Caring for the writing self

I have learned a lot in the last seven years about caring for the writing self and the creative soul. Some of the things I have learned have helped other people, too.

Doing the Amherst Writers and Artists method has become a way of life. Many people I have met while doing this have become dear friends whose occasional appearances are now cherished events in the week.

The role of teacher is one I take reluctantly. I never liked teachers much; I was kind of rebellious I guess, and independent, resistant to being led. Yet I believe fervently in the effectiveness of people coming together to write and read aloud in a structured way. The part of being a teacher that I take reluctantly is the authority part, the part that implies that you should do things my way.

What I have to impart is is a way of being. That is what I share.

Many of us have been conditioned in childhood to denigrate our creative selves. I was lucky not to have this conditioning from my parents. My parents valued my creative spirit, so I am not damaged in that way, and I can therefore share with others a fresh delight in creative exploration.

Like everyone else, I do have a shadow side related to my creative work. But it mainly comes out when I cannot be as free and creative as I was meant to be.

The AWA workshop is the ideal setting for me to help others reach their creative potential. One thing I know from long experience is that artistic success and accomplishment take unexpected forms and involve unexpected difficulties. One aspect of creative endeavor we can control is the regularity and quality of our practice. We cannot control our level of genius or our talent but we can control our level of commitment, and we can consciously acquire knowledge about techniques and markets. We can choose what books to read. We can read books that acquaint us with current forms and techniques. We can to some extent control the amount of time we give to the endeavor, and we can find ways to build it into our lives. We can make conscious sacrifices that give more time to creative work.

This is why I keep doing the AWA method, because it is one conscious choice I can make to continually feed the creative spirit. Each time we come together to write, it strengthens us a little more. However uncertain the future may appear, however distant we may feel from having a completed book and an agent and a publishing deal and a movie option and syndication and residuals and book tours and awards and wide publication and fame, however distant these things may seem, we can always make day-to-day choices that keep our creative practice alive. We can always keep writing. And we can enjoy it.

That is why I keep providing these workshops and urge people to attend. Because the creative spark, the spirit, needs to be fed.

Another part of the creative journey is the practical realm: gaining recognition, acceptance, publication, monetary rewards, etc. Learning about this is like learning about any set of institutions and practices; it is a little like learning about how to get into a school, or how to get a job. There is an application process. So we have to ask, What are the requirements? Who are these people who work in publishing for a living and how does one, in essence, get a job with them? When we publish something we enter into a kind of employment. We don’t like to think of creative endeavors in this way, perhaps, but when we offer our work for sale we are economic actors. It may be called “cultural” activity but it is in fact economic. At the fringes of the literary economy are magazines supported by grants of money from funding organizations, universities, philanthropists and so forth, which take only minimal ir any advertising and keep their shelf prices low. But it is all economic activity. It is all the trading of labor and materials. The rewards are sometimes emotional, having to do with status and self-worth. But these too are economic drivers.

It is important to understand this in order to protect the creative spirit. For if we fail to get published we must understand it is probably because we did not gauge the economics of it; we did not understand that we were in a role of selling our work, and selling our work means tailoring it to the market. Certain segments of that market may be hungry for extremely unusual, idiosyncratic, nearly unintelligible work that seems to come from a primitive or intensely intellectual source; a small number of people hunger for work that is wild and  strange and disjointed; they hunger for surrealism or dadaism or impenetrable intellectual prose; they do constitute a market but it is a small market because they are rare, unusual people. The masses tend to enjoy writing of a more pedestrian sort. I tend to be of the more rare sort who likes extremely strange work but paradoxically I want to write for a large audience so I try to write in forms that are widely accessible.

If we are to nuture and protect our creative selves we must be practical and realize that not everything we produce is going to be met with love and approval; a lot of what we produce will have to be adjusted for a market if it is going to be published. So another purpose of the workshops is to strengthen artistic self-esteem so that we do not fall apart when we realize we have to revise or rethink our work for a particular market, so that we know we are keeping our creative spirits alive and fresh even though we need to go through cycles of revision and critique for the market.

The workshops keep it fun, and enliven our sense of self-worth, and keep it separate from the sometimes slow, grinding and unpleasant tasks necessary to get our work published.

That’s also why I am always trying to learn about literary agents, publishing and markets. I want my work to be read; I want to be a part of the conversation. I don’t just write for myself. Writing helps me stay psychologically healthy but I don’t write for therapy. I write to be a part of the larger world, to connect. So if you are trying to find an agent, or get your work published in small magazines, or make a living as a freelancer, I am interested in hearing from you. This is the world that I know and love. I have mostly made my living by writing, and that world makes sense to me — more sense than the other main repository of writers, which is the educational world. I have mostly done journalism and am coming late to the world of literary book publishing, which does seem to be more closely allied with universities and less with what I consider the more street-level activities of journalism, activism and performance.

Anyway, there are many ways to feed the creative spirit and my workshops are just one way. I hope you will find as many ways as you can to feed this vital part of your self. I am doing my small part to keep the world a creative, vibrant, interesting place for us all. I hope to see you often and to always lend a helping hand to help you find new avenues of expression.
— Cary T.