Sunday, May 31, 2009


I love to talk to other people about literature and about writing. The only thing I love more than talking about it is actually doing it: reading and writing. But the truth is, talking about it is a close second. One of the things I was really looking forward to in joining an MFA program was that I would become part of a community of readers and writers who, I assumed, would all be way into to talking about it, too.

But this is one of my MFA expectations that didn’t quite get fulfilled, at least, not as completely as I would have wanted. What I found when I got into the program was that a lot of people, when I would ask them questions about the books we were reading for classes or the comps exam, or what they were working on as writers, were so burnt out on the subject from school that they didn’t want to talk about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making broad generalizations and this was not true of every single person in the program. Most of the people who I ended up liking the most were the ones who were as interested and excited about talking about literature and writing as I was, so maybe what it really comes down to is that some people just like talking about it and others don’t.

But I have another theory that might also be a little bit (or a lot?) true. I think when something that you love makes that shift (you know, the one that so many of us dream about?) from being your hobby to your occupation – either because it’s your job now or because it’s the focus of your academic studies – sometimes you start looking at it the way you look at, well, work.

Suddenly getting into elaborate discussions about a book you’ve read might not be that fun, since you were forced to spend three hours engaging in such a conversation in class and you associate the idea with school, which you do not want to think about right now. And the same with writing. A fellow student asks you what you’ve been working on lately and you feel like you’re being interrogated. “I don’t know. Just a story.” And that’s all you feel like saying because last night in workshop the other students spent an hour ripping your story apart and you’re sort of embarrassed and dejected and you just want to talk about anything but writing. Add to that the fact that if you become a career academic you’ll probably be writing intricate papers – or books – that go into a lot of detail as you argue your reading of a particular text or texts. Your way of having a discussion about literature becomes reading other people’s arguments about the text and then writing your own. A fun and valid way of doing it, sure, but can it really replace having an actual back and forth conversation about a book?

I don’t know why this didn’t happen to me. I always left class wishing it wasn’t over yet because there was more, still, to say about this or that book. And I wanted to know what other books my peers were reading, and what they thought of those books, and how much time they wrote every week, and whether or not they were submitting, and . . . and . . . and . . . Like I said, I eventually found some really awesome people who will sit and gab for hours about this stuff, but I can’t help but wonder if a better place to find people to talk to about these things might not actually be out in the real world.

I’ve been thinking about all the famous writers throughout history who were members of groups of people with whom they shared work, as well as talked about reading and writing. I could give some specific examples but I won’t bother – we’ve all read about writers who developed tightly knit and close friendships with other readers and writers, or who were part of literary or writers groups. It seems to me like one of the things that many – dare I say most? – successful writers have in common is that they had other people in their lives who not only gave feedback on their work but who connected with them in lengthy conversations about literature, philosophy, art, and the craft and business of writing.

Some of these groups, I’m sure, were formed with fellow academics, people the writers met as students or teachers, but many of them weren’t. If that’s the only reason you’re interested in grad school, consider that it’s quite possible that you’ll be able to form that sort of group on your own – and you may be better off doing so, since those people won’t have made the sometimes fatal mistake of turning reading and writing from their passion into their work. But however you do it, I hope that you do it. Maybe I’m biased because I enjoy it so much, but I feel that talking about reading and writing with others is an essential part of being a writer. It motivates you; it helps you look at things from other perspectives; it gets you thinking about new things that you hadn’t thought of on your own. We are each just one person, and we need other people to broaden our views. It’s as simple as that.


Jenni Moody said...

Working at a bookstore several years ago gave me a great in-store community of people who loved books and quite a few who loved writing, too. It is also where Mike and I met, both as bookslaves, recommending books to each other and discussing them. When I left the bookstore for a job at the library, it had more intense discussions about books, but fewer writers (or people willing to admit they were writers).

Studying in the MFA program has helped me find different literary paths to explore, but hasn't given me the time to explore those avenues. Even though I feel book weary going into my third year, I'm glad I have a heavy backlog of books I'm interested in that will be waiting for me on the other side.

Reading your blog entries is strengthening my desire to find a job outside of academia once I graduate; I love reading and writing too much to dull myself to them. My sister is a visual artist, and we just had a conversation about this topic the other day. It is surprising how similar our obstacles and solutions are even though our mediums are different.

Ashley Cowger said...

Totally! My mom is a visual artist, too, and we're constantly talking about how similar the two fields are. She sells her stuff and makes a decent profit from it, but she doesn't have to LIVE OFF of it, so even into her fifties it's still remained this exciting thing that she's passionate about rather than becoming "work."

That's a great point that working at a bookstore can give you that kind of writing/literature community without it becoming "work." Working at a library would be great, too.