To Write

By Ann Conway

I find creative writing difficult. This is in contrast to my professional writing as a consultant, which I find, after twenty five years, relatively straightforward: if you’ve written one foundation report or federal grant, you’ve pretty much written them all.

But real writing, as I think of it—including this blog—is another story. While I normally start with an idea—usually enhanced and added to through my reading—I never know where it will end up. And these are short pieces. Larger pieces are even more arduous.

My writing is complicated by the professional work I do to support myself in an entirely different field. This has many satisfactions, but involves myriad demands, including the negotiation of personalities. No professional life these days is without an endless stream of work or a degree of personal vexation.

Then there’s the e-mail vortex….

But I carry on, because I have to. At 55, I’ve realized that if I’m going to write, it’s now or never. I don’t mean getting my work “out there” and the other accoutrements of careerism. I mean to write, a creative process about which there appear to be divergent schools of thought: one seeing writing as intuitive abandon, the other as non-religious, but still essentially Calvinist, drudgery.

The former is exemplified by what I think of as the “creativity business,” the idea that the untrammeled flow of primal “free” writing—uninhibited by an inner critic—is in fact the best writing. And evidence of the divine within us. This is promulgated by The Artist’s Way and its permutations; it is the kind of writing one practices in the Tuscan retreats advertised in the back pages of Poets and Writers. It says that everyone is a writer, a statement with which I do not entirely agree. But I do agree that there is a sobering amount of talent out there.

A recent New York Times column by David Brooks outlines a radically different slant on the creative process. Offering a contrast to those who see genius as “the product of divine spark,” bestowed on those “who are best approached with reverential awe”—such as Dante or Mozart—Brooks points out that the key element of genius is the repetition of the basic elements of craft. Recent neurological research stresses that simple, unglamorous practice is how one gets better.

The “divine spark,” the columnist concludes, is merely romantic “hocus-pocus.”

Not long ago, a friend told me about an MFA writing student who “didn’t have time to read”—something that struck me as not only sad but comical. I agree with Brooks that talent can be overrated. If you don’t learn to discipline your talent by reading your literary betters—and if you don’t write with discipline—you’ll never get anywhere.

Like everyone else I want to go somewhere, although I’m not sure where that is.

Unlike Brooks, however, I do not discount the divine spark. I recently finished the new Flannery O’Connor biography by Brad Gooch. I found the book uninspiring, but I smiled to see how “touched” O’Connor seemed from the beginning—closeting herself, even as a tiny child, with her drawing and writing, imagining a guardian angel who was half-bird, half-man. She was, in a word, weird. And driven.

O’Connor believed in “no optional striving,” as Twyla Tharp calls the narrowness of practice in her excellent book The Creative Habit. The choreographer describes the artistic focus necessary to produce a body of work. It entails the elimination of distraction, an entering into “quietness without loneliness” which Tharp, O’Connor, and many others have perfected.

Looking back, I see all the not-writing I perfected in my life was not so much about circumstances, but a fear of solitude, which I took to be pure loneliness.

It has taken me this long to see how strangely comforting writing can be, how it eventually, after the initial chaos, encompasses a returned gaze—as O’Connor noted.

Writing, Tharp notes, lives between the sacred—the Greek Zoe—and Bio, the profane. With the thoroughly secular Tharp, I have also come to trust that little motto above the cropped pyramid on the U.S. one dollar bill (Annuit coeptis). It means: “Providence favors our undertakings.”

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.