SS: Hello, I am Sophfronia Scott the director of the Alma College MFA in Creative Writing and welcome to another Faculty Friday. Today I am with fiction faculty member Karen E. Bender and her latest book is The New Order, and today we are talking about the traits necessary to become a writer.
KEB: I remember when I was an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley and I took a poetry class with Thom Gunn, and I went to his class one day and I asked him, “Do I have it in me to become a writer?” and it was as though I was asking him “Will I live?” He said, “Well, you have plenty of talent but you have to do a lot of work.” So I was like, “What’s that mean? What is that?” It was actually a very generous thing for him to say, but basically I’ll have students come to me as a teacher and say, “Can I be a writer?” and what I say to them I have thought over the years, is that there are four traits that I think you need. And they’re not about talent which actually is a word that I’m suspicious of. I think they’re about different things.
The first one is a love of language, that you really like when you read a sentence you not only like it, you want to eat it, you want to give birth to it. You just love words, and you want to interact with them which is why you’re a writer or maybe not a dancer or a sculptor or some other art form. You just want to work with words so that’s the first thing: you really like sentences, and you really like words.
The next thing is an openness to the imagination, which is also something that isn’t necessarily prized in our culture because it’s about daydreaming, it’s about lying, and that we live in two different realms as a writer. We live in the world of fact and honesty which we want to be in, and also in the realm of lying and imagining and belief in the power of that, that it’s important. I’m writing a story right now that’s sort of based on someone I know, but actually I’m having the most fun with it when I can just imagine things this character would do that aren’t what this actual person has done.
The next thing is the idea of being a highly sensitive person which is something I just recently read about. There’s quizzes online you can take about being a highly sensitive person which means basically do you cry a lot at movies, are you very sensitive to other people’s feelings, do you sometimes daydream a lot, do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by feelings which are all qualities that can be difficult in the real world. However, in the writing world they’re very helpful because it means you’re porous, it means you’re open to the world, and that you’re affected by it and that you want to engage with it. That’s actually a helpful thing for being a writer.
The next thing is a particular type of stubbornness—that you say in a kind of tantrum-like way, “I want to become a writer! I must become writer!” That is also helpful because there are a lot of obstacles that will be in your way. You can get a ton of rejections all along the way, but you need to learn to go past them, and you can get criticism that feels unfair or misunderstanding your work. What you need to do is just feel like, “I’m going to be a writer,” but the other thing is you also need to listen selectively which means that in the workshop you may get some feedback that feels like it’s not getting what you’re trying to do—someone is not understanding your work in a basic way. So you have to learn to filter that, and then you also need to be not so blocked off that you can’t listen to things that would be helpful. It’s learning to filter criticism in a constructive way that will help you get better.
And then the final thing is the capacity for delusion which is really helpful as a writer because it’s about seeing yourself as a writer even when the world doesn’t. We all have a very long apprenticeship with becoming a writer. We don’t know if our novel will be finished. We don’t know if it will sell. We don’t know anything. We don’t know if a story will be placed. You have to say, “I am a writer” when you sit down even if you don’t know. And actually the process of sitting down and engaging and giving yourself a chance every day will make you a writer. So it’s actually delusion plus diligent work. You can’t just say, “I need to be a writer” and dance around and not do anything, but it’s “I’m going to be a writer and I’m going to actually sit down every day.”
SS: That stubbornness and that determination is important when it comes to grabbing that time, to making the time to do the work.
KEB: Yes, because the world often is there saying, “Don’t work, come help me with this” or “come do that, come have lunch” and it’s really important to say, “no I’m writing.” People may think you’re not writing, you’re just sitting there, but you are writing. You’re sitting in front of the computer with a little notepad and you’re doing the work.
SS: I just finished reading my friend Deborah Copaken’s memoir Lady Parts, and it struck me how she goes through a lot in that book—she becomes a single mom and she’s working during the day writing but writing for health companies and doing freelance gigs. It struck me how many times she talks about getting up at four or five in the morning to work on a book—to work on a novel, to work on the thing that is not bringing in desperately needed money in that moment. I really admired that focus and tenacity.
KEB: Yes, one of my favorite stories about a writer and work is Kafka writing The Metamorphosis which apparently he wrote in three weeks with three jobs and it actually is about not wanting to go to work, you know, because he turns into a cockroach! So it’s funny. But tenacity is what makes one a writer, period.