reading aloud: "Making yourself sensitive to language." In a melodic voice he described the writing and revision process: "Cut away and expand and cut and expand until that final polished (poem) is like a dwarf star: one spoonful weighing three tons."
Yiyun Li, author of Kinder Than Solitude and several other books, learned discipline first as a scientist. "There's no excuse to wait for inspiration," she said about writing from 12 to 4 a.m. when her two babies were asleep. Aside from the pressures of real life, she said fiction fulfills "a desire to be with my characters."
Wendy Lesser, founding editor of the Threepenny Review and author of nine nonfiction books and a novel, quoted the poet Robert Pinksy: "I enjoy having written." She humorously described the compulsion of writing like that of a serial killer--the pressure to do it builds and builds, he has to do it, then... oh, it feels so great.